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Help Centre

Focus on now

99% of our anxiety and unhappiness comes from two sources:

  1. Our future.
  2. Our past.

Let me explain.

Of course it’s vital to set future goals for yourself. If you don’t, you can’t ever progress, because you don’t even know where you’re going.

However, the problems start when we start obsessively thinking about a fixed future goal. Or the million different things we still need to do in order to get to that goal: I still need to proofread my introduction, finish discussing the results, respond to 10 emails, send my paper to my supervisor, prepare my conference talk, but it’s already 6pm…

These thoughts can wreak havoc. They reduce you to a ball of nerves and can cause terrible anxiety.

The solution?

You’ve got to focus on what is essential now. You can read this help doc on more about essentialism.

So, if your conference talk is the next day in the morning, but your paper isn’t due until three days later, then the former is clearly a priority.

Now, what do you need to do right now so that your talk goes well next morning bearing in mind it’s 6pm already?

Make a list. This could include things like proofreading your slides, putting your alarm clock on, knowing the route to the venue, relaxing with your family or friends, sleeping.

Now, choose the priority. There’s always one priority. What is the number one activity that will contribute most to my talk’s success next morning?

My answer based on 10+ years of conference talks is sleep. You need to get a good night’s sleep.

There is little point in overrehearsing it right now. Your slides are as ready as they can ever be. So make sure you gather the things you need for tomorrow morning (e.g. laptop, slides on the pendrive, any notes you need, clean shirt). Tick those off the list as you do them. This will ease your mind.

Then you need to get the future out of your head. Otherwise, you’ll never relax or fall asleep, and your talk will completely bomb, because you will be exhausted. To do this, sit down, pause, and list the future commitments, ideas and obligations that are currently distracting your mind. This will help you relax, but also help you remember the next day what you need to still do.

Another powerful way of not feeling anxious about the future is through chunking. What does that mean?

Set a goal for the end of this year (or the end of your PhD). For example, I want to finish my thesis and publish 2 articles.

Then reverse engineer to decide how to get to that goal. What do I need to do each year to achieve my final goal? OK, now what do I need to do each month? What about each week? Now you’re down to each day (make sure you do NOT count weekends – they’re for you to relax). Divide each daily goal by the hours in a day (make sure you do not sacrifice exercise, sleep and healthy food!).

Now you’ve got a crystal clear plan for each day. You don’t need to worry about your big goal, because you know that if you carry out the plan each day, you will win.

This is what I mean by being in the moment. You focus on what is essential now.

The second source of anxiety is our past.

Have you ever been in that situation when you couldn’t stop replaying this mental film about a past event?

I thought so. We tend to relive our past failures, mistakes and embarrassing moments over and over again. We tend to think about what could and might have been. About what we should have done differently.

We tend to blame our past for our current misfortunes.

But the truth is that the past is gone. It’s done.

Unfortunately, relieving past mistakes creates a negative feedback loop. For your brain there is little difference between actually experiencing the event or just thinking about it. And the more you think about it, the more of an entrenched belief it becomes. This of course influences negatively your actions and outcomes, which feed into this negative feedback loop.

While you cannot change the past, you can totally change the present. But to do that, you need to put aside those past worries. And you need to focus on what is essential now.

Example: your paper was rejected and heavily criticised. You could now curl into a ball and start relieving that experience over and over again. But this would mean that any time you start a new paper, you’d at the back of your mind be doubting your success.

Instead, identify what is essential now to correct that paper. Prepare a plan and carry it out.

Whenever a thought about the past paper rejection gets into your head, catch it and throw it away. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t relieve it.

At the beginning, it will be very tough. You will want to relieve this negative feeling. But the more you practise catching and throwing away negative thoughts, the better you will get at it.

Focus on what is essential now.

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