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Escape the Cage of Your Past, Use the Present Moment to Change Your Future

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All you have is now.

Everything else but the present moment is something you made up. Nothing makes it real except for your mind. We’ve all heard something similar before from a spiritual guru or a quote graphic we saw on Instagram.

But the reality is that your perception of reality is reality. As nice as it sounds to be able to stay in the present moment without worrying about the past and fixating on the future, we naturally do both of these actions.

Most of our mind is spent in this space of mental chatter where our fixation on the past and the present keeps us from taking action that could make our futures better or, at least, enjoy the time we have right now.

Instead of trying to maintain one hundred percent of your time in the present moment, try to focus on being present as much as possible (we’ll talk about that in a second).

Instead of wishing your past went away, do everything you can to reconcile it or find a way to make your past experiences useful to you.

Instead of fixating on your future and exactly the way it’ll turn out, focus on becoming a better version of yourself right now so that the future inevitably yields good results.

Let’s take a look at dealing with all three states of your perception of time.

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We’ve talked about this over and over again, but, with most things self-improvement related, it bears repeating because it takes repetition to make the lessons stick.

The ultimate lesson of the past is that it’s done

You can’t do anything to change what has happened. Every thought or ounce of energy given to the past that’s something other than using it as a guide for how to behave in the present or future is useless. Of course, we give most of our energy to the past in a counterproductive or dangerous way.

Here are some examples of things you shouldn’t do:
  • Play out different scenarios of your present and future based on things you wish you could change from the past
  • Feel sad or grieve about a situation far past the point it makes sense to do so anymore
  • Come to the conclusion that because you’re a person who did [x], you’re now the type of person who’s destined to keep doing [x] over and over again
  • Let situations you had no control over, e.g., trauma and abuse, define who you are as a person
  • The overall mistake that encompasses everything listed; continuing to live in the past instead of existing in the present moment

Of course, it’s easy for me to tell you what you should do, but how do you actually do it? Self-improvement rests on that same question regardless of the specific action you know you should take. We all more or less know what to do but bringing ourselves to do it seems difficult to impossible.

No one can force you to do what’s necessary, but the second-best thing is trying to figure out a mental angle that will help you do what’s necessary.

When it comes to dealing with the past, some of my favorite mental angles are:
  • At a minimum, try to accept the fact that whatever happened has happened instead of creating these alternative futures based on different versions of that which will never exist. It’s done.
  • When it comes to your patterns, the mistakes you seem to make over and over again, understand that a key to change is telling yourself that you’re no longer the type of person who does [x] or that you’re now the type of person who does [y]. Making a conscious decision in the present as to the ‘type of person you are’ means everything.
  • Always try to find a way to re-frame what happened to you as useful. Often, it makes sense to re-frame past mistakes as valuable learning opportunities.
  • I love using the process of questioning myself to help snap me out of counterproductive behavior. I might ask myself something like “How much longer are you going to dwell in the past instead of behaving differently now?” Questions like this remind you of what you already know and can give you the resolve to change things.
  • This one is the most difficult to pull off, but the ability to coldly and rationally analyze your past behavior helps you build a better present and future. You accomplish it by continuing to practice it without ever really getting all that good at it.

This section helps you deal with the past. The next section will focus on helping you do everything you can in the present moment so that your future unfolds in a beautiful way.

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Everything you do in every single moment of your life takes a vote for the person you’re going to be in the future. There are literally zero situations where this isn’t true.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that doing nothing accounts for nothing. Often, doing nothing is one of the most powerful votes you can make; both in a positive and negative way.

We struggle with building a better version of ourselves in the future because we have to repeatedly make good decisions in the present moment and our emotions are designed to make us do the wrong thing in the present moment.

You know that eating cheeseburgers every day will lead to bad health down the road, but right now it tastes really good and you really want to eat it, so do you. You have that slight moment of regret right after doing it, but it’s just one burger and you can always course correct in the future.

You know that buckling out of fear pushes you further away from your goals. You could’ve spoken up but you didn’t, could’ve taken that risk but you didn’t, could’ve faced your fear in the moment but you didn’t.

So, you tell yourself this story that one day you’re going to magically stand tall and show courage, but the day never comes because you buckle every day and tell yourself the same story every day. Day one of the new life path is always too scary to start so you run around in mental circles.

Breaking your cycle, your behaviour patterns, and your self-reinforcing identity is crazy hard. And the only thing you can do to break it is trying to break it one day, and each moment in every day, then try to do it over again tomorrow. But you try your best not to think about tomorrow.

You ask yourself what you can do right now and act based on the answer to that question.

You’re out of shape now and the best thing you can do is eat healthily and exercise today.

You’ve been smoking for ten years, the best thing you can do today is not smoke.

You’ve been timid and afraid your whole life, the best thing you can do today is be brave even if it’s in the smallest way.

Over time, you get momentum toward building a better version of yourself. Once you’re in motion, you can start to create these elaborate plans for the future you want to execute, but you have to string together a decent amount of good days before your long-term plans even make any sense.

I didn’t have any plans to do exactly what I’m doing right now. It started with a series of days where I changed my behaviour by the same process I’m teaching you. I didn’t have some grand epiphany, I just listened to and acted on the voice inside my head that said the same thing every day:

You can do better

I can’t tell you the perfect cocktail of circumstances that’ll lead to you coming to this realization and acting on it, but I can tell you that it happens.

It can happen to you and it’s as simple as listening to that voice and deciding that this time is different. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve unsuccessfully said this time will be different. It takes one time where you actually mean it to change everything.

Are things going to be different this time?

Say it like you mean it and you might be right.

You will also love: The Hardest Work Is Self Work: Addressing the Baggage From Our Past

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