There's this new-age idea that we should all be completely in the present at all times, ignoring the past and the future. Some people go so far as to parrot phrases like "the present is the only thing that really exists", or "live every day like it's your last!". I disagree. I think that there's value in considering all three time periods, as long as they're looked at differently. The problem is that most people treat them in the same way.
Take the past. Most people look at the past as something that could somehow be changed if they wished hard enough. They don't actually believe that, but they act like it, saying things like, "If only I had _____". A better way to see the past is like a series of completed experiments. Everything, from before you were born until the moment you read the previous sentence is now set in stone and cannot be changed. The value we can get from this is to learn from our mistakes, failures, and pure observation.
It's possible to live in the past, to rehash things that happened and associate their greatness or tragedy with the present. We are the product of nothing but the past, but on the other hand the past is only a series of experiments. We aren't bound to make the same mistakes, and we aren't guaranteed the same successes, especially if we can't emotionally distance ourselves from what has happened, and rationally extract all of the available lessons from it.
The past is also available to help you keep your emotional well being. Your primary source of happiness should be from the present, but if you can forgive and forget slights and remember the great things that have happened in your life, you'll have a well of positive emotions to draw upon when times are more difficult.
Two practical examples that we've all seen people get caught up in:
-- Breaking up with someone. The only value to be extracted from this situation is to think about what you could have done better, in the context of the relationship. That's obviously not the only factor in the relationship or the breakup, but it's probably the only one that's actionable. A breakup is a good time to think about what you did well, and what you did poorly. Most people spend their attention pining or blaming, but neither of these things will do any good. I know that this approach is easier said than done, and that no one is actually going to be a complete rational robot, but aiming in that direction can help.
The time is spent and the chips have fallen, so there's no point in regretting a relationship or wishing that the other person (or you) had done something differently. Instead, think about all the great times you had, the ways you grew as a person, the lasting positive impact you have had on each other, and use those memories as your lasting impression of the relationship.
-- Falling from grace. Call it high school football star syndrome. This is where someone had some period of glory which eventually ended, but they're unable to let it go. It's the definition of living in the past. I listened to a Radio Lab episode last night about a guy who had a small part in the movie Analyze This. He wasn't able to get any other parts after that, but he continued to portray himself as some sort of movie star, substituting past success for current achievement. He even moved to a small town, presented himself as a celebrity, and then gave everyone parts in his "new movie". When it came time to pay the crew, he skipped town.
The benefit you've gained from your past actions is the experience that you can use to shape the present. Try to seek glory only through present achievement, not from past actions or even future actions.
Although I wouldn't go so far as to say that the present is the only time exists, it is the place where you apply leverage. You have no control over the past, and your control over the future is only realized by acting now in the present moment. Besides being the time where action takes place, it's also the time to evaluate yourself. Don't beat yourself up or give yourself too much credit for stuff you've already done, and don't pat yourself on the back for the great things you'll do in the future. Do great things right now. Do normal things, and do them greatly. The only way you judge yourself in the present should be, "Am I doing the best I can do right now?".
Doing your best in the moment isn't just for work. It's for appreciating the moment you're living, the people that are around you, and the setting you're in. Doing this poorly means that you're focused on the past or fantasizing or worrying about the future. Doing it well means that you're accepting the present and responding to it as best as possible. That might mean working hard, but it might mean focusing all of your attention on whoever you're talking to, listening, and responding when the time comes.
A critically important concept is that how you act in the present is also how you will act in the future. Studies have been done that show that people tend to think that in the future they will procrastinate less, be more focused, have more time, and accomplish more. The reality is that however you are acting now is how you are most likely to act in the future. Your habits now are the habits you will likely have in the future. That doesn't mean that you can't change, but it does mean that if you aren't working on changing right now, you probably won't in the future either.
I see my duty to the future as being two things. In the near future, I'd like to provide myself the best possible "present". In other words, I understand that my leverage comes from the present, and that things I do now will affect what that present is for Future Tynan. For example, I save money and live below my means so that in the future I can focus not on paying my bills, but on living and working in the present. I eat healthy foods now so that my mind will stay sharp for as long as possible. I meditate, work out, floss, learn languages, sleep well, and do a million other things to increase my capabilities and thus give myself more leverage in the future.
Longer term, I think about how my trajectory will trace through the future depending on decisions I make. With my current habits, will I leave a lasting mark on the world and make it a better place, much as people before me have? If I tweak this particular habit, will I be able to compound the amount of impact I'm able to have? Will the things that I do in the present accumulate to become something valuable for myself and others, or are they relative wastes of time?
The future may never come for me. I may be hit by a bus tomorrow. But there's no point in planning for that event, so I plan for the most likely event: that I will continue to live a life and be given roughly the same good luck and bad luck as anyone else in my situation. I steel myself a bit for the worst case scenarios, keep an eye out for excellent opportunities that may cross my path, but mostly I plan for the average and try to improve what that will look like.
I think of goals as moving targets, not so much fixed destinations, but rather a point to which I can draw a path from where I am. Goals and circumstances change, but by having them I'm able to plan a few steps in advance and try to make my work more efficient.
The future is for planning purposes, not for living, though. I take my pleasure only in the present, in both the great experiences I have, and in the struggle and examination of working hard and the challenges I face. It's dangerous to plan to be happy later, because if you're not happy now, you probably won't be then either.
To wrap this all up, I think that all three moving phases of time are important, but they have to be treated uniquely. Learn from your past, execute and enjoy in the present, and plan for the future.
Photo is one of the first pianos ever built, taken in the Met.