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Do it for Your Future Self

by Beth on November 16th, 2020

Most of us know what we need to do to be happier and healthier. We know things like eating healthy food, exercising, and getting enough sleep will boost our mental well-being and prevent us from developing disease. Yet knowing is a lot easier than doing.

We humans aren’t very good at making short-term sacrifices in order to reap benefits in the long run. We aren’t wired that way. Our reward circuitry pushes us to look for instant gratification. Our brains prefer to settle for a smaller present reward rather than waiting for a larger future reward. This present bias is what leads to an intention-action gap.

One way to reduce this gap is to think about your desired future self. Imagining who you want to be in the future can help you take the necessary steps in the present to become that person. Do you want to have enough money saved to retire in five years? What kind of house do you want to be able to afford? Do you want to be a person who is healthy and energetic enough to travel, play with your grandchildren, or go on long hikes with your partner? Do you want to own your own company?

The more vividly you are able to see your future self, the easier it is to make choices today that will benefit that person. Dan Goldstein has done some great research using computer simulations to show people the tradeoffs between how much they invest today and how much money they will have in retirement. He makes the scenarios more real by including computer generated pictures of people when they are older. You can see his TED Talk here.

Writing about your desired future self can help you visualize who you want to be more clearly. Thinking about that future version of you as another person, someone you need to look out for, can increase your empathy toward your future self. This may help reduce present bias so you will make smarter decisions for the long-term. Your present self may think skipping a workout or eating an unhealthy meal won’t make much of a difference, but your future self knows that all of the small choices you make today will determine who you become.

If there is something you know you should do, but you don’t have the motivation to do it, think about what your future self would want you to do. Picturing your future self enjoying retirement might make it a little easier to control your online shopping. When you make a good choice, imagine your future self giving you a high five. Celebrating will increase the likelihood that you repeat the desired behavior.

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