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Look Forward, Not Backward

When it comes down to it, most people I know want the same thing out of life: happiness. Everyone wants to be happy. We’ll all get there in different ways, but essentially, we all want the same thing. At Design.org, our focus is on helping you “create happy” in your life. We’re here to remind you that you are in control of your destiny. You can shape your thoughts, choose your actions, and move through life with purpose, intention, and meaning. But only if you look forward, not backward.

What does it mean to look forward, not backward?

If you haven’t seen the Pixar movie Up, I’d suggest you watch it as soon as possible. Once you make it through the first heart-wrenching 11.5 minutes, you’ll see that the story centers around a man who cannot let go of his past.

Carl Fredricksen spends the vast majority of the movie looking backward—clinging desperately to the life he shared with his recently deceased wife, Ellie. He holds tightly to their house and to everything inside it (even when it doesn’t make sense to do so), obsessed with the idea of taking “Ellie” to their dream destination of Paradise Falls. But ultimately, Carl realizes that his time with Ellie is in the past, and that his future holds possibilities for new relationships and new adventures.

Looking backward means an inability to let go: of past relationships, past mistakes, past choices, or even past health. We all have something in the past that is hard for us to let go of. Looking backward is often full of regret and/or sadness. 

Looking forward, on the other hand, means putting the past behind you and focusing on what’s ahead. It means having hope that what’s ahead of you is better than what’s behind you. It means giving your attention to your future, not your past.

Why it’s important

Why does this matter? After all, the past is important, isn’t it? Don’t we need to learn from the past? Isn’t remembering where you came from, and who helped you to get there, a good thing?

Yes, the past is important, but looking forward instead of backward is more important, for a few big reasons.

You can’t change the past, but you can change the future.

No matter how much you reminisce about the past, you can’t change it. Reliving conversations won’t change what you said; losing sleep over past choices won’t allow you to go back in time to make different ones; reliving past mistakes won’t make them come undone. As much as many of us would like to change something about our past (I know there are some things I’d like to change about mine), it simply isn’t possible.

You can, however, change the future. In fact, you have a significant amount of control over how your future turns out. The choices you make today, the conversations you have today, the actions you take today—those are the things that can and will shape your future.

Now, if you’re trying to create a happy life for yourself, which is more helpful: the thing you can’t change, or the thing you can? And because we all know it’s the latter, why would you spend any time and energy worrying about something you can’t change?

The past can inform the future (that is, you can learn from past mistakes so you don’t repeat them), but if it’s not doing that, it can’t help you create the life you want to create. 

You’ll miss out on opportunities if you’re always looking back.

Opportunity lies ahead of you, not behind you. Opportunity lives in the future—it’s a possibility, a chance. And if you’re too focused on what lies behind you, you’ll miss out on those chances that are ahead of you.

It’s easy to live in the past, because it’s a known quantity. The future is unknown. Sometimes, it can be scary for us to face those unknown opportunities, even if part of us knows the risk would be good for us.

But your life isn’t about trying to maintain a status quo. Your life is about progress, about moving forward, about creating something better than you had before. Your life is about actively seeking out opportunities, and then grabbing them, allowing yourself to face the unknown because it’s the only way you can really get to where you want to go.  

When you look back, you aren’t moving forward.

Imagine you’re driving a car. You have a windshield and a rearview mirror. The windshield allows you to look forward, and the rearview mirror allows you to look backward. Which do you use when you want to drive forward? Which do you use when you want to drive backward? What would happen if you tried to drive forward, but kept looking in the rearview mirror?

We move in the direction we’re looking. We see what we focus on. If your focus is backward, how could you possibly see something that’s in front of you? And how could you possibly move toward it in a safe and smart manner?

Look forward to move forward.

How to look forward, not backward

I already mentioned one reason why looking backward is sometimes easier than looking forward: because the past is a known quantity. There are plenty of other reasons too: maybe you’re a person who is prone to shame and regret; maybe you have harrowing experiences from your past that are extremely difficult to let go of; or maybe you just don’t want to do the work required to move forward, so you try to gain life experience and wisdom by looking backward instead.

