Let go of the future to do great work now
We can’t control everything, but we do have control over the time we have now.
Welcome to the second issue of Slice of Life — A newsletter about my personal guide to living a more examined life (as a creator). I do this through thoughts and lessons learned from anime or films.
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We have the tendency to over-worry and overthink because we want to ensure a better outcome for our futures. So, imagine you have the ability to see into the future. All your worries can easily be resolved since you’re able to see and control the outcomes, right? Not necessarily.
Based on a 12th-century Japanese epic tale, Heike Monogatari tells a story about a young orphan named Biwa who has the ability to see snippets of the future. The eldest son of the powerful Taika clan took her in with the hope that she would use her power to save his clan. However, haunted by the deaths of her loved ones and the inability to control the outcomes, she swears to only keep the future she sees to herself.
She’s burdened with this power (or a curse?), sometimes to the point of driving herself mad in fear for someone’s future. But what I admire about her is that rather than obsessing over changing the future, she tries to spend as much time as she can with her newfound family in the present time.
Most people would give anything to see into the future, but it’s easy to become so engrossed in it that we forget to live in the present.
It can seem frightening to not know what lies beyond the present. I’ve been there too. We can be unsure where to start or whether our efforts would amount to anything to the point we become too focused on the future, forgetting the present. Even as I write this piece, I’ve been staring at the empty space because of the uncertainty of writing a “good” piece.
It’s easy to say “live in the present” and “smell the roses” because deep down I’m sure that’s what we’d all love to be doing — to stop worrying and start doing.
So what can we do to overcome the need to control the future? Here are three ways you can do to help ease your anxieties about the unknown.
Document your past wins and challenges
When you look back at past wins and the challenges it took to make them a reality, you’ll realise those hardships weren’t so bad in the end. When we look to the future, we see uncertainty, which makes us forget that we have always been more than capable of dealing with ambiguity.
I do a weekly review before the new week starts. I reflect on what happened, both the wins and the lessons I learned. Sometimes I look back at them to remind myself of my accomplishments so far, no matter how small they may be. The little things still count.
Document your wins and lessons. When in doubt, return to them again to remind yourself that you overcame those obstacles. You’ll be surprised and amazed at how much you were capable of back then. You still are.
So, try not to be too concerned that you aren’t equipped for the challenges ahead. Have faith that if your past self did it, your future self will too.
Even if things don’t go as planned, you will learn and grow as a result of the experience. And if they do go as expected, celebrate.
And don’t forget to document it for your future self.
Acknowledge that you can’t control everything
We cannot control or even clearly visualise the distant future. We can try to prepare and plan for it or even challenge the need for certainty but don’t fall into the trap of trying to over-futureproof your work.
There’s only so much we can do to plan and prepare. The only way to move forward is to do the actual work. What we can control is what we do with the time that we have now.
You can start by taking small steps forward while accepting the future as it unfolds.
The future is filled with uncertainty, but uncertainty is a natural part of life. I worry a lot too especially as a creator. But all we can do is accept and remind ourselves that we don’t have control over everything.
The future we have the most control over is in the next minute or two. Take action over the things that we can control. So, what will you do in that given time?
Small progress is still progress
Slow progress is better than no progress. It may not seem obvious but small progress compounds over time. Consider writing 100 words a day. It might not appear like a lot at first, but if you make it a daily habit for a month, you’ll have a full article (or chapter, story, etc) ready. If you stick to your daily word count, you’ll have both a finished writing piece and a daily writing habit in the end, which is a win-win!
But when we get too caught up with the mountain of work ahead of us, we become so overwhelmed that we’re afraid to start. Even with a clear to-do list and clear outcomes in mind, sometimes we may still feel paralyzed.
So, instead of inaction, what might be the best thing to do is to break down the task into smaller chunks, and work on those. Take it one day at a time, or one hour, or even down to the minute.
When in doubt, I try to break things down into a smaller perspective, rather than focusing on a large task ahead of me. For example, I broke down my process in writing this piece.
I began with a rough outline with three main points.
I made bullet points for each point.
I expanded these sections into sentences by brain dumping everything I want to say.
Edit. Edit. Edit.
But I didn’t complete all these steps in a single day. In fact, I was struggling with them for the past week. But I did make a bit of progress every day. Small progress is still progress.
Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Start the work first, and make improvements after that. In the context of writing, just write. Brain dump all the things you want to say in your writing. Edit ruthlessly later.
One thing I keep forgetting is that we’re still able to go back and revise our work. Published your blog post already? It’s okay to make minor changes later. If it’s in video and audio format, you can still take it as a lesson and apply it in your next piece instead.
All in all, try to keep in mind that we only have this moment in time to do our work. The rest is either history or what’s yet to come. For what’s yet to come, let it unfold itself naturally.
So, how does this all tie back to Biwa and her ability to see the future?
It’s more of a reminder to myself that even though when things may appear bleak and we have no control over the predicted outcomes, at least we have this moment of time for ourselves. We only have this moment, so why not try to make the best of it?
“What are you afraid of?”
“The future. The future frightens me.”
“Thought the future and the dark may be frightening, this present moment… is beautiful.”
— Shigemori to Biwa. (Source: Heike Monogatari, Episode 2)
🙌 Big thanks to Nicolás Forero and Jillian Anthony for contributing feedback and edits to this piece. Thanks to Jillian for the title idea! Also to Joel Christiansen, Theresa "Sam" Houghton, and Caryn Tan for the initial idea feedback.
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Thanks for this meditation on writing, Yihui. Very helpful as I am about to participate in National Novel Writing Month, which is all about getting the words down in the present, pushing away doubt and discouragement, knowing that I can come back and edit later. Letting it flow in the now is the important thing.
Enjoyed this!! Especially the screen captures from your favourite anime/films Yihui they are gorgeous! Pleading face what a cool way to guide your reflections. Tempted to check out Heike Monogatari bc of your re-telling now <3