The way I deal with stress is to look ahead five years into the future.
This was challenging when I was sick with COVID-19, because I wasn’t even sure I had five days in my personal future. Even at the time, though, I was positive that the pandemic would be over by then. Maybe things would end badly for me, but it was likely that my friends and family would be doing okay in five years.
A lot can happen in five years. It seems like a long time to a kid, but the older you get, the more you start to realize that what adults have always told you is true. Time passes more and more quickly, or at least our subjective, experiential sense of it.
I just had a conversation with my boss in which I mentioned possibly going back to school in academic year 2022. That seems like a minute from now, because I know from past experience that the application deadline for that year will come up so quickly that I’ll barely have a year to study for the GRE. It seems entirely likely that it will take five years or more to get my PhD, and that doesn’t even feel like a big deal. At 45, I know that I’ll either be five years older anyway... or I won’t. Might as well plan for what is the most likely future.
A lot can happen in five years. I started running as a complete amateur and non-athlete, unable to run around one block in my neighborhood without stopping to walk. Four years later I was chugging along in my first marathon. It never even occurred to me to aim for such a thing when I started. All I wanted to do was to run a two-mile loop, and I thought it would take me all year to train for it.
Five years is a long enough span of time that conditions can completely change. I met my ex-husband, moved in with him, married him, and signed the divorce papers in less time than that. I haven’t laid eyes on him in twenty years now. What was once the epic drama of my life is something that I now rarely think about at all.
What else has happened within five years? In a five-year span, I dropped five clothing sizes. Within five years, I paid off two credit cards and my Pell grant.
In five years, a new baby could be conceived, born, and grown enough to ride a bike with training wheels and write her own name.
It took our dog four years to learn to roll over. But by then, he could also do a bunny hop in a circle and play Red Light, Green Light.
I keep reminding myself of these things because sometimes, looking backward is soothing. In retrospect it’s often easier to recognize good times of relative peace and tranquility. In the moment, any kind of stress or drama feels major. Looking back makes it clear which were high mountain peaks and which were merely mild rolling hills.
Looking forward involves more guesswork. We aren’t always very good at that.
The thing about predicting the future is that some things will remain precisely the same - like my parents’ dining room table; I’m pretty sure that will be the same in another five years, just like it was five years ago. Other things will change in a radical way that we never could see coming.
Some of these changes from my own lifetime include voicemail, racecar-shaped VHS tape rewinders, refrigerators with ice makers, Wikipedia, Twitter, streaming Netflix, Crocs, the Instant Pot, and a commercial space industry.
We won’t be able to predict everything about daily life five years from now, in 2025. We can, though, do a lot to predict our own daily lives, by making decisions about how we will live them. This is why I like the five-year span, because it’s long enough to be ambitious but near enough that Future Me +5 is somewhat recognizable.
I can ask myself, what is Future Me 50 going to be like if I do this, that, or this?
If I choose to go to bed now or two hours from now, night after night? If I choose to eat more greens or more sweets? If I schedule that dentist appointment, or not? If I save this amount or if I spend it all on random stuff from Amazon?
Is Future Me +5 going to fit in these clothes I’ve been saving, or not? Is she going to want to wear them at all? Is that version of me ever going to [clear out the storage unit or keep paying for it] or [pay off that credit card or not] or [finish my degree or not] or reach Inbox Zero or go on the vacation I dreamed about in high school?
Most things happen to us when we live in default mode. I recognize this tendency in myself, to hold my phone in my hand and scroll, scroll, scroll. Fortunately, I set my algorithms to include a lot of reptile news, so I probably read more about gator-related events than a lot of people. How many hours of my life, though, am I going to fritter away getting three-minute updates?
When we’re distracted in this way, we forget to reset our strategies for all the major things in life. Are we going to keep working at the same job, train for something else, change careers? Are we going to stay at the same address or pack and move? When are we going to retire? Do we have backup plans for when our parents or kids reach a certain age? Are we ever going to finish our passion projects - or start them?
It’s a mistake to get sucked too much into current events, passive entertainment, and shopping. What I mean by that is that research shows that it doesn’t make people any happier. It also doesn’t change a single darn thing. It’s up to each of us to find interesting and constructive ways to spend our time.
My recommendation is always to look ahead five years and ask, if things keep going along like this, what is likely to happen? Is that what we want for ourselves? Or is it not? And if not, what are we prepared to do about it?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
This website uses marketing and tracking technologies. Opting out of this will opt you out of all cookies, except for those needed to run the website. Note that some products may not work as well without tracking cookies.Opt Out of Cookies