Plan your future better by improving how you think

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This article is part of a series designed to overhaul and improve the way you think about and plan for the future – your future

Welcome! 

If you’re looking to improve the way you plan for the future, an important place to start is to understand how you think about it.

Every day, we spend a lot of time thinking about what might lie ahead. We daydream, make predictions, form intentions, set goals and make plans. 

All of this thinking feeds into the many hundreds if not thousands of decisions we make every day. And some of these decisions will influence – perhaps profoundly – our lives to come.  

So, understanding how you think about your future is a crucial step to improve the way you make decisions that affect your future.

Here you’ll learn:

  • Why it’s important to think clearly when thinking about the future
  • The four ways you think about the future
  • How to take your future thinking to the next level

By understanding the different ways we think about the future and exploring how they apply to the concept of future-gifting, this article will overhaul and improve your ability to consider and plan for the future. 

If you’re sitting present and correct, let’s begin…

The importance of clear future thinking

What separates humans from all other species on earth? 

What thing is it that a human is capable of that no other invertebrate, fish, reptile, amphibian, mammal or bird comes close to matching? 

Is it our ability to cooperate? To apply rational thought? Our capacity for language?

Or, is it our single unparalleled skill to consider alternative future possibilities – known as prospection – and use that insight to inform how we act in the present?

Some scientists have even suggested that we as a species are misnamed. Instead of being called Homo Sapiens with its inferred definition “Wise Man” – reading more like an ambition than a description – we should be renamed Homo Prospectus, since this describes an actual skill we posses.

Homo Prospectus may be justified on account of prospection being a skill uniquely developed in humans. But, it might also be appropriate for another, more straightforward reason: you and I spend so much time thinking about the future.

On any given day, we imagine and fantasise. We anticipate. We make predictions and speculations. We form intentions and scribble down to-dos. We plan for the future. 

And why does this matter, you might be asking? 

Thinking clearly about the future matters

Why? Because the information we gather during this everyday exercise forms the basis on which we make decisions. Decisions that, in turn, influence our futures and that of those around us. 

And we make a lot of decisions. A Cornell University study suggested we make over 200 decisions everyday about food alone. (You may have read elsewhere that a typical adult will clock up some 35,000 decisions every single day. However, I’ve not seen any research to support this figure – but get in touch if you do.)

The quality of our future-thinking determines the quality of our decisions taken today, which in turn hold the power to profoundly shape our lives to come.

So, given how much time we devote to future-thinking, and that its quality affects how well we make decisions, what do we know about how we think about the future? 

Could a better understanding of this unique skill help us improve how we think, assess and make decisions? Could it improve how we think about and plan for the future?

These are the questions we’re now going to explore.

How we think about the future

Over the course of a typical day, you (and I) spend a significant chunk of it contemplating the future in a range of ways.

For example, you might make the following intentions: to post your cousin’s birthday card tomorrow morning. Then to do the weekly food shop tomorrow afternoon – before you run out of, well, everything.

You might conjure up a vision of what tomorrow’s lunch with friends will look like in order to simulate how the occasion might play out. 

You might then try and predict how the conversation will ebb and flow. 

Perhaps, you decide to plan out your upcoming week’s appointments, your summer holiday to Italy, or your long-term investment strategy for retirement. 

What’s clear is that the mode of your future thinking will move naturally between simulation, prediction, forming intentions and planning 

Let’s look again in a little more detail at two of the above modes of future thinking: 

  • to simulate your lunch with friends tomorrow; and 
  • to predict how that encounter might unfold. 

Using simulation

You picture the scene: the restaurant, the table dressed in starched white linen, the gentle chatter of fellow patrons, your friends’ faces, expressions, moods and so on. 

You then try to predict what will happen. 

Using prediction

Perhaps, you think, you’ll arrive five minutes late, as always. But you’re not the last to arrive. As always. You’ll order fish; your friends will stick to salads. They’ll spend the remainder of the meal staring at your plate with food envy.  And so on.

Using intention

As a result of running your simulation and predicting your lunch, you remember that it’s your friend’s birthday next week. Tomorrow will be the last time you see her before then. So, you form an intention to give her a birthday card and that book on modelling you saw in your local bookshop. Statistical modelling, that is. She’ll love it.

But then you realise that you don’t have a suitable card in the house. And you need to pick up the book.

