Don't let the past or future hijack the present

  • Article by: LIZ REYER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 14, 2012 - 4:09 PM

Q I can't seem to let go of things. When something doesn't go perfectly, I dwell on it, and it has made it hard for me to make decisions. I'm afraid I'll do the wrong thing. What can I do to break this pattern?

A Learn to focus on the present, rather than being too much in either the past or the future.

The inner game

Learning to be in the present is challenging, but offers great rewards both personally and professionally. As a first step, set aside an hour or so to focus on this. During this time, start by allowing yourself to get settled, grounding yourself by closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing for a few minutes.  As your mind gets calmer, notice any thoughts that are coming through and let them go, neither trying to block them or explore them.

Now, think about what the past really is. There is nothing you can change about it, and in many ways it doesn't really exist. After all, any event in the past will be different depending on who is thinking about it; any experience will even be different for you, depending on your mood and selective memory.  The key is to transform the past from examples of ways you don't measure up into a pool of opportunities for learning.

The future isn't much different. Of course it's prudent and useful to plan, but trying to be perfect by knowing what action will bring a perfect outcome is futile.  Again, your goal is to move away from a vision of the future as a danger zone in which you could fall short.

Putting this into action, choose an example of a past experience that you've been dwelling on. Consider how bad it really was: how would you view it if it happened to a friend? Were there really any lasting negative consequences? Also consider what you can learn from the experience and ideas you have for handling it better if it arises again in the future.

The outer game

As you prepare to break this ingrained thought habit, make a plan for ongoing reflection so that you have a way to notice your progress and confront obstacles. Even five minutes every day will help keep you mindful of your goal to live more in the present.

Also notice your triggers for rumination, and catch yourself before you go down that path.  For example, if you notice that you are freezing up when trying to make a decision, let go of past decisions you've made and refocus on the needs of the current situation.  Be gentle with yourself -- don't use this as a way to further scold yourself if you catch yourself later rather than sooner.

And acknowledge your successes. This can be a big shift, and success will come from many small steps, each of which is worthy of acknowledgement.

Finally, find someone to share this with, ideally setting a common goal so that you can have support as you face the challenges and an audience for your successes.

The last word

Living in the present opens up a new perspective and will benefit all aspects of your life.

What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.

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