Looking ahead, setting goals and planning make us more effective. But we don’t get very far if we dwell in the future because we have to live in the present. When we focus too much on the future, we either lose time daydreaming, or we allow the future to become a source of fear and anxiety as we create multiple what-if scenarios to worry about.
One source of future anxiety is what is known as distant elephants. A herd of angry elephants looks harmless when viewed as tiny specks on the horizon, but if we ignore those tiny specks and fail to prepare for their arrival, we’ll be in a heap of trouble when they reach us. We tend to do this with appointments and commitments. We delay unpleasant activities and schedule them far enough into the future so that, in the present, they don’t look so bad. As the days and commitments approach, we fill ourselves with anxiety about the unpleasantness of tasks that we may never have committed to if we had to do them sooner. These are distant elephants created by procrastination. Others are unavoidable, or scheduled for us. These cause us more anxiety because we have no choice.
Just as objects that are far away appear fuzzy in our vision, events and commitments that are far away appear fuzzy in our minds. As they come closer, more and more of the details become apparent. Whereas events were viewed in generalities before, we now begin to see the reality of the approaching situation, and the possible consequences. Scheduled far enough into the future, we give ourselves plenty of time to think of all the negative outcomes that can arise. A cloud of anxiety and dread hangs over each day as we await the elephant’s arrival. We lock into future-anxiety mode — convinced that we are powerless and alone in the face of inevitable doom.
If there is more than one distant elephant on our horizon, we begin clumping them together in our minds, convincing ourselves that our life is filled with never-ending stress; that life is, as Churchill described history, “one damned thing after another.” Rather than concentrate on each singular event, we overwhelm ourselves with the totality.
The remedy is to avoid distant elephants. Before we obligate ourselves to attending an event, or scheduling a meeting or making a commitment — in the future — we should consider how we would feel if we were to do it tomorrow. If doing it tomorrow, or next week after a bit of preparation, feels uncomfortable, the odds are that we will feel just as uncomfortable about doing it in the future. The difference is that the unpleasantness will linger in the back of our minds, moving gradually forward as the day nears, producing anxiety for weeks or months rather than just for hours or days.
Of course, there are unpleasant activities that we cannot avoid. We should address these without unnecessary delays. If we need to complete an unsavory task, or have an awkward conversation or take a difficult trip, then we should do it as soon as possible. We should do it today, right now if possible, so that we can avoid tossing and turning all night as we think about the prospect of doing it tomorrow.
Focusing only on the negative possibilities is the primary source of persistent worry. View events realistically. Regardless of whether we anticipate them, each moment of life contains destructive potential. Focus instead on positive aspects. The reality is that most of the events in our lives are, at best, neutral. We simply magnify their importance and their consequences, both positive and negative.
As distant elephants approach, the best course of action is to determine what we want to accomplish and aim to achieve that goal. Prepare well, and in the unlikely event that something goes wrong, stay calm. Avoid exaggerating the negative. In golf, if we focus on the green rather than the bunker in front of it or the lake behind it, we’re much likelier to hit it. If we focus on the negative — the sand or the water — then we’re much likelier to land in the hazard.
We create the future first in our minds and then in reality. We are motivated to achieve what grips our attention. If we cling to the negative, we are more likely to experience undesirable outcomes. If we embrace the positive, we are more likely to produce favorable opportunities. Life tends to fulfill our underlying expectations.