We’re wired to live in the present, and that can be helpful when you need to be focused on an immediate task. It becomes a real impediment, however, when you need to make decisions about the future, says Alice Mann, author of Future First: How Successful Leaders Turn Innovation Challenges Into New Value Frontiers.
“This tendency toward ignoring future challenges can hamper our personal success and that of our organizations,” she says. “After the financial crisis of 2008, we saw that companies, especially large public companies, had been overly focused on quarterly earnings and shareholder value in the short term.”
Shortsightedness is dangerous, as the Great Recession proved. Part of what distinguishes humans from other species is our ability to also think about past and future through imagination and information seeking, says Mann. “The information we have about the past and our ability to imagine what things were like and how they were different from today shapes our view of history,” she says. “It’s the same thing when we think forward. We use the information we have and imagine what things could be like. That is how culture evolves and innovation happens.”
The mindfulness myth
The mindfulness movement has put our attention on being in the moment, but Mann says a myth is that you’re only thinking in the present, living in the present, and being in the here and now.
“That’s a simplification and dumbing-down,” says Mann. “Mindfulness is being aware that the mind is thinking in the past, present, or future. It allows you to distinguish where your attention is in the moment. People refer to the monkey mind, jumping into the past or future or to the things we fear or want. Mindfulness is paying attention to which of those things the mind is grabbing on to.”
Be careful not to confuse mindfulness with presentism, which has several pitfalls, warns Mann. “Presentism is different from mindfulness because it’s the loss of a sense of temporality,” she says. “There’s no sense of past, present, and future, no sense that we exist over time. It’s only where you are right now.”
If you often ask yourself, “How did we get here?” you may be in a state of presentism. “We become ahistorical,” says Mann. “It’s a form of denial of what human civilization is based on: Change over time. It’s easy to lose a sense of agency when we’re overcome by presentism.”
Presentism is also getting caught up in the idea that this is the way things are and always were, adds Mann. “It’s not that we don’t know history; it’s that we lose the sense that we can use it to effect change in the future,” she says. “It’s important to know how we got where we are. People who put in the time and attention to do that also lay the groundwork to think clearly about possible future scenarios.”
Being in a constant state of overwhelm is also a sign of presentism, says Mann. “We’re saturated with so much information about things happening all over the world because the news cycle is fast,” she says. “Things change quickly, and we’re constantly taking in information, forgetting about what happened yesterday and moving on to the next thing. That creates an ahistorical sense of no past and no future.”
Living across the past, present, and future
One of the hallmarks of a great leader is the ability to think across multiple horizons of time, says Mann. “They ask, ‘How do we keep doing what we’re doing well?'” says Mann. “‘How do we keep that up for 12 to 18 months? How are we starting to invest in adjacent products to offer in three to five years? And how are we, at the same time, imagining what will be completely different in 10 to 20 years so we can begin to invest in innovation and research in those opportunities?'”
Technology and science are having breakthroughs in every industry that can completely change things, says Mann. “If you don’t see it coming when it presents itself, you can end up falling behind your competition,” she says.
Leaders have to balance their own personalities and proclivities with what their businesses need. “Some people try to find out everything they can; they’re like sponges thinking about the future, innovation, and research,” says Mann. “Some get very caught up in urgent fires and crises in the moment. Some of this is personality and some is the industry you’re in. Overall, the best leaders toggle between the two. When they’re dealing with an urgent crisis or trying to maintain success in a particular area, they’re still allocating some of their attention to long-term thinking.”
True mindfulness also includes a willingness to change. “Whether you’re looking at company culture or national culture or a subculture of your social group, you have to imagine things being different in order to effect change,” says Mann. “Future-thinking leaders have an openness to changing their minds based on new information and continuous problem solving. They understand and tolerate uncertainty and do the work of imagining the future anyway. It’s about imagining how you can effect change in the future from whatever position of power you’re in.”