The danger of living on countdown

Most kids I know are counting down the days between to Christmas with a fervour driven from the expectation of new toys, treats and tech that they’ll receive come December 25th. It’s not just the kids either; most adults can tell you how many days of work they’ve got left before a few days of festive R&R.

It seems timely then to reflect on a tendency that many of us have year-round, living our lives counting down, marking the time between now and some point in the future when we can do what we really want; 3 hours until lunch. 4 days until the weekend. 2 weeks until our birthday. 4 months until the family vacation. 2 more years until I can leave this job for something better. You know what I’m getting at.

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It’s great to have things to look forward to and anticipate but the danger of this mind-set is that we condition ourselves to another of the scourges of life; believing that now is not good enough and that things will be better at some point in the future. This is more than just a lack of mindfulness that most of us suffer, or a lack of appreciation of the power of now, of being where (and when) we are. It reflects inherent dissatisfaction that many of us have become conditioned to thinking when we consider where we are right now.

There is nothing wrong in looking forwards and I’m a big advocate of focussing on the future rather than the past. We can’t change what has gone; only learn from it and move onwards, hoping for better or indeed for more of the same. Considering our higher values, visualising what we want and guiding our actions towards their achievement are inherently part of assisting ourselves to grow, develop and achieve. If we don’t know where we want to get to, how can we possibly plan how we’ll get there? I’m certainly not advocating living a life without forethought, planning or anticipation.

The danger comes when we cease to appreciate the value of what we have now, right now, here in this moment; a danger that we live in a constant state of putting off our satisfaction to some point in the future when notionally things will be better and life will be more palatable than they are at present. I’m not advocating a life spent in the pursuit of instant-gratification, taking and doing whatever we want without consideration of the consequence. I am suggesting mindfully appreciating what we have in this moment and seeking the enjoyment or at least appreciation of that.

I remember vividly my early days as a parent. The inherent joy was suffused with inevitable sleepless nights, worry and physical and mental challenge from being tasked with keeping our exceedingly demanding new-born alive and happy. I recall (thankfully with rose-tinted hindsight) the nights spent changing, feeding, winding and pacing around the house, attempting to soothe a crying baby; during those long nights when it seemed like everyone else in the world was enjoying a deep and restful sleep, I comforted myself that it wouldn’t be this way for long. I yearned for the day when a new-born starts to settle, and an uninterrupted 6 hours of sleep wouldn’t seem like an outrageous impossibility.

With the passing of time, the challenges of pacifying a new-born baby were replaced with other equally challenging phases; teething, toddling, the terrible twos, endless colds and bugs, and a myriad of other tests that mark the passing of the early years. In each of these periods I found myself comforted by thoughts that it wouldn’t be this way forever but with hindsight I remember most, if not all phases in the lives of my kids with fondness and wistfulness, not a sense of relief at their passing.

It seems to me that in parenting and in many other aspects of life I’ve been guilty of always looking to the future as the point at which things will be easier and more fulfilling and rewarding rather than keeping myself present in the now and enjoying every aspect of the moment. That the rewards have come and that I can look back fondly on even the most testing events of the past is fortunate for certain, but I can’t help but wonder what happiness I missed out on along the way merely because I was so fixated on what was to come.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As a child, I vividly remember counting down the days to the weekend, the number of sleeps until a family holiday and in adolescence, the number of shifts left at work until the summer break or how many semesters before graduation. In the early years of my career I was permanently fixated on the next role, the promotion that would finally endow me with the authority (and pay-check) that I desired, and the material possessions that would eventually be mine. I have been way too guilty in the past of taking my eye off the here and now in favour of considering the shinier and happier future, and it’s one of the many traits I hope not to pass on to my kids.

When the going gets tough it’s a natural tendency to remind ourselves or those around us sharing the period of challenge that things won’t always be this way, and inevitably that can be a source of comfort. Perhaps an alternative means of tackling these challenges would be to mindfully acknowledge and accept the way that things are and to consider what the lessons are we can take from what we’re currently experiencing, or even, dare I suggest it, to enjoy the feeling of taking on the challenges?

This is of course easier said than done at times. In the midst of a busy period at work or in the run up to exams or assignment deadlines at school or college it can be hard to see anything very positive about the now; rather, we focus on that point in the future when it will all be over. Perhaps though in this moment if we can elevate ourselves to see things from a slightly greater altitude, we may just take off the pressure. If we can acknowledge that we are undoubtedly in the midst of stress, challenge and even emotional, psychological or intellectual hardship, we may also be simultaneously proving to ourselves and others just how much we can handle and the circumstances within which we can thrive. Such realisations can be a great source of happiness, comfort and empowerment.

Such realisations may only dawn on us in reflection, once the time of challenge has passed and we have weathered the storm. It is this tendency that often gives us the rose-tinted hindsight that most enjoy. The lessons we can take from times of difficulty and the opportunities we have for growth in the aftermath will undoubtedly be heightened if we can not only get through them as quickly as possible, but actually be mindful of the challenges at the time and to learn and grow as we go rather than waiting until some point in the future.

It isn’t necessarily intuitive to be mindful and present as we contemplate the challenges of the now, but if we can get better at recognising quicker that we didn’t just get through challenging times, but that we thrived, grew and owned the moment then that is a huge positive step.

In mastering this skill, we can then enjoy both the big things that are forthcoming such as Christmas, but also the little things too. More joy sounds good to me!

Toby Hazlewood

Further recommended reading as referenced in this post:

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

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