When it comes to success, there’s no single approach that works for everyone. Indeed, a quick Google search for “how to be successful” generates over one billion results, each with a different strategy to explore. In this seemingly endless sea of advice, tips, and tricks, there’s one consistent theme: planning ahead. In order to reach our goals, we’re told, we must prepare for the future we want.
On the other hand, countless studies have shown that mindfulness—the practice of intentionally focusing our attention on the present moment—helps us thrive both personally and professionally. Its long list of scientifically-proven benefits includes increased creativity, a reduced risk of burnout, and a better working memory.
This raises a tricky question: How can we stay mindful of the present moment…while also setting ourselves up for a successful future?
Planning ahead doesn’t have to cost you your peace of mind in the present. In fact, the two can go hand-in-hand—the key is to strike a balance by planning mindfully. Here are three ways to do just that:
1. Take a Breather
Our brains are hardwired to fear uncertainty, which can make planning for the future pretty nerve-racking. But when your body launches into stress mode, your ability to think clearly and brainstorm solutions is seriously impaired.
How to do it:
A mindful breathing practice can help you stay calm and clear-headed by soothing your automatic stress response. Before you sit down to make a plan, do a body scan: Notice where you’re holding onto tension and relax each muscle accordingly. Then, place one hand on your stomach and take deep breaths in through your nose. Exhale slowly through your mouth, concentrating on each inhale and exhale. Repeat at least five times or until you feel calm enough to return to your day. This technique helps convince your body that you’re safe and sound, which stimulates your relaxation response and sends oxygen to your brain—exactly where you need it most once you’re ready to plan.
2. Schedule Designated “Worry Time”
Neuroscientists believe that your subconscious mind processes a full 95 percent of the information you’re exposed to on any given day, and studies show that this passive brainpower improves your memory, decision-making, and problem-solving abilities. But when you’re worried about something big, like your plans for the future, it can dominate your thoughts and drain your mental energy.
How to do it:
Set a date with your worries and give them the attention they deserve. Research shows that scheduling mindful “worry time” helps you develop control over the frequency and timing of your worry. It contains your anxiety to designated periods, freeing up the mind for other important activities. Here’s how it’s done:
- Step 1: Take 15 minutes each day to freely write down your worries.
- Don’t pressure yourself to come up with solutions right away.
- Step 2: At the end of each week, take a moment to reflect.
- Notice themes and repeating worries.
- Address any problems you can control, and make peace with the ones you can’t.
- Note which “what-if” thoughts actually came true…and which didn’t.
Just knowing that you’ll have time to work through your thoughts will put them at ease for the time being so that you can remain in the present moment. The more you practice, the more control you’ll have over when you worry, and the better you’ll get at deciding what actually deserves your attention.
3. Refresh, Then Refocus
Studies show that our brains have an “impact bias,” meaning they’re not very good at predicting the effects an event will have on us; we tend to either overestimate or underestimate our ability to cope with specific challenges. Mindfulness, on the other hand, contends that you have the resilience to power through whatever comes your way if you stay focused and grounded in the present.
How to do it:
Take regular breaks from future-thinking to center yourself in the moment. Go for a walk around the block, for example, or close your eyes and spend a few minutes listening to the sounds around you. Shifting your focus triggers your brain’s resting state, which studies show refreshes your perspective and reconnects you with your intuition.
These simple practices make it possible for you to access all of the resources you have at your disposal today—and use them to power through to the future.
Elior Moskowitz is the Content Coordinator at meQuilibrium. A frequent Cup of Calm contributor, she also writes for various major business journals and lifestyle publications. Elior holds a B.A. in Psychology and English, with special training in both positive psychology and mental health counseling.