I think I’ve always been very future-focused. Since I was a small kid, I’ve had some idea in my mind of what I wanted my future to look like. In elementary school, I decided that I wanted to be a wildly successful criminal defense lawyer, living off my lavish salary in some New York City penthouse or another, wearing really expensive shoes and drinking lots of coffee. Gourmet coffee. You know, the unnecessarily expensive kind.
The burnout I felt after graduating from undergraduate school with a mountain of student loan debt and an almost two-year-old son determined that that was a lie… so I changed my plans. I decided that I instead wanted to be a nationally recognized educator, a wife, perhaps a mother of two, with a medium-sized dog and a modest single family home.
Then, nine years and over a thousand students later, I quit teaching, and again, my plans for the future changed. Again and again, I found myself modifying my vision for the future based on my own whims, failures, and changes of heart. What I began to notice was mounting anxiety where my future was concerned. The years were passing, and I wasn’t reaching any of the goals I’d set for myself. Now 34, I’m unmarried, unpublished, largely unknown, certainly unrecognized, and quite unsatisfied that I haven’t, by this point in my life, accomplished more than this.
The anxiety I felt where the future was concerned was beginning to show itself as stress that attacked almost every aspect of my life. I always felt rushed, frenzied, and desperate to prove myself to myself. I also noticed that, in my constant state of anxiety about the future, I was neglecting the present, missing out on some amazing moments happening now because of my preoccupation with future moments.
It was not until I learned to let go of this ridiculous preoccupation and started living one day at a time that I began to enjoy my life. It’s almost impossible to be intentional about changing a life you’re constantly dissatisfied with. It’s like trying to love an ex you’ve already decided you hated. Every day you wake up and look at that person with disgust. How can you love something you can’t stand?
It’s really not until you learn to be content in your right now that you begin to truly live a life worth living. I don’t ever profess to have all the answers (read: I don’t have the answers, Sway… none of them), but constant bouts of stress-induced stomach sickness and ulcers have forced me to take a real look at my life and make some major changes. Here is what I’ve put into practice that has helped me to mindfully enjoy living each moment of my life.
- Set specific, intentional goals.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having an idea of what you’d like your future to look like. Setting goals is kinda important… Consider them a roadmap of sorts. I work on goal setting ONLY during very specific times. First, at the beginning of the year, I establish ten to twelve goals that I want to accomplish before the year ends. At the beginning of each month, I review my progress on my yearly goals, and set monthly goals that bring me closer to accomplishing the annual goals. At the beginning of each week, I set weekly goals that help me to meet monthly goals. And each day, I make a short to-do list (three items MAX) that helps me accomplish my goals for that week. As the day progresses, I focus only on the short to-do list for that day. It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s really simple—it keeps my daily workload attainable and accomplishable. It helps me to remain productive. It keeps me from being overwhelmed. It also helps me live in the moment. I’m looking at one day at a time. I ask myself, “What can I accomplish TODAY that will help me towards my goals?” I’m not fixated with what’s happening in December or two weeks from now. I’m not even worried about what tomorrow looks like. My sole focus is today. Right now.
Asking, “What does today look like?” each morning before I get out of bed alleviates so much unnecessary angst from my life. It also gives me permission to be kind to myself at the end of a day where I don’t get done what I’d hoped to accomplish. I know that, should I be blessed enough to see a new day, I can make a new start, and whatever I did (or didn’t) accomplish today is in the past. Done. Finished. Consider also using a wall calendar, a journal, a personal planner, or an app on your phone to help you stay focused on your goals.
- Create a vision board.
Once a year, create a pictorial representation of what you’d like your life to look like, including the things you’d like to acquire, the places you’d like to visit, and anything else you deem significant. Hang it where you can see it. Look at it often.
- Stop waiting and start living.
We are always aiming at doing better, having more, being thinner, accomplishing something. The problem with this is that we are constantly in a state of wait. We’re looking so forward to what life will look like when we’ve finally [insert accomplishment here] that we forget to truly appreciate the lives we live right now. Yes, there is always room for improvement. But being so fixated on improvement that you forget to celebrate the small accomplishments, enjoy life in the moment, and be thankful for all that we have right now is a waste of good living. Life, right now at this very minute, is amazing. It’s beautiful. Nah, it may not look exactly like we want it to, but as long as you’re breathing, life is dope. Period. It deserves to be honored and savored. We can’t be in such a desperate state of waiting and watching for future events that we forget to enjoy the present. Once these moments are gone, they’re gone forever. Enjoy them while you have them.
I also want to stress the importance of celebrating progress. Some of the things for which we are waiting require lots of work in the process of attaining them. Celebrate the fact that, even though you are 15 pounds from your ultimate weight loss goal, you’re 20 pounds lighter than you were when you started. Celebrate the fact that you’re moving toward the things you want, and that you’re making progress and not being stagnant. Being realistic about the journey and celebrating the steps you’re taking will make arriving at the destination that much sweeter.
- Things almost never happen exactly the way we think they will.
At the end of one school year, it was determined that my co-workers and I were going to separate the freshman class by genders for their major classes. That next school year, for the first time in my career, I was assigned to teaching eight 9th grade English classes comprised of all boys. I would have no girl students. I spent an entire summer so nervous about what that upcoming school year might be like for me that I did nothing that whole summer except obsess over what if’s and hypothetical crises. When the school year started, I was shocked to discover that things were much better than I thought they would be, and sad that I wasted my whole summer being so anxious over what didn’t even happen that I didn’t enjoy the time I had off. (This year with all boys actually ended up being the best year in my entire teaching career.) I’ve discovered that things will happen exactly the way they’re supposed to. I’ve also learned that what looks traumatic or insurmountable in the moment yields some pretty awesome future results. Why worry? Things will happen how they happen either way, so why not enjoy today? Tomorrow works itself out the same whether you spend hours and hours of your life paralyzed with worry or not. Time elapses at the same rate of speed regardless of how you spend it. Use it wisely.
- Tomorrow ain’t promised.
Let’s be real. All we have is the moment in which we are living right now. I’m not wishing any tragedies on anybody who may be reading this, but we never know what can prevent tomorrow from happening. I can’t spend another minute of my life being sick over a future that may or may not even happen. Consider also that, by the time tomorrow gets here, it’s today already. So does tomorrow ever even come? Something to think about.
The future is scary. We naturally fear the unknown, and it’s so easy to be distracted by what’s to come. But you deserve better than to miss out on the greatest parts of today because you’re distracted by a tomorrow over which you have no control. Breathe. Forgive yourself where you fall short. And live the hell out of right now. One day at a time. One step at a time. One breath at a time. I promise your life will change.