Steps into mist

The future self

Do you know what you’ll be like in 10, 20, or 30 years time?

Of course not.

Humans are the only living creature on earth to even be able to contemplate what things might look like that far into the future. But no matter how much you try and plan out your life, you’ll never KNOW for certain what things will be like for you then.

Our amygdala/chimp/feeling brain – whatever you choose to call it – is on the constant lookout for pleasure and gratification. It wants to receive these things in the now, and due to it being the powerful centre where our emotions are driven, you’ll usually end up giving in to it.

That sugary snack. That one last cigarette. That extra bottle of wine.

Putting off that piece of work, or that exercise, “until tomorrow”.

But there’s a general rule here:

What feels good right now is not going to be good for our future self.

The future is so difficult to predict, and seems so distant to us, that the risks of acting “bad” in the now will usually feel worth taking. We’re unable to see our future selves with any certainty, so why worry about the possible consequences.

To us, our future self is essentially a stranger.

And when the future is uncertain, we’ll usually opt for what IS certain – the reward in the present. The thing that we know we have control over.

The funny thing is, the opposite affect is also usually true. Doing things that don’t immediately feel great will often benefit our future self. For example:

  • Resisting that sugary snack COULD mean a future without diabetes
  • Resisting that cigarette COULD mean avoiding lung cancer
  • Not opening that bottle of wine COULD prevent a damaged liver
  • Going for that exercise COULD help you live a longer life
  • Putting a bit of time aside for that work COULD boost your career prospects

Of course, one additional cigarette or one extra drink aren’t going to cause long-term damage by themselves. But more often than not, these are repeat behaviours, and therefore the effects will compound over the course of your life until reaching an inevitably negative conclusion.

And this is what ultimately, causes regret, and thoughts of “I wish I’d done things differently”.

The thing is, highlighting the dangers of what COULD happen are still incredibly unlikely to result in immediate change. For example, studies have shown that the harrowing images placed on smoking packaging, in general, doesn’t put smokers off from continuing their habit.

So what can you do instead?

One of the best ways to make quicker changes to these behaviours or habits is to create a positive experience by providing more immediate rewards for doing the right thing.

There are a few methods to help with this, but progress tracking is often one of the most effective. For example, many of us will have experienced that little hit of excitement when we see ourselves losing a pound or two of weight after exercising for a couple of weeks. That hit of dopamine makes us want to keep our new found habit going.

“Wow – this exercise malarky really works!”

This can also be applied to a workplace setting. For example, put the project plan with your team in a visual format, and frequently update it to show how well you’re progressing to your end goal. Or if you manage someone that’s keen to develop in their career, work with them to create a progression plan which you regularly update to allow them to see how they’re moving towards that promotion they are after.

Remember that the area that controls the emotions in your brain is incredibly strong, and