Look Out for Your Future SelfJun 22, 2023
Planning for a long life is complex (and increasingly an individual responsibility) where one must balance the needs and desires of today with those of tomorrow. Today’s desires are certain and palpable whereas tomorrow’s are hard to predict. Why should I pass on ice cream tonight if I risk becoming lactose intolerant in the future? On the other hand, a daily dose of ice cream increases the risk of diabetes which will negatively impact my quality of life in the future.
One of the tensions is how much do we prioritize today vs. tomorrow? In other words, how do we enjoy today yet look out for our future self?
Research by Hershfield shows that people tend to think of their future selves more like strangers than their current selves (Source: Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today)
We See Our Future Self as a Stranger
Part of the challenge in looking out for our future self is that we often lack an emotional connection to this future person. In his new book Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today, Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing, behavioral decision‑making, and psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, shows how most people can relate to their future self about as well as they can to a stranger. In some cases, our future selves may seem like different people all together.
Hershfield has used brain scans to demonstrate this effect. In a series of tests using a functional MRI (fMRI), participants showed a demonstrated difference in brain activity in responding to images that looked more like them than those that did not. Moreover, it revealed that the future self looks more like another person than like the current self, especially as the time scale is moved out.
This association to strangers matters because we treat strangers differently. We may be nice to strangers and help them out from time-to-time but there’s often a lack of self-interest when relating to strangers. It is hard to make good decisions to help your future self if you don’t see an obligation to do so.
You can also err on overprioritizing your future self
Ways to Make a Stronger Connection with Your Future Self
The relationships we have with our future selves play a key role in the decisions we make (i.e., ice cream vs no ice cream) and stronger connections to our distant selves are associated with positive long-term outcomes, such as enhanced financial well-being, a greater likelihood to exercise, and better psychological well-being.
How do we make stronger connections to our future selves so we can boost our willingness to adequately look out for our future? Hershfield suggests three ideas among others:
- Create Space to Think About Your Future Self. We’re obsessed by the present and challenged with countless distractions such that it is often hard to create the mental space to imagine your future self. However, taking time to think about what your future self may desire or need at least creates a competing narrative with desires of the present. One trick is to process a picture of yourself through an aging filter to get a perspective on what an older version of you may look like. This approach is not perfect, but it can help you think beyond your current self. Advances in virtual reality or augmented reality may be more effective in the future.
- Write a Letter to Your Future Self. Consider writing a letter to your future self, say 10 years from now. Write down what’s currently on your mind and heart and outline what you hope your life will look like at a future date. It will help you understand what changes may be required today to optimize the odds of arriving in your desired future. Seal, save and open the note on that future date. New York Times bestselling author, Ann Napolitano, has found this approach quite effective.
- Learn from Others. One simple approach is to observe and learn from others that are further along in life. There may be insights from within your family (parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) that are pertinent to you and your future self. At the same time, older friends and mentors can provide windows into their life that may give you a valuable perspective. These lessons may be as much about what not do as what to do.
Wisdom of Choosing the Right Place
Balancing your current self and future self comes into play in finding the right place to live. If you focus too much on your current self, you run the risk of overspending on housing or being in a place that is fine today but may be compromised in the future (see Avoiding the Doom Loop). On the other hand, if you focus too much on your future self, you may be in the wrong place for you to thrive today which, ironically, may negatively impact your future self. I have seen situations where older individuals have moved to senior living at a young age to make sure they have a plan for the future only to struggle to meet and develop friendships because they have little in common with other residents.
There is no magic formula for best weighing the needs and desires of your current self with your future self. However, recognize that most people err on the side of disproportionately favoring their current self. Whether it is figuring out life’s smaller decisions, like grabbing another scoop of ice cream, or larger decisions, like where to live, do yourself a favor and look out for your future self.
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