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How to Plan for the Future While Living in the Present

Planning for the future, while living in the present, is an age-old balancing act. How do you simultaneously plan ahead and be in the moment?

We’re constantly bombarded with messages about how important each of these things is individually: 

  • You need to plan for the future, because that’s what brings you achievement, fulfillment, and satisfaction. If you don’t have a deliberate plan, you’re not likely to move in the right direction, or to create the life you want to live.
  • You need to live in the present, because that’s what brings you peace, gratitude, and happiness. If you’re constantly depressed about the past, or anxious about the future, you’ll miss your life happening right in front of you.

If you just had to focus on one or the other of these things, it might not be too hard. But when you try to do both at the same time, it can easily become confusing and overwhelming. How do you plan for the future while living in the present?

While different approaches will work for different people, there are some best practices to follow that can help you be present in the moment and enjoy your current life, while also dreaming about and working towards a bigger, brighter future.


Being self-aware is key to creating any change in your life, and it can help immensely when you’re trying to balance the future with the present. 

Chances are, you’re naturally inclined to either planning for the future or living in the present. Knowing which way you lean can help you as you try to live more in balance. Are you more future-oriented or more present-oriented? Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you decide.

You might be more present oriented if you…You might be more future oriented if you…
…struggle to imagine the future as being too different from the present.

…tend to give up on your goals or plans become they come to fruition.

…are more spontaneous.

…have regular FOMO (fear of missing out).

…believe that the future is uncertain, so it doesn’t really make sense to plan too much.

…get frustrated with people who seem to prioritize their career over their relationships.
…have no trouble imagining and discussing what the future might be like.

…set and meet goals regularly.

…like to plan ahead.

…believe that work today will allow you to play tomorrow.

…trust that your plans for the future will (mostly) pan out.

…are frustrated by people who seem to have no work ethic.

Present-you vs. Future-you

I was talking to a friend once about an ongoing discussion they had with their therapist about this issue. They talked about a “future-self” and a “present-self,” almost as if they were two different people, and about how important it was to give both of those “selves” a voice.

For my friend, their “future-self” ran the show for most of the time. This meant some good things—my friend was an excellent strategist, planner and manager. But it also took its toll in big ways, leading to serious burnout, sadness, and a sense of “not living life.”

The key is to not give too much power to the “you” that is naturally in control, and to make sure that the other version has a voice. 

My friend had to learn not to sacrifice the happiness and sanity for goals and accomplishments. They had to give their “present self” a voice.

Others may have to learn that ignoring their “future self” in favor of immediate gratification will likely lead to long-term unfulfillment. It’s important to listen to that future-you, too.

Becoming aware of who is normally in charge inside of you will help you realize when you’re shutting down another voice that could potentially help you.  

SMART goals 

Awareness is an important step when you’re trying to plan for the future while living in the present, but it doesn’t mean very much without action.

One of the best actions you can take is to set SMART goals. Goal-setting is very much a plan-for-the-future activity, but making sure your goals are SMART allows you to balance that future plan with your present life.

A SMART goal is a goal that is designed to maximize your chances of success. SMART goals are:

  • Specific: clearly defines the goal and your desired outcomes
  • Measurable: allows you to track your progress and know when you’ve succeeded
  • Achievable: realistic; something you can actually do
  • Relevant: falls in-line with your overall vision for your life
  • Time-based: includes a deadline to help you stay on track

Why does following the SMART framework allow you to live in the present while planning for the future?

Because SMART goals are designed to not overwhelm you or make you feel discouraged. When you have a specific goal, that you know you can reach, and that applies to your life, you have realistic expectations that help you be confident in your plans. You know you’ve approached goal-setting in a smart way, so you don’t have to waste present energy trying to figure out how to achieve a vague or unreachable goal.

Basically, taking the time to frame your goals as SMART goals actually frees up your present time and energy. It will still get you where you want to go, but it will allow you to live your life as you get there. 

Create actionable plans 

Along these same lines, deliberately-designed, actionable plans can help merge your future and present selves.

Another way to think about this is to view it as determining actions that serve you in both the present and the future. What action could you take today that will keep you in-the-moment while also satisfying your need to “create happy” in your future?

It can be tough to identify these actions right away, which is why we recommend drawing backwards

Which is more important: where you are now, or where you’re trying to go? We believe it’s the latter. If you know where you want to go, you can get there—no matter where you are currently. That’s the idea behind drawing backwards: you start at the end, and then work backwards until you’ve connected the dots all the way back to your present self. 

Ideally, drawing backwards will lead you to an action you can take today, and when you take that action, you can be confident that it’s been specifically designed to get you where you want to go. 

With such a strong plan in place, you can live your present life while still working toward your future dreams. You don’t have to constantly worry about the future, because you’ll know you’ve already created a pathway to get there. At the same time, you won’t simply be living for the moment: you’ll be proactively moving in the right direction. This is the balance we’re all looking for. 

(For more thoughts about drawing backwards, including methods to help you develop your plan as you draw backwards, check out our posts on prototyping and lightning bolt moments.)

Track your learning

“Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn, and you will.”

Vernon Howard

Life presents us with lessons every day. The question is whether or not we actually learn from them.

On a daily basis, we’re presented with opportunities to learn: about relationships, about ourselves, about how the world works. Some of these lessons are so profound that they bowl us over. Others are so nuanced that we can barely recognize them. But they all have the potential to teach us things that will serve us in the future. 

When you look out for learning opportunities, you are balancing present awareness with future benefit. Recognizing those lessons for what they are helps you be in the moment, aware of what happened, how you felt, how it affected others, and what you learned. Then you can apply that lesson to the future. You’re simultaneously living in the present while planning for the future.

Be more aware of potential lessons on a daily basis. Try writing down one lesson you learn a day—big or small. Getting into this habit will help you recognize them more easily, and will help you find patterns that could make the lessons even more deep and meaningful.

Control your thoughts

Your thoughts shape your reality. Every thought you have manifests itself in some way, whether it affects your mood, inspires an action, or changes how you treat someone else. This can work for us or against us. Our thoughts can inspire goodness and positive change, or can end up leading us down unproductive or even harmful paths. 

For the purposes of this post, your thoughts can focus on planning for the future or on living in the present. What you think determines where you put your energy, and how that energy shows up in your life. 

Thoughts are undoubtedly powerful, but there’s something even more powerful: you. You have control over your thoughts. 

It’s true that sometimes it seems as though thoughts pop into our heads unbidden, and yes, that can happen. But even if it does, you have control over that thought. What do you do with it? How do you respond to it? Is that particular thought something you should embrace, or something you should ignore? By making these decisions, you can design your thoughts to make sure they serve you—and to make sure they help you balance present living with future planning. 

When you take control of your thoughts, you can unleash your inner dragon and use that fierce creativity to create change in your life. You can recognize when your present-self’s thoughts are doing a disservice to your future plans, and when your future-oriented thoughts are keeping you from living your life fully. You can shape your thoughts to make them more balanced. Your thoughts can help you “create happy.”

Learning to plan for the future while living in the present takes some practice and fine-tuning. You’ll have to become aware of your natural tendencies, and work to counteract them. You’ll have to learn to think thoughts that lead you to actions that serve both your present and your future selves. And you’ll have to learn to draw backwards so that you can connect the dots between the future life you dream of and the present life you’re currently living.

Your past and your future not mutually exclusive when it comes to focus. They’re both yours. Claim them both, live them both, and live happy while you create happy.

Plan for the future. Live in the present. With Design.org.

Our free, personalized coaching service helps you create realistic plans with a clear direction and purpose, helping you “create happy” in your life. Get started today by taking our free assessment.