Do you look to the future too much?

Graham Jones
5 min readNov 18, 2023

It has been a strange week in the UK world of politics. A blast from the past — the former Prime Minister, David Cameron — was brought back into government as, apparently, he represents the future. If you caught the news, you could have been forgiven for thinking that they were showing an old videotape. But they weren’t.

While the changes to the UK Government were going on, I was in a meeting where people seemed to want to focus on what happened in the past. I got a little frustrated and suggested that “we cannot change the past, we can only influence the future”. I tried to get people to consider where we were headed with the project, rather than how we got to where we were.

I came out of that meeting and checked the news, only to discover that the new Dr Who of the future is the old Dr Who from the past…! The popular TV series, Dr Who, is currently celebrating 60 years of time travel, and is bringing back a previous doctor, the actor David Tennant, before the character transforms once again into a new person.

I’m baffled — what is the past or the future? I’ve got work colleagues looking at the past while I’m trying to focus on the future. I’ve got an iconic TV series playing about with the past and the future. And then I’ve got politicians from the past masquerading as the future. What is going on? Next, you’ll be telling me the Beatles have a new album out. Oh…!

Luckily, new research points the way to a solution to my confusion. The study, from the University of Toronto and Stanford, looked at the language in over 800,000 online reviews to discover which were the most persuasive. The researchers separated the reviews into those using words indicating the past, the present, or the future. It became clear that words in the present tense are the most persuasive. For instance, the study shows that when someone reviews a product with wording like “the experience IS great” it is more persuasive than when a review says, “the experience WAS great” or “the experience WILL BE great”.

From a basic psychological perspective, this makes good sense. The future is unknown, hence psychologically it presents something of a potential threat to us. Our survival instincts kick and make us somewhat fearful. The past is history, and even though our memories can provide a place of safety, we know there’s nothing that can be done as a result of living in the past. Hence, your brain is most comfortable when it is in the present.

I was reminded of being told to be “in the present moment” when I attended a workshop on “improv comedy”. The instructor, who runs a highly successful improv group in Brighton called The Maydays, told me “don’t try to predict what other performers might say. Improv only works if you live in the moment”.

That’s a very useful notion in business too. My mistake in the meeting was to talk about the future. For some of my colleagues, that’s a psychological threat, so they retreat to their place of comfort, which is the past. To get people to move with me, it would have been better to focus on the here and now. As the Toronto research shows, language that is present tense is more persuasive. (Do you see what I did there?)

However, communication is more than just language. Gestures are important too, of course. And in print, the positioning of items indicates whether something is past, present, or future. For instance, online you will often find some service for sale in three varieties, such as Bronze, Silver, and Gold. They are usually arranged in a horizontal table showing the features available in each option. We tend to think that the first column is the past, because we read it first. The last column is the future, so that seems uncomfortable. Hence, we treat the middle column as the present and that is the one that always gets the most clicks. Hint: if you want to sell things online, put them in three columns with your most profitable option in the middle. Most people will click on that because psychologically the position represents the present.

Other positional factors also come into play with our sense of the past and the future. In many cultures, the future is thought to be in front of you. We talk about “looking ahead” to the future. But in some parts of South America and Vietnam, the future is thought to be physically behind an individual. Confused? Some parts of China conceptualise the future as being downward, and the past is above them.

So, if you gesture to your idea of the future in a meeting, and you have other cultures in the room, you could confuse them. You might even be pointing to their idea of the past. You are therefore much more persuasive by focusing on the present, thereby avoiding any cultural differences.

When you think about it, businesses tend to focus too much either on the future or the past. We hear “that’s not the way we used to do it”, from people scared by our future focus. Or we hear “we shouldn’t be doing that, instead we should do this”, from people who don’t have our vision of the future but have an alternative more psychologically comfortable one. Yet, if we think about it, we only get to the future by what we are doing right now. Do the wrong things now, in the present, and the future will be bleak. Do the right things now and that future will be OK.

There is increasing evidence that successful leaders are “present”. The notion of “present leadership” is that good leaders exist in the moment, rather like great improv actors. Leaders who spend their time focusing on the future are not “in the room”.

People get uncomfortable talking about the future. They may not share your vision. Exist in the moment, in the present, and you will be able to take your team with you to your future, as you will be more persuasive.



Graham Jones

Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who helps business understand online customer behaviour