Leadership Lessons from Ajax #19: Do You Live in the Past, Present or Future?

November 22, 2009 by Ken Nowack

“Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  And today?  Today is a gift.  That’s why we call it the present.”

Babatunde Olatunji


I’ve often been criticized as “speaking” to our seeing eye dog puppy in training as if he truly understands what I am telling him (I guess it is the psychologist in me).  I’ve learned that what works best is the combination of his name (Ajax)  and single command (e.g., “sit”, “down” etc.).

I’ve often wondered if Ajax “lives” in the past (avoiding the things that have caused reprimands or scolding), in the future (he sure seems to get excited about dinner time and almost appears to have a secret biological clock anticipating his meal) or in the moment—focusing on what is just happening in front of him.

Maybe we all can be characterized as living in the past, present and future.

Stanford University emeritus Professor Philip Zimbardo and co-author John Boyd even wrote a book about how our orientation to “time” can influence how we live and what we focus on each day.  Coaching, counseling and therapy often comes down to addressing the time orientation one has over an issue or problem and moving the client towards either closure (e.g., forgiveness), increased control of options for the present (e.g., new coping skills like mindfulness) or hope/meaning for a better future (e.g., giving gratitude).


Do you live more in the Past, Present or Future?

Living in the Past

I often see myself at times intensely analyzing things I have done in the past (often when I misplace things!) but since this time has long gone it rarely is productive to spend much time dwelling on what has occurred.  It is normal and healthy to reflect on what we thought, how we felt and what we did about things in the past so we can learn to develop better and more productive ways to cope in the future.  However, some of us seem to focus too much energy on what has occurred in the past and appear to be unable to let go of the “past” at the expense of the present or future.

Many clients I coach are literally “stuck” in the past and emotionally “handcuffed” with strong emotions of loss, anger, frustration or guilt about something that has already happened.  Some things you can do to create greater “closure” for past situations  and events include:

  • Writing a letter of apology and forgive the behavior of others that have caused you pain
  • Using “thought stopping” to force yourself to change your perspective about dwelling too much on what has already occurred
  • Ask what can be learned from the past situation or event in an attempt to grow from it
  • Using emotional expressive writing to get out our inner most feelings about the past out
  • Finding a trusted advisor to reveal your thoughts and feelings about the situation

Living in the Future

It sure seems that my entire family focuses too much on tomorrow at time–what will be our agenda, plan and what activities that will take place?  There is certainly nothing wrong with being organized and having a vision for the future—in fact, all great leaders do this everyday.  However, to be too focused on what might be or what could occur in the future sure takes some of the fun out of living in the present.

The clients that I coach that are “stuck” in this future time orientation tend to almost always be those “Type A” achievers who seem to focused on the “next thing” whether it is accomplishments at work, success in their careers or activities that will be new and different for the future.  These clients seem to be overly immersed in tomorrow, rather than, the “here and now” and rarely seem to notice the joys of a beautiful sunset, the tastes that accompany their meals or to really hear the people they are interacting with. They often are worried, concerned or preoccupied with what has not yet occurred. Some things you can do to become less focused on exclusively living in the future and being more present centered  as well as making sure you have put closure to unfinished business in the past include:

  • Carve out a small amount of  time each day to plan on what is the best use of your time for tomorrow
  • Take time each week to rejoice in what you have accomplished and celebrate successes in the past
  • Manage your energy and not your time—identify the things that are “energy zappers” to ensure you don’t resent where you are going
  • Define the gap between your “ideal self” and your “present self” to clarify your personal and professional mission statement and goals
  • Define and use your personal and professional “board of directors” to help you maintain your “balance” when you appear to be too future oriented
  • Ask yourself, how likely is it that the “worst case scenario” will actually occur to minimize energy used in non-productive worry
  • Analyze your “signature strengths” (things you are good at and also enjoy) to capture some of the joys of what you have done in the past

Living in the Present

It is neither desirable to always be in the moment or be entirely rooted in the past or future.  I have many coaching clients that almost seem disconnected from the past (they have avoided spending any time moving through their life challenges, acknowledging them or putting closure to things that have been stressful or painful) or appear to be concerned at all about their future (these are those risk takers that can appear to others to be irresponsible).  For these clients, it is about giving them a sense of micro-skills and techniques to increase their concentration, focus and awareness of their current thoughts, affect and behavior.

Being “mindful” is in vogue today and certainly something all of us could evaluate and consider doing more if we find out time orientation to be stuck more in the past or too much in the future.  Here are some things you can do to practice and increase your mindfulness:

  • Focus on your breathing and truly tune in to how you are feeling at the moment
  • Practice the “relaxation response” each day to slow your thoughts and try to clear your mind of things past and future
  • Practice behaviors of compassion and giving towards others
  • Give gratitude for what you currently have in your life
  • Deploy your “signature strengths” to become more energized
  • Focus on only one task at a time to quiet the brain
  • Eat and chew slowly during meals and experience the food and flavors
  • Take a “mindfulness” walk and tune into the sights, sounds and feelings around you
  • Smile when you see and engage with others (it changes your brain chemistry, moves you away from your own presence and invites a supportive interaction).
  • Engage in repetitive physical actions to sharpen your attention and mental focus (e.g., drumming, dancing, walking, running, etc.)

It’s time to get Ajax out for another guide dog lesson.  He’s currently a bit obsessed with distractions (e.g., other dogs he meets and food laying around on the floor when he goes into a restaurant) so I have to work on getting him to move a bit “out of the moment” when he becomes to mindful of his present situation….Be well….


[tags]guide dogs, seeing eye dogs, Guide Dogs of America, leadership, executive coaching, performance, layoff, social support, mastery, expertise, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack, Envisia Learning, deliberate practice[/tags]

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development, Relate, Wellness

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  1. The value of this is more than you know. You have been able to express the principles and thoughts I have shared for years much more thoroughly. This aspect of the human condition relating to “past, present & future thinking” can be the catalyst to success and the foundation for disagreement.

    (As one of those Type A future thinkers, it became necessary for me years ago to pull back and understand this PPF dynamic)

    It is one of my favorite questions and also well received once people are able to reflect and consider the barriers and benefits of knowing themselves.

    Sunday morning has a great start as you made me “smink” which I have coined from “smile and think at the same time”.

    Just finishing a book about restaurant ownership… will reference this article and your website as a resource.

    Great writing style throughout.

    Michael Hartzell
    future thinker

    Fortunately, it seems present thinkers are drawn to me and I to them. What discussions we get to have! 🙂

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