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Are you present-focused or future-focused?

Everyone knows about being introverted versus extroverted, but there’s another axis that makes a much bigger difference. It’s present-focused versus future-focused. Some people are mostly focused on the present moment. They live for today and do what feels good right now. Some people are mostly focused on the future. They use today as a stepping stone and do what’s best for their future selves. I learned about this from the book The Time Paradox, by legendary psychologist Phil Zimbardo, and it blew my mind. It helped me understand these people who had seemed crazy to me before. It also helped me understand why I act the way I do.

Check out these examples.

Present-focused people:

  • Pursue pleasure, excitement, and novelty

  • Focus on immediate gratification

  • Especially appreciate life, nature, and the people around them

  • Are playful, impulsive, and sensual

  • Avoid anything boring, difficult, or repetitive

  • Get fully immersed in the moment and lose track of time

  • Are more likely to use drugs and alcohol

  • Are better at helping others than helping themselves

Future-focused people:

  • Delay gratification

  • Are driven with self-discipline because they vividly see their future goals

  • Tend to live in their minds, picturing other selves, scenarios, and possible futures

  • Especially love their work

  • Exercise, invest, and go for preventative health exams

  • Are better at helping themselves, but worse at helping others

  • Are more likely to be successful in their careers, but often at the expense of personal relationships, which require a present focus

Your time-focus is environmental. People who grow up in unstable places are more present-focused because imagining the future is hard. People who grow up in cold climates are more future-focused because they have to prepare for the winter. Your time-focus can change in an instant. If you ask a present-focused person to describe their ultimate career and write down the steps to achieve those goals, their focus will change to the future. If you ask a future-focused person to name every background sound they can hear, or where their body is touching their chair, their focus will change to the present. Your values change your focus. Being in love or making art pushes someone towards a present-focus. Ambition pushes someone towards a future-focus.

Both mindsets are necessary. You need a present-focus to enjoy life. But too much present-focus can prevent the deeper happiness of achievement. (I call this “shallow happy” versus “deep happy”.) I wish all of this was part of a common understanding, the way we understand when extroverts want to go out for excitement, and introverts want to stay home with a book.

This concept even helps me understand myself when I’m acting out of character. If I’m acting too undisciplined, I realize it’s because I’ve stopped vividly seeing my future. I can only see the present. If I’m acting too disconnected, I realize it’s because I’m obsessed with my goals. I can see only the future.

I hope you find the idea as useful as I have.


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