Your Health Horizon

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By Mark Lundegren

If you are willing, I would like to spend a few minutes with you looking into the future, into your future in particular, and your place and future health in it.

As you have probably noticed before, whenever we talk or think about things in the future, it is inevitably with some time horizon in mind, whether this horizon is expressly stated, or left unsaid or even unnoticed.  When we say we have some errands to run, for example, we are probably thinking two or three hours into the future.  When we think that we or someone else needs to make changes to our lives, our time horizon may be in weeks or months, or years.

Depending on the topic, our future time horizon may be very short, perhaps just a few minutes or even only a few seconds.  Or our horizon may be very long, perhaps hundreds or millions of years, especially when the topic is an abstract one.  Our human minds are quite powerful and capable of embracing both expansive and minute frames of reference.

Today, I would like to help you to see, as clearly and carefully as you can, the time horizon that underlies your ideas about your health and that you are using to influence your future health.  Let’s call this exercise together, “seeing your health horizon.”

Our Naturally Near Horizon

Whenever we seek to balance the demands and immediacy of the present with goals for the future and their more intangible nature, it is very easy for us to end up with a less than ideal timeframe, or time or health horizon, especially one that is overly and undesirably biased to the present and to ourselves as we are today.  While this is a fact of life, rooted in the demands of our original life in nature, it is also a limitation that we can better understand and at least partially overcome, with many benefits to our life and health over time. 

You might be tempted to think that it is fairly easy to catch ourselves in a misalignment of our short and long-term goals and actions, and to adjust our frame of reference, our health horizon in this case, to make it more optimal.  It is true that we can do this, but it usually entails more work and more expansive self-awareness than we may intuitively realize.  We should recognize that all of us are fighting against our basic nature, to some degree, whenever we seek to optimize our health horizon in a more objective sense – and we can and should derive a sense of both humility and new opportunity from this recognition. 

We are evolved by wild nature, after all, to function in wild nature.  Ten thousand years of settled life have done little to change this long fact, one that is at least a billion years old (or one hundred thousand times the duration of settled human life).  In our lives today, our evolved nature may mean powerful natural biases and shortcomings in our time or health horizon that we must confront, especially as we seek to optimize our health and lives in the complex new setting of industrial society (roughly one hundred years old or 0.0001% of our history) and increased individual longevity.  So often, we are overly and unconsciously biased to the short-term and to the present, forgetting our past and inadequately attending to the now far more certain condition that is our future.  We perhaps have longer-term goals but often can fail to adequately focus on them each day, or we really may be immersed in the present and have not carefully considered our future or assume it will be much like today.

Two examples will help to make clearer this natural bias of ours toward the short-term, especially as regards our health.  One example is the very common case where we have sound and realistic long-term health goals, all the right ideas, but poor to non-existent fulfillment of these goals day-by-day.  Something always seems to come up, or is brought up, to prevent us from working on our health.  As the days combine to form months and then years, a consistent pattern of inattention to our long-term health emerges in our lives – and we may only partially see this pattern and really need new perspective and motivation to change.  Good intentions alone, of course, only rarely lead to good health over time.

Another example of having too short a health horizon occurs when we successfully adopt health practices, but see them without a long-term or broader context.  In this case, we may view our health in a way that is biased to the moment and the particulars of our circumstances, even as a set of urgent activities to be completed at all costs.  We often can see this variation on a short health horizon take the form of our having rigid ideas about our health or our being dogmatic with others about specific health practices and lifestyle choices.  In this overly myopic focus on specific elements of our health, we may fail to see new and more open-ended dimensions of our health, perhaps jeopardize long-term relationships with others that are essential to our health over time, and even miss important opportunities to advance the health of other people and improve the quality of our communities (and thus support for our health).

Sustained and optimal health enhancement, of course, inevitably involves a health horizon somewhat longer than these two intentionally extreme examples, or more precisely, creating a health horizon that consciously integrates short, medium, and long-term perspectives.  It is really only by mastering all three timeframes – by having a balanced set of personal goals and actions for short, medium, and long-term future – that we can optimize our health horizon and use it to drive sustained progress towards the higher states of health that are available to us.

Why is this?  Because short-term success is always essential to tangible progression of our health at any point in time, as well as to high motivation to pursue our health, while long-term goals are equally important to inform and inspire our present actions, and to make our health plans true plans and not just a static set of practices.  Mid-term goals thus form a bridge of sorts between what we must do today, and perhaps every day, and what new things we must eventually do to become what we want to be and shape our future health and life. 

For example, suppose we want to be optimally healthy and well throughout our lives and enjoy a long and robust elderhood that includes teaching and frequent wilderness experiences with others.  Such mid and long-term objectives beg shorter term goals and actions to make the future more tangible, give us feedback and allow us to revise our plans, and make our plans more likely to become our result.  Consideration of the near and more distant future requires us to articulate what we will do today, this week and month (diet, exercise, etc.) to advance to our personal vision, and to think about larger changes we must make over the next year or more (changing jobs or locations, education and personal development, new relationships, etc.) to better position ourselves to realize our aims.

Seeing Your Own Health Horizon

So, with this background as perspective, are your ready to view your own health horizon?  I will warn you up front, it may not be elegant the first time you do.  But seeing our health horizon is important, an inevitable first step to optimizing it, so let’s take a deep breath together and have a look at this key feature of our personal landscape.

