Overthinking (especially about the future) is rarely worth its price. Although learning from the past and planning for the future are essential, the real action is in the present.
[ music ] . Hi, this is Rob Sepich, and welcome to Relaxing with Rob. Back in episode 10, "Starting College Successfully," I briefly suggested that you not believe everything you think, or it'll drive you nuts, especially thoughts about the future. Today, I'd like to go into more detail on that point because I've known too many people who suffer from this kind of worry. And by the way, I used to be one of them. We're not talking about thought disorders, but just about times when you find yourself obsessing about possible problems, however unlikely, and you wind up losing sleep over them. Growing up, I remember that my mom framed one of her needlepoint creations and hung it in our living room. And it read, "Today is the 'tomorrow' that worried you yesterday, and all is well." I thought the sentiment was kind of lame. But the older I got, the more I came to see its wisdom. A few years ago, around Memorial Day, I had an unusual bike accident. It was sort of minor at the time, but it left me in extreme pain all along one of my legs, basically from my toes up to the middle of my back. I had to use a wheelchair and then a walker for several weeks , and had a lot of medical tests to try to figure out what was going on. My wife joined me in an orthopedic surgeon's office in a hospital and the physician was studying one of my MRIs, and he found an area of edema on the femur. And he said, "I'm very worried about this." These aren't words you want to hear from a doctor. He said, "This could be leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma. Let's get you an MRI with contrast to figure this out." Well, he left the office and after a few minutes he came back and he said, "We're getting you in at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow morning." Wow. It's a privilege to get such prompt medical attention. But it was also scary to get such prompt medical attention. This was a perfect opportunity to worry and to overthink. So on the way home from the hospital, we talked about it and decided not to go online to learn all about leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma. Instead we watched a Netflix comedy that night. In other words, we had fears, but we chose not to focus on them. Fortunately, it turned out just to be none of those. Just some severe nerve damage that would heal over the course of the summer at the rate of about a millimeter per day. And I always think of that summer as my advanced seminar in patience and gratitude. There's a sports psychologist in Chicago who works with professional and Olympic athletes. And I read an interview with him a while ago and he said, these people spend about 80% of their time in the present moment. And the rest of their attention seems to be pretty evenly divided between the past and the future. He said they're just this way, whether they're competing or not. So I would describe this to students as a 10 / 80 / 10 division of attention. It's what I aim for. I'm certainly never 100% focused on the present moment. The young adults I know spend most of their energy on the future. It's not precise, but when I ask for an estimate, it usually comes out to about two thirds of their attention. For example, you're taking classes now, but you're figuring out what you need next year to graduate on time. Or you've got a part time job now, but you're really thinking about how you're going to have the energy for a full time job sometime. Or you're in a pretty solid relationship now, but you're wondering if it'll stay that way, and if not, whose fault will that be? And how will you cope if you break up? Does this sound at all familiar? If so, as an experiment, can you reallocate just a bit of that future-oriented focus into the present? When we put more energy into the present, we're of course more likely to help influence the future in the way that we want. I've read several of the Dalai Lama's books and was able to attend one of his speeches as well. He's one of the most present people I can imagine. But one of my favorite images of him comes from a book of photos. There was a photographer who was granted pretty close access to him for several months and I paged through his book of photos. And there was one of him preparing for a talk in New York. He was sitting on a bed in a hotel suite with a few other people around him, and along with his notes and speech on the bed, I think he had a pen in his hand. I noticed a cup and saucer of tea on the bed, and like a small plate of biscuits or muffins. And the caption didn't point this out, but my reaction when I saw that picture was, "Whoa, even the Dalai Lama multitasks!" Maybe normally he's able to inhale the fragrance of tea before mindfully savoring the flavor. But when you're working on a deadline, what are you gonna do? Of course I knew he was human, but with that photo he became impressively even more so. Which brings us back to that 10 / 80 / 10 division of attention that the psychologist observed. Of course, spend some time in the past. Learn from mistakes and successes. Try not to repeat our mistakes, but maybe instead make new ones. And of course it's fine to spend some time in the future; plan for it. Don't just let it happen to you. But the place to really hang out, to really use our power and have an effect is the present. So if you're spending too much time in the past, can you say something to yourself like, "I've made mistakes, and I'm more than my mistakes." But if you're focusing too much on the future, can you say something to yourself like, "I have fears, and I'm more than my fears." Like how I felt on that night before the MRI. That way I was still able to get a good night's sleep. So remember, since not all thoughts are true, we don't need to spend too much time trying to change them or control them. Our effort is better spent hanging out in the present. Thank you for listening, and we'll talk again soon. [ music ]