Let Go of Linear Thinking: Embrace the Past-Future-Present Mindset


One of the enduring lessons of the classic 80s film Back to the Future, besides the importance of standing up to the Biffs of the world, is that any efforts to alter the past will wreak havoc on the future. And the fact that changing the past is impossible, even if you have a DeLorean and a flux capacitor, doesn’t keep those of us in the real world from trying, whether we realize it or not.

“We need to change the way we think about time,” writes Workfront CEO Alex Shootman in his insightful book, Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Top Leaders Get Work Done Today. “The human brain is flawed: We think about what happened in the past, and we spend today trying to fix yesterday so that we can get to tomorrow. This is linear thinking: past, present, future. And it’s wrong.”

If this is our default — and I believe that it is — then what’s so wrong about it? I’ll let Alex explain: “You can’t fix anything that happened in the past. Working today to fix yesterday is a complete waste of time.”

If that statement is blowing your mind a little, then you’re not alone. On the one hand, it’s completely obvious. We all know (with the exception of Doc Brown and Marty McFly) that the past is over and nothing can be done to change it. Well, we know that if we think consciously about it. But subconsciously, it’s all too easy to get bogged down in trying to correct past wrongs in the present — or to expect what worked in the past to continue working, despite changing circumstances (hello, digital work crisis). These ways of thinking tend to be our default, in fact.

Linear Thinking in Action

“Wait, I’m not stuck in the past,” you might be telling yourself. “I focus on what needs to get done. I’m productive. I live in the moment!” That may be true, but the dangers of linear thinking can be incredibly subtle. Here are two examples:

1. Imagine a couple who were both raised by absent, workaholic, or distracted parents. They decide they will do things differently in their family, so their children don’t suffer the way they did. Inadvertently, though, they helicopter and hover a little too much. The children, rather than being grateful for involved and present parents, feel suffocated and resentful, vowing that they’ll give their kids much more freedom. And the cycle continues.

What was the problem here? Well the parents’ primary desire was to overcome or compensate for the past, rather than focus on the needs of the present or a vision of the future.

2. Imagine a company that developed a fresh competitive formula that brought them great success for years, probably due to “a distinctive combination of strategies, processes, relationships, and values,” as Harvard Business Review puts it. Leadership detects dramatic shifts happening in the marketplace, so they carefully analyze the implications and unleash a proactive plan of action. They do more things, and they do them faster and better than ever. But, rather than digging themselves out of a hole, they end up making the hole deeper.

What was the problem? Without realizing it, this company was stuck in the modes of thinking and behaving that brought them success previously. But they needed to do new and different things, not more of the same. (See the tragic story of Firestone Tires for a perfect example of this kind of “active inertia” and unconscious devotion to the status quo.)

Letting Go of Linear Thinking

While on a road trip with a friend, she played me excerpts of the Eckhart Tolle audiobook, The Power of NOW. I listened to his strange but oddly soothing voice say things like:

Whatever your thoughts about New Age gurus and the mind-bending advice they give, you can’t argue that Tolle has a point here. We have zero control over the past or the future. The past is over, gone. And as for the future, we could get struck by a meteor tomorrow. So what can we control? Only what we think, choose, and do right now, in this very moment. And in this very moment, we get to decide how much control we’ll allow our memories of the past to have over us, as well as our fears and anticipation about the future.

“Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future, and not enough presence,” writes Tolle. “Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

Okay, got it. Focus on the now. Be present. The current moment is all we have. Now what?

Shaping the Path

The reason I took you on that brief but intense inward journey into the philosophy of time is because the realization that the present moment is the only real thing can be incredibly empowering. As Alex says in his book, “You can fix where you’re going.” But you have to do it in the NOW.

“Think about where you’ve been, where you want to get to, and how you can shape today to reach where you want to be tomorrow,” advises Alex. “You need to think: past, future, present. This simple but fundamental change of mindset will focus you and your stakeholders on forward progress rather than getting mired in an endless cycle of trying to fix past mistakes.”

One tool Alex has introduced organizationally is known as a “constituent analysis,” which has not only helped us balance the needs of customers, employees, and shareholders, but it has also helped us maintain our focus on where we want to be in the future — rather than where we’ve been or where we are now.

Here’s how it works. Alex brought the leadership team together and gave them a pile of sticky notes. He invited everyone to write down what customers say about our company today (what they like, what they want, and what they need) and stick the notes to the wall. Then he repeated the exercise, asking what shareholders and employees say about our company. Then he asked what we’d like each of these groups to say about our company 3-5 years from now. From this exercise, a service statement emerged that helps us ensure we’re always focusing today’s efforts on the right work. Because, as we know, today is all there is.

“I have run this same exercise hundreds of times over twenty-five years,” Alex says, “and I’ve always landed on a great outcome. [It] gives people the opportunity to see that their concerns and ideas are like their teammates’. If you believe, as I do, that the answer to any question lies within your team, you can save time and energy by just asking them. The wisdom is in the room. All you need to do is tap into it.”

Your Turn

To try this brief exercise with your organization, download the worksheet from chapter two of Done Right. Or pick up your copy of the book to see how this exercise fits into a larger framework of practical exercises designed to help organizations clarify their purpose, shape the path forward, and remain perpetually focused on the best next action.

In the immortal words of Dr. Emmett Brown, “Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.” And start now.