To see your health horizon today, I want you to do an exercise over the next few minutes.  The scope of the exercise is to list your primary health and well-being goals, whether on a sheet of paper or in word processing or spreadsheet program.  Start by brainstorming and free associating, writing whatever comes to mind without editing for a few minutes, the key health outcomes you want to achieve in your life.  When you feel you have made a good start, go ahead and have look at your list, and add to and edit it as needed. 

When you have a good rough list, next try to get the list down (or up) to the ten or twelve things you most want for your health, or that you want to accomplish in the realm of your health and wellness.  Keep any extra goals in an “other” category so you can come back to them later.  When you are done, you’ll know it.  You will look at the list and say, “this is what I want, ideally.”  Your list might involve weight loss, physical fitness, relationships, stress, occupation, location, really whatever it is you want to enhance the health and well-being of your life.  It may include some items that seem a real stretch today too.  All are fine, as long as they are real priorities for you and your list is not overly long.

When you have your health wish list in reasonably good shape, knowing you can come back to it whenever you want, go back to your list again and put one of the following numbers next to each entry, corresponding to when you realistically will act on or accomplish the health goal or priority: “1” for action or completion in the next one to three months, “3” for action or completion in the next three to six months, “6” for action of completion in the next six to twelve months, and “12+” for action or completion in the next year or more.

Now, have a look at the numbers you wrote down.  Ideally, you should have a nearly equal number of items for the one, three, six and twelve-plus month categories, but as I warned you this may not be the case the first time through.  Often, as we consciously look at our health horizon for the first time, we may see a bunching up or clustering of our goals in either the near, mid, or long-term.  This is very common and nothing to worry about, since you now have new information you can use to adjust and optimize your horizon to make it the way you really want it to be.  Two common patterns are a clustering of goals in the long-term and in the short-term.  Long-term clustering suggests the archetype we discussed already of good intentions but less than stellar execution day-by-day.  Short-term clustering suggests the other archetype, excessive pragmatism and the potential of health myopia, and an opportunity to recast our health (and perhaps our life) from a familiar and comforting routine to a more open-ended progression that continually challenges us to discover our health and life in new ways.

I should note that a common question is why 12+ months is considered long-term.  It is possible that some actions or goals that fall into this category may feel more mid-term to you.  My experience is that we want the center of our health horizon to be squarely in the realm of actions we will take in the year ahead, with some short-term actions to show ourselves we are serious and build momentum, some actions requiring changes and experiments over the next few months, and then some long-term actions teed up for once we get past the hump and likely learnings of the next six to twelve months.  You may well find that we often do not act directly on goals that are more than a year away, but there are exceptions of course.  If you want to adjust your categories, feel free to do so.  The goal here is self-awareness and a more balanced and informed action plan aimed at sustained and progressive health in our lives.

Because of its simplicity, the health horizon exercise is a great tool to help you better see your personal time horizon with regards to your health, and to evaluate or formulate your actions and plans against what may be a more ideal timeframe.  You can of course also add in goals from other areas or dimensions of your life and thus have a single list of actions and plans for yourself – see the HumanaNatura article, Bending A Spoke Into Your Hub, for a list of other life dimensions.  Questions to ask, in reviewing any and all of your goals and plans, include: Do I have the right number of goals, neither too many nor too few?  Are my goals really what I want, are they compelling and heartfelt?  Are my goals realistic for their time periods, neither too easy nor too difficult?  And do I have a good mix of goals for each time period of the exercise?  If your answer is “no” to any of these questions, or if you are not sure, definitely spend some more time, now or in the next week, refining your list and the scope and timing of your goals and actions.

As you begin to perceive and reflect on your health horizon today, you almost immediately will begin to envision what a more ideal and balanced personal health horizon might look like for you.  Our minds are funny like that.  Though they are naturally biased to and preoccupied with the present and our present circumstances, our minds will work more optimally and quite diligently for us to examine and improve our plans – once we reframe issues in ways that make such natural human calculating more objectively and ideally focused (the importance of consciously framing issues is an extremely important point, perhaps the most important of our discussion today and one that has many applications in our lives). 

With your health horizon reframed and made more explicit, you will likely begin to naturally and perhaps surprisingly consider and re-consider the objectives and goals you now have, how your actions today serve and do not serve them, the time horizon implicit in your life and in your current uses of your time, and the alternatives you might have for the future. 

Moving Up And Over Our Horizon

I would encourage you to come back to your goals worksheet over the next month, and then again at least twice a year, so that you are always actively aware of and managing your time and health horizon.  Naturally, as we complete or implement today’s short and mid-term goals, we learn and grow from these experience, and new ideas and challenges inevitably surface.  Our set of goals and priorities can and should always be in motion, reflecting the healthy tension between reality and ideality that our open-ended life as thinking, forward-looking humans is inevitably.

Today, and over time, I would encourage you to see and define your own health horizon, especially through the timing implicit in your own goals and action plans (and to make your goals and plans more explicit in the process).  You may be surprised at what you find in this process, especially over time. You may discover opportunities to see and adjust your health and life horizon in new ways, to add new goals and work around barriers to them in more creative ways, and to find an ideal balance between the near and far, all combining to bring new and greater health, growth, and fulfillment to your life.

As you better see, understand, and then actively shape your personal horizon, you may find that your vision, your health, and your life are all brought into greater focus and better integrated to form the unique whole that you are, and that you can envision and become in time.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

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