As human beings, we have the unique ability to imagine different scenarios and outcomes, daydream up hopeful storylines, plan for the future, and even ruminate on disaster scenarios, regardless of how likely they may be. 

How can we strike the balance between blind optimism and cynical thinking to chart a path forward in an unpredictable world, especially when a pandemic offers us no reliable compass for planning ahead?

A newly released research report from coaching and mental fitness company BetterUp's research division, BetterUp Labs, is sharing insights on how future-minded thinking can help people thrive and stay resilient in the face of uncertainty.

The future of thinking

Psychologists refer to this future-mindedness as "prospection" -- the innate human ability to think about the future and envision what's possible.

In September 2021, BetterUp Labs launched a market survey of more than 1,500 U.S. workers and uncovered that people who harness future-mindedness can improve their personal and professional lives, even in spite of uncertainty and unpredictability.

The research found that people who balance optimistic action with thoughtful pragmatism and who imagine potential setbacks are more successful, hopeful, and less stressed than their peers who don't practice future-minded thinking. 

What does mean for the future of leadership? Mastering future-minded leadership is not about predicting or anticipating one future, but rather it's envisioning many different future states and possible paths. Instead of thinking about the future as a single target on a linear timeline, it's imagining a variety of futures that follow if-then statements. In other words, for a given set of "ifs," what are the possible "thens"?

This small but vital difference in planning helps future-minded leaders make more reasonable and flexible decisions that take future consequences -- both good and bad -- into account. 

Future-minded thinkers are less anxious and depressed

Those high in future-minded leadership report 34 percent less anxiety and 35 percent less depression than their peers, and they're more optimistic about the future, more productive, and have greater life satisfaction.

Research from Concordia University suggests that an inability to plan makes us feel powerless, which causes stress and emotional turmoil. To make plans in great uncertainty, we can envision alternative futures and hold mental, emotional, and strategic space for each. This can help us regain a sense of agency that takes the wind out of the sails of anxious rumination. The data shows that future-minded leaders are less anxious, and this is likely because they are less caught off-guard by inevitable changes to plans. 

Future-minded leaders have stronger performing teams

Future-minded leaders have to plan more and account for more contingencies. But the payoff can be significant. Although future-minded leaders spend 147 percent more time on planning in their lives and 159 percent more time planning in their work than those with low future-minded leadership skills, teams with a future-minded leader are 18 percent higher in performance, 18 percent higher in innovation, and 25 percent higher in agility. These teams are also 15 percent more resilient and 19 percent more engaged.

Collaborating with others improves future-minded leadership skills

Most people (82 percent) have significant room for improvement in at least one area of future-minded leadership -- whether that's in imagining various outcomes, setting sensible goals, or being flexible during execution. One way to improve your future-minded leadership is to collaborate with others versus working alone or being narrowly focused. Navigating interdependencies with others can help us build that muscle of envisioning consequences of decisions and plan for what's in or out of our control while exposing us to others' perspectives on the future. 

Ultimately, future-minded thinking enables us to generate a holistic picture of the ways things could go both wrong and right. By embracing that imaginative future focus -- balancing hopeful optimism with the pragmatism of contingency planning -- we can more readily and effectively forge ahead.