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These are the times when thinking about the future is unproductive

Planning for the future is smart, but there are times when focusing too much on what comes next can have a real downside.

These are the times when thinking about the future is unproductive
[Photo: Jason Edwards/Unsplash]

The McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas has adopted the tag line “Human Centered. Future Focused.” This marketing strategy captures a commonly held belief that in order to be prepared for what is coming, it is important to think deeply about the future. And there certainly is value in learning about and understanding trends.

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But for individuals there is a danger in spending too much time or energy focused on the future. Here are three reasons why contemplating what comes next quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns:

Prediction is hard

Perhaps the biggest problem with spending too much time thinking about your future is that it is really hard to predict what is coming. This is true both when you are thinking about yourself as well as when you are thinking about the future business climate.

Lots of research on creativity demonstrates that your existing knowledge limits your ability to envision new things. As a result, we tend to focus on ways that things we already know about will evolve, but we don’t do a good job of predicting events, inventions, and opportunities that have no precedent in our experience.

For example, the original Total Recall movie came out in 1990. The film is supposed to take place in the future. There is a scene in the movie in which the main character (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) needs a piece of information while riding on the subway. He leaps out, finds an information kiosk in the center of a town square, and searches for the information he needs. At the time, there were computers and the internet, and so this is a straightforward evolution of existing technology. But the moviemakers completely missed the fact that in a few years, subway riders would all be carrying a powerful computer in their pockets that would give universal access to such information.

The problem is that if most of our predictions are mistakes, then we can spend a lot of time planning for eventualities that never come. We certainly want to be aware of things people are working on in our area of expertise, but focusing too deeply on the future is likely to be unproductive.

Adaptation is key

Because it is so hard to predict what is going to happen in the future, we also quickly reach a point of diminishing returns when planning for the future. It is important to lay out a series of steps that you believe will help you to reach key long-term goals. These plans ensure that you put actions on your schedule that will help you to make key contributions.

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But it is at least as important to adapt your plan to changing circumstances in the world. On the one hand, you want to be aware of new factors that may lead a plan to fail, so that you can correct for factors that you did not predict.

On the other hand, you also want to be open to new opportunities that you did not expect. There is a real danger in editing your life (or the life of your company) in the forward direction based on what you planned for. That will lead you to avoid unexpected paths that were not part of your original plan. The new things you encounter often allow you to consider jobs, products, or services that could lead to outcomes that are far better than what you planned for. As a result, it isn’t the best planners who succeed—it is the best adapters.

Balance dreams with work

I must admit that when the Powerball jackpot gets large, I sometimes buy a ticket. I don’t have any illusions that I am actually going to win. The odds are much too long for that. Instead, I buy the ticket so that I am not delusional if I spend a couple of days daydreaming about what I would do with several hundred million dollars.

Those pleasant reveries are particularly nice to have when other aspects of life are stressful. They provide an oasis from the hassles of daily life. And you don’t need to buy a lottery ticket to engage in a similar set of fantasies. You can also just dream about your future career path or an invention you would like to pursue.

There is a danger in too much of this future-focused dreaming, though. Just about every success story also involves a lot of hard work. James Dyson may have had a brilliant insight when he thought about putting a tiny industrial cyclone in a vacuum cleaner, but it still took five years of effort to create a prototype that worked.

The unfortunate news is, that means you have to get work done. Often, the work that is required to move up the ladder in an organization, to develop a new product, or to gain a new skill is hard. It may also require long hours. Sadly, no amount of dreaming will make that fact go away. It is fine to let your dreams be a brief vacation from your hard work, but don’t use those dreams to hide from the effort needed to turn those dreams into reality.

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