How To Develop a Future-oriented Mindset

A healthy future-oriented mindset is a must in our fast-pacing and ever-changing world.

person using binoculars

Homo Sapiens or Homo Prospectus? We as a species are misclassified. This is what Martin Seligman, a father of positive psychology, claims. We call ourselves Homo Sapiens, however, what makes us unique is the fact that we contemplate the future. Every human has embedded a future-oriented mindset. Unfortunately, this great quality has its dark side. Catastrophizing, worst-case scenarios and analysis paralysis due to information overload might stalk a Homo Prospectus. Since the future is easier explored and embraced by action-oriented optimists, leaders want to understand either how to become one or how to help employees improve their forward-thinking.

What is future orientation?

Future orientation is defined as the degree to which a person thinks about the future and anticipates upcoming consequences. As you can imagine, there are pessimistic and optimistic versions of it. Optimism is considered a special form of hope that describes general positive expectations. The opposites of hope and optimism are assumptions that the worst will happen and unhealthy thinking patterns such as catastrophizing or (surprisingly) toxic optimism. The latter in this context is the act of avoiding, suppressing or rejecting negative emotions or thoughts about upcoming events that makes a person under prepare for or undervalue possible challenges.

What prevents us from having a future-oriented mindset?

I am sure you can recognize your own negative thoughts and behaviors. The most interesting is why you, Homo Prospectus, sometimes do not take advantage of this great quality and succumb to negativity and apathy?

The most obvious cause seems to be the fear of uncertainty. What is dark and mysterious has made people uneasy since the beginning of humanity. However, only by going through the unknown can we be innovative and create growth. Moreover, the more we develop, the more ambiguities appear. We are on an endless, daunting journey through self-improvement and novelty. And it makes us anxious — but anxiety is like stress. There is the kind that contributes to you being more resourceful and the one that overwhelms and paralyzes you. So, there is light at the end of this tunnel and it relates to the way you deal with your fears. You might use it as a motivator, the reason to forecast, or you might get paralyzed by it.

The second factor that contributes to reduced future-oriented optimism is tiredness and burnout. It is not too surprising, since exhaustion impacts the energy to plan next steps and goals. People with burnout just want to cope with today. It seems as though there is not enough fuel to motivate people to even look in this direction.

Unfortunately, the less you look, the more you focus on the unbearable today that makes you all the more so hopeless about the future. And hopelessness is the last straw. I can only hope that you notice earlier signs of it. I would like to highlight that the sense of hopelessness should not be ignored — it is a reason to consult a specialist and seek psychological support.

Learnable Skill

John Gardner, an accomplished organizational psychologist, claimed "tough-minded optimism" differentiates successful people. The opportunity, he says, "is not shaped by people who don't really believe in the future. It is created by highly motivated people, by enthusiasts, by men and women who want something very much or believe very much." The great thing is that an optimistic future-oriented mindset can be learned and improved.

What can you do to improve your future-oriented mindset?

Learn how to accept the fear. Pioneers aren't fearless individuals. They feel negative emotions and they act anyway. Or they even act because they feel these emotions. It is almost like they perceive emotions as a roadmap. "I feel anxious, so I am curious what is behind this. What my anxiety is trying to protect me from? My anxiety might inform me about ... " In a nutshell, "my anxiety is the source of wisdom for me."

Explore the possibilities. Homo prospectus contemplates the future and looks at how hidden patterns and unseen dynamics point to possible directions and changes on small and large scales. Without transforming uncertainty into possibilities, there is no effective forecasting, so don't bother focusing on deceptive certainties. They will give you the illusion of assurance and leave you in limbo during the stages of experimentation.

Become an observant anthropologist. I believe that the practice of developing a future-oriented mindset starts in the present moment. "The future's already arrived. It's just not evenly distributed yet," reflected William Gibson, a cyberpunk novelist. Open your eyes and spot things that do not fit, are unique, eccentric. Pay attention to trailblazers and unconventional people in your industry. Explore things outside of your trade — your ideas and innovations might be already present there.

Adopt an aspiration-based design. Remember the episode of Friends when Rachel suddenly realizes during her 30th birthday party that she should already know the father of her children? If not, you should, because this is a hilarious version of aspiration-based planning. It starts with identifying what you want to achieve and then works backward to see what changes need to happen to make that future come true. A backward focus will make it apparent whether some of your ongoing efforts may not lead to your hopes and dreams. However, this is not a source of frustration but the information you need to regroup and reallocate your resources to achieve your plans.

Embrace microplanning. Ok, I get it, you will more often find yourself consumed by stress because you cannot evaluate long-term perspective. Microplanning is simple. Shred your vision into small pieces. Maybe yearly, maybe weekly, monthly? It's entirely up to you. Focus exclusively on these micro chunks. You'll experience both the calming and motivating effect of planning while being flexible if any unexpected obstacles block you from taking action.

A healthy future-oriented mindset is a must in our fast-pacing and ever-changing world. Put some effort to cultivate it. Learn, micro-plan and practice emotional agility. And above all, stay curious!

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