Using planning

So, you hatch a plan to walk by the card shop before picking up the book on your way to the restaurant. And since you’re in planning mode, you even slip a suitable giftbag for the book into the bag you intend to take with you tomorrow – to lessen the impression the book was bought at the last minute – and a pen with which to write the card. 

Slipping back into prediction mode, you estimate that half of your friends won’t have remembered the birthday, and so you message them a reminder. What a future-proofing saint you are. 

As this example illustrates: we think about the future in multiple, yet distinct ways. Let’s take a closer look now at these four modes of thinking identified above and clarify what they are. 

The 4 modes of future thinking

The nature of how we think about the future may be divided up into four ‘modes’:

  1. Simulation – when we make in our mind a detailed picture or representation of the future.
  2. Prediction – our estimation of how likely a specific future event is.
  3. Intention – to set a goal to be achieved in the future.
  4. Planning – when we identify and arrange the steps necessary to achieve a stated goal.

In all likelihood, you already unconsciously apply each of these modes when thinking about your future. And what’s more, you’re probably used to moving fluently between them, according to your needs.

One of the benefits of knowing more about these four modes is that you can better structure your thinking to identify what your preparations should consist of. Another is that this process throws up question you might otherwise have overlooked.

You could think of it as a kind of insurance policy that helps protect you against foreseeable problems and snags.

Plan for the future using the 4 modes of future thinking

One simple way to apply these four modes of future thinking is to use them as a kind of four-step process: 

  1. Simulate – simulate in your mind your upcoming event in as much detail as possible. 
  2. Predict – guess what is likely to happen.
  3. Form intentions – form any associated intentions that were brought to mind from steps 1 and 2.
  4. Plan – organise the steps needed to meet those intentions.

Now, what if we were to take these modes a step further and apply them to future-gifting

Let’s try it…

How to further improve the way you plan for the future

Using the 4 modes of future thinking with future-gifting

Now we’re going to bring together the four modes of how we think about the future with the concept of future-gifting (New To Future-Gifting? Begin Here).

To quickly recap, the act of future-gifting is: 

to anticipate your future needs and wishes, and to do something practical in the present to help you more effectively meet them. 

If we break that down, it reveals three steps:

  1. consider your future: think about what’s coming up in your life in the coming days, weeks or months, and think about new possibilities, not just what’s planned or expected.
  2. anticipate your future needs and wishes: identify where a little extra support, preparation or resource will help ‘future you’ with what you anticipate is coming up and help you to build towards those new possibilities.
  3. gift your future: take simple steps today to help yourself in the future.

So let’s map the four modes to future-gifting to see what that looks like:

Plan for the future: Using the four modes of future thinking together with future-gifting

For more complex situations, you might wish to run your simulations and predictions several times as you modify the situation in question in response to your intentions and planning. 

What do I mean by this?

For instance, let’s return momentarily to your example of meeting friends for lunch. 

Let’s imagine your simulation and prediction threw up an issue. The restaurant you were planning to go to had no suitable dishes to accommodate your friend’s allergies. 

This meant you needed to change the venue. And with a changed venue, came the need for a new simulation and, possibly,  a fresh prediction. This, in turn, prompted a corresponding shift in your plan, to avoid your sitting and waiting in the wrong restaurant.

Summary

We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. All of this thinking feeds into the many decisions we make every day, some of which will influence – perhaps profoundly – our future.  

Therefore, understanding how you think about your future is a crucial step to improve the way you make decisions about and plan for your future.

We think about the future in four ‘modes’:

  1. Simulation – when we make in our mind a detailed picture or representation of the future.
  2. Prediction – our estimation of how likely a specific future event is.
  3. Intention – to set a goal to be achieved in the future.
  4. Planning – when we identify and arrange the steps necessary to achieve a stated goal.

We move fluently and repeatedly between these modes when considering any given future event or situation.

We can take these four modes and map them to future-gifting to produce a powerful framework. This framework is an important step towards overhauling and improving your ability to think about and, most importantly, plan for the future.

Now, I have a question for you, here in the present: 

Which of your upcoming events, meetings, projects or conversations are you going to apply this framework to today?

To continue your journey… 

Further articles covering how to more effectively think about and plan your personal and professional future will be appearing in the coming weeks. 

To be the first to hear about them and to make sure you don’t miss out, sign up to my newsletter here. I promise it will be short, sharp and strive to help you serve your future well.

With thanks to Daniele Salutari on Unsplash for this article’s cover photo.

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