If we spend most of our time living in the past, that can lead to depression. So history is, of course, important. But we can do nothing to change it. Of course, we can learn from history to avoid making the same errors, but even using the past for that purpose is problematic. Today’s situation can not, by definition, be the same as the historical situation. We are not the same people, technology has changed, and global geopolitics has changed. As the saying goes, “A man cannot step into the same river twice. He is not the same man, and it’s not the same river.”
Thus, we can and should visit the past, but it is not the place where we should “live our lives.”
To live in the future may lead to anxiety. It isn’t real; it’s an image, a dream, a wish. Nevertheless, we have to think about possibilities for the future and plan for them as best we can. We save money for retirement by predicting how the economy might be and what we want to do. We must prepare for the party next week or the meal that will happen this evening.
Yet, spending excessive time thinking about the future may lead to constant worry or daydreaming to the point where we don’t take care of things today. And, paradoxically, we may destroy our future lives by not taking action today. So, visit the future, but don’t stay.
Many philosophies and religions speak of living in the present. My adopted philosophy, Taoism, emphasizes being fully present in the now—paying attention to what I am doing at the time. For example, if I am eating, I must pay full attention to the food—how the food tastes, how it smells, and how it feels as I swallow. If I am washing the dishes, pay attention to only that task. I try to do this but fail most of the time. It is difficult for me not to read while eating or listen to a podcast while cleaning up the kitchen.
I’m not sure how I split my time between past, present, and future thoughts. My intuition tells me I spend very little time in the past, most of my time in the present, and a significant amount of time thinking about the future. So, for example, I count learning new things as being in the present. However, I think of the time I spend reading science fiction as thinking about and “living” in the future.
As business leaders, I believe we should be guiding our people to spend as little time in the past as possible. We, of necessity, will spend a majority of time in the present, executing on our BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). How much time you spend on each may depend somewhat on your company’s industry and product or service.
From a practical point of view, we should spend very little time going over financial KPIs. They are history. We can do nothing to change them (we go to jail for creative accounting!). However, we can learn things to help us in the present and future. For example, analysis of profitability by product or service may lead us to drop some in favor of others.
As individuals, we may spend more time in one timeframe than another. Accountants, for example, deal almost exclusively with the past. And we need them to do so. But, on the other hand, the senior finance people may spend more time thinking about the future, such as financing various initiatives or equipment purchases.
If I am the leader of the organization or part of the leadership team, how should I spend my time? I guess that successful leaders will spend most of their time in the present and future. After all, that is what leading is—envisioning the future and plotting the path on how to get there. Indeed, that requires us to learn from the past and take care of the present culture. Therefore, the constant communication of the values, vision, and mission is necessary in the here and now.
The best way to have a promising future is to create it. And that means realizing that future a step at a time in the present. So how are you balancing your team’s time between past, present, and future?