Mental Time Travel: A Cheat Code for Success
Today at a Glance
- I have spent time with a lot of very successful people. I have observed two common trends: (1) A struggle to appreciate the present and (2) A struggle to identify the key actions to create the desired future.
- The tool we can all use to fight back: Mental Time Travel. This involves the vivid imagination of both the past and the future. You use your mind to figuratively "travel" to the experienced past and the envisioned future.
- Professionally, Mental Time Travel allows us to consider both (1) the gap between where we are and where we want to be and (2) the gain between where we were and where we are. Personally, Mental Time Travel allows us to build a robust gratitude practice and appreciate the present state.
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Last week, I spent two days with a group of 50 multimillionaire entrepreneurs at a lodge in Texas.
I love spending time with people who have achieved outsized success in one arena of life because it always reminds me of the fact that our external definition of "success" is often dislocated from our internal definition.
Externally, you might assume that people who have achieved this level of financial success are fulfilled, happy, and content.
Internally, the reality is often quite different, as all of them face the same daily struggles as the rest of us: a search for purpose and a desire to continue to grow as individuals.
In particular, I have observed two common trends that stand out as universal:
- A struggle to appreciate the present.
- A struggle to identify the key actions to create the desired future.
In today's piece, I'd like to share the tool that we can all use to fight back: Mental Time Travel.
Becoming a Time Traveler
What is Mental Time Travel?
In simple terms, you can think of it as the vivid imagination of both the past and the future. You use your mind to figuratively "travel" to the experienced past and the envisioned future.
Most of us have done a standard version of this in the normal course of our lives:
- We sit in the present and imagine the past. We use this image of the past to adjust course and avoid the same mistakes.
- We sit in the present and imagine the future. We use this image of the future to make plans in the present.
This is what I would refer to as "Standard" Mental Time Travel. Sit in the present and imagine the past or the future. It's the version that almost everyone is familiar with.
But there is a more interesting (and valuable) version that I prefer:
- Sit in the past and consider yourself in the present.
- Sit in the future and consider yourself in the present.
This version requires a more flexible and dynamic imagination—it requires you to create a world around your past and future self and imagine yourself in it—but it unlocks two meaningful use cases.
- Professional: The Gap & The Gain: Creating a useful framework for professionals, authors Benjamin Hardy and Dan Sullivan wrote a book on the importance of thinking about both (1) the gap between where you are and where you want to be and (2) the gain between where you were and where you are. Mental Time Travel untethers you from the present and allows you to zoom into the future to see the gap and into the past to see the gain.
- Personal: Gratitude Practice: Whenever I find myself lacking gratitude, I try to shift back in time to remember just how amazed my younger self would be at all I have built. Most importantly, my younger self never could have imagined the relationships and love I am surrounded by. That is where my gratitude is centered.
Implementing both the professional and personal use cases into your life will create an immediate benefit.
Questions to Guide Your Time Travel
To help guide your time traveling journey, here are some of the question prompts I use, categorized by time travel to the past or future.
Questions for Time Travel to the Past
- What was my definition of enough 5 years ago and how does it compare to my definition today? This question is useful to address the changing goalposts that we all encounter. Forcing the shifting definition of "enough" to the top of your mind makes it a conscious choice rather than a subconscious one.
- What would my 5 year younger self be proud of me for? Am I proud of myself for those things in the present? It's easy to overlook all of your growth and progress in the moment. We all need to take a bit more time to feel proud of ourselves.
Questions for Time Travel to the Future
- If you woke up in 10 years and were in flow, what actions did you take that got you there? I've always loved this question for its ability to help reflect on key actions now that create flow later. Rome wasn't built in a day, and your flow life isn't either. Steady, incremental progress in the direction of your dream life is what will create it.
- If you woke up in 10 years and everything were broken, what went wrong? This pre-mortem exercise is useful inversion to avoid the obvious potholes along the way.
- If everything else stayed the same, what one variable would create the biggest positive change? Distilling change down to a single key variable is a useful way to avoid intimidation. What is the one thing that really matters? Start there and build.
- Imagine you're living your ideal day in the future, what are you doing? How does it differ from your current day? Forming an understanding of the difference between your current professional day and your ideal professional day is a worthwhile endeavor. This awareness will allow you to start taking small, steady actions to bridge that gap.
Mental Time Travel is a neat tool for your professional or personal life. Use it regularly to appreciate the present and clarify the actions to build your ideal future.