For creatures that supposedly only exist in the present, we sure do a lot of time traveling. We worry about tomorrow, we fret over yesterday, and all the while our current status gets neglected.
Some of our most distracting worries aren't even the current ones. Frequently we'll drag ourselves down by worrying about tomorrow and whether we're really ready for it, or we'll fail to get things done today because we're still beating ourselves up for the gaffe we made yesterday, or for not doing something we planned on doing. If we're going to make the best of our efforts to relieve stress and get to where we want to be, we need to make a habit of making the most out of the present, instead of letting time-traveling worries get the best of us.
Step #1 - You're OK
One mistake we often fall into is trying to stop thinking about something without substituting anything in its place. This isn't really possible, because the act of trying to stop thinking means you are thinking. For example, try to go 10 minutes without thinking about a polar bear on a beach. It's hard, isn't it?
Instead, substitute a positive thought for the negative ones. When you feel yourself worrying about tomorrow or fretting about something that happened, interrupt the process. Take a deep, steadying breath, and say aloud "I am OK now." What happened has happened, you can't change it. What's going to happen isn't here yet, and there's probably time to plan for it. Instead, focus yourself on what's good in the here and now, and remind yourself of it.
Step #2 - Physical Reminders
Habits grow stronger when they have a physical component to go along with the action themselves. The reason many religious rituals are so ingrained into our culture is the physical parts that reinforce the idea and help build the habit. Take advantage of this by carrying around an "I'm OK" card.
On one side of the card, write "I'm OK" along with three reasons. "I'm OK because... there's food in the house," or "I'm OK because... I live in a beautiful neighborhood to walk in." Your reasons can be your own, but make sure they appeal to you and your sense of well-being.
On the other side of the card, write down three things you've accomplished recently. Big or small -- doesn't matter, just put down something you've managed to do. Once you've verified your reasons for being OK, flip over and remind yourself of your progress and that it's helped bring you to the point of being OK. Do this every time you start to worry about the past, present or future, and build a steady habit of controlling your thoughts.
Step #3 - Take "Now" Actions
As we've said, activities can help bring your thoughts to the present instead of stuck in time travel mode. Play a game with your family, or play with a pet. These activities will force you to the present, and keep your mind focused on something specific.
Alternatively, stop and read a book for a few minutes. It doesn't have to be a long time, just enough time to start following the plot of the story instead of worrying about problems that are either gone or not yet here. Interestingly, our brains can process things on multiple levels. When we sleep or relax, our brains aren't completely "off." They're often working on our problems behind the scenes without bothering our conscious mind. So let your brain do the work for you while you enjoy yourself and live in the moment.
Step #4 - Be Impulsive
Our thoughts get into patterns, just like our behaviors do. Sometimes even a verbal interruption and a look at our card isn't going to be a drastic enough change. This is OK, because that isn't their purpose. Those steps and habit-building behaviors are intended to work gradually over an extended period of time. They mold our behavior steadily. However, sometimes you need more of a shock to get things worked on.
Take a day off of work if you have it, and go somewhere exciting. Ride a roller coaster at an amusement park, or go see a really great movie you've been considering for a bit. Do something outside your normal routine and force your mind to engage with it. This can help you get your mind in the right context to make your smaller, more gradual steps more effective the next day.
Step #5 - Talk it Up
Sometimes, we need a little help. Building a habit can be easier when we have a partner, after all. Make a point of talking to someone about how good things are, and how things are working out for you. A conversation focused on the present is a great way to get your attention centered in the here and now.
As with all habits, talking works best when it's part of a routine. Make an appointment for the same time of day or time of week to meet with your talking buddy. Have a nice, no-strings and no-worries chat over coffee every Friday, and let your mind relax from its time traveling worries.