Treat Your Future Self as Another Person… That You Like.
If the past is a foreign country, then the future is a foreign person.
Several studies conducted during the last decade via survey and MRI scans have revealed that we often treat our future selves like complete strangers.
That means a lot of us don’t perceive our future selves as the same person they are now — and this lot is worse at achieving goals, saving, and planning than those who don’t experience this strange disconnection. The reasons behind such discrepancy aren’t clear yet, but in itself it explains so many things.
This is why we stay up late. It’s someone else who has to wake up tired every day, not us. We get another couple of hours of fun, right?
That is why we procrastinate, because future us will deal with that project. Screw that guy, I am off to raid with my guild.
That’s why college students go partying instead of working on that darn essay. Someone else is going to pull an all-nighter to meet the deadline.
That is why well-educated intelligent people live paycheck-to-paycheck but keep up with Joneses. The pain of social disapproval is something experienced right now, while debt will be someone else’s problem.
No way out?
Default selfish mode of thinking is a vicious circle that keeps recreating itself.
Your past self has screwed you over once again — dumped all dirty chores on you or left you with a god-almighty hangover, or both. What can you do? You can’t get back at your past self — that’s not how things work, at least not in this universe. So the only one you can get back at is your future self. Yeah, screw that guy! He can live on fiver a day, and I will treat myself, I deserve it.
Don’t think that sounds like you? Conduct a little experiment. You don’t need an MRI scanner for that one.
Think about your workplace. Try to remember how that felt.
Now try imagining your workplace in five years (something they ask you to do during a job interview).
Notice a difference?
As for me and my colleagues I’ve quizzed, we imagined our present work in the first-person view. We saw ourselves from inside our head, doing our current job. We were ourselves.
Yet when we tried to imagine our workplace in five years, it was a third-person view. We saw ourselves as other people, from outside — how we would be dressed, how our haircut would be different, how we would lose or gain umpteen pounds.
Maybe that’s how our brain is wired from birth and there are two kinds of people — evolution likes to have options. Maybe it’s all about impulse control and delayed gratification like in a famous marshmallow test.
One linguistic research suggests that the grammar of your first language wires your brain a certain way and affects your saving habits.
That is, if your language has a distinct grammar form to describe the future (English, Greek, Arabic, and Romance languages), that makes your future self a bit harder to relate to. While speakers who use the same verb to speak about present and future (German, Chinese, Norwegian) are better at thinking about the future and, therefore, more inclined to save money.
On the other hand, maybe language only reflects the collective cultural attitudes, and the way we think about the future is learned from the people around us as we grow up. Science doesn’t have a well-defined answer yet.
Change the attitude
Maybe we can change how our brain works and reconnect with our future selves. Or maybe we cannot. Yet what we definitely can do is changing our attitude towards that guy we keep screwing over.
We can empathize with our future self. We can like them. We can take care of them. It’s a little attitude tweak, but it goes a long way.
I had a little epiphany some years ago. Back then I lived between my hometown and Seattle. I didn’t give up my old room in the apartment I shared with a flatmate, but I pretty much lived at my fiancée’s place in Seattle. I kept my room because I needed somewhere to stay when I visited my hometown on business, and that happened several times a year.
That time I came because my sister was at a hospital and needed my support. I was exhausted by the night bus ride, and I came to my place at the crack of dawn to leave the luggage and take a shower before I went to the hospital. I felt I needed a cup of coffee.
Among the stuff I hadn’t moved yet, there was a vintage manual coffee grinder and I reached out for it. As I did, I thought that I would probably skip that because I was too tired anyway. I would probably just have a vile instant potion from the coffee machine on the way to the hospital. That’s when I discovered that a sealed container was full of nice brown grind.
I almost teared up, I must confess. I was tired, sleep-deprived, worried sick about my sister, and here it was — something done for me, with care and love. Someone took care of me when I needed it badly. The fact that it was my past self didn’t matter much. I felt genuine gratitude.
I remembered how I ground that coffee before leaving last time, thinking “I will probably be too tired to hand-grind it for myself in the morning after the trip.” And it felt at present as if someone gave me a hug.
Now, I am not urging you to buy presents for yourself and send them with cutesy handwritten cards. That would be too close to personality disorder for comfort. Yet I ask you to think about your future self with affection as if it were your sister, brother, or a dear friend. Do something for them every day, just as you do for your loved ones. Put your future self on the list of people you care about.
This is the best you can do for your well-being.
You will see how suddenly it will become easier to put money away for a rainy day or to achieve your goals. You will see how you will get plenty of rest and eat healthier. How your home will become tidier and your schedule will be less full of chores and full of pleasant things to do.
Maybe that is the reason why we see how people who volunteer or donate to charities seem more content and prosperous. Some people would explain it with karma, or the Law of Attraction.
For me, it is much simpler. They are not selfish. They routinely take care of others. It’s just that somewhere among those others are their future selves.
Linda Cartwright is a writer and an educator, who is currently working on her first book. She is a digital nomad currently based in Seattle with her family. Linda is in love with words and loves writing, whether it is a piece of fiction, a personal journal entry, or an occasional paper help for the students.