Whatever the reason, looking forward and not backward can be difficult. These tips might help.

Learn the lessons.

Perhaps the reason you’re struggling to let go of your past is because there’s still something you can learn from it. Perhaps you haven’t fully processed the emotions of your past, and they’re floating around inside you, unresolved. 

If you’re going to move on from something in your past, you need closure. You need to feel the feelings and process them before you can let them go. What can that experience teach you about yourself that you can use moving forward? How can the feelings you feel about that experience serve you in the future?

As you fully experience and learn from your past, you’ll be better able to stop dwelling on it, so you can give more of your attention to the future. 

Forgive yourself. 

I don’t know about you, but most of the “looking backward” I do has to do with me making a you-know-what out of myself. I look back on things I said or did, and I cringe. I struggle to accept those things—they’re so embarrassing. How could I have been so stupid?

This kind of dwelling is a prime example of looking to the past. How is this type of negative self-talk helpful when it comes to creating a happier life? (It’s not.) How will berating yourself help you make peace with yourself so you can move forward with confidence and hope? (It won’t.)

The mistakes you made in the past are in the past. They’re irreversible. There’s no point in playing the shoulda-woulda-coulda game with something that’s already happened.

Instead, reflect on your past self. Where were you at in life when you made that choice? What kind of mindset did you have about the world? Is it okay that you have a different mindset now? Can you give your past self a little grace for being a different person, with different priorities and different beliefs?

Forgiving yourself will help you make peace with your past self, which will in turn help you to stop dwelling on those mistakes you’re beating yourself up over.

Set goals.

Goals are the flashing neon sign that brings your attention to the future. A goal expresses a hope or a wish for the future, something you intend to work toward and make a reality. When you set a goal, you’re thinking about a future something you’d like to accomplish. You’re thinking about a future version of “you” that you’d like to be. You’re looking forward and making plans, rather than looking backward with regret. 

Make sure you’re setting SMART goals—goals that are: 

  • Specifically defined
  • Measurable so you can track your progress
  • Attainable
  • Relevant to your long term dreams and vision
  • Time-bound to give you a deadline to work toward

I’ve found that creatives sometimes struggle with setting SMART goals; it’s difficult to take the abstract thoughts most creatives have and turn them into concrete goals. If you find that you’re struggling with your goal-setting, or that most of the goals you set don’t seem to come to fruition, I highly recommend taking our free assessment to help you get on the right track, or looking into creativity coaching for direct, one-on-one support to push you toward your dreams.

Schedule time to reminisce.

I’ve seen this advice given to anxious people: set aside time to worry. I think the same applies to people who enjoy thinking about the past: set aside time to reminisce. This is especially applicable if you’re looking to the past to remind you of better days—days when you were healthier, stronger, or felt more on top of things.

If that describes you, give yourself time to look back fondly on your good memories. Think about the people you’ve known, the things you’ve done, and the lessons you’ve learned. Journal about them if you want. Allow yourself to feel and experience those times that you loved. And then, when the time is over, put them back in the metaphorical drawer, only to be brought out next time. 

Practice gratitude.

Our minds can only hold so much at a time. If they’re crowded with thoughts of the past, there’s no room for the present (much less the future) to have a real say in what we’re thinking. 

Gratitude is an excellent way to pull you out of the past and into the present. It forces you to think about what you have, now, rather than on what used to be. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a great way to get your mind into a thankful space, as it encourages you to notice things you’re grateful for throughout the day. 

What’s more, gratitude can help you look hopefully toward the future, as you recognize all the beautiful parts of your life that are aligning to help you live a happier, more fulfilled life.

Your best days are ahead of you, not behind you. Trust in that. Believe in that. Choose to move forward with that in mind. Give the future your attention. Keep your eyes facing the direction you want to move.

Look forward, not backward. 

Look forward, with free coaching from Design.org.

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