Despite the growing interest in future-oriented cognition in various areas of psychology, there is still little empirical data regarding the occurrence and nature of future-oriented thoughts in daily life. In this study, participants recorded future-oriented thoughts occurring in natural settings and rated their characteristics and functions. The results show that future-oriented thoughts occur frequently in daily life and can take different representational formats (more or less abstract), embrace various thematic contents (e.g. work, relationships) and serve a range of functions (e.g. action planning, decision making). The functions and characteristics of thoughts differed according to their temporal distance, with thoughts referring to the near future being more specific and serving action planning to a greater extent than thoughts concerning the far future. The characteristics of future thoughts were also related to affective content, with positive thoughts being more frequent, more specific, and associated with more visual images than negative thoughts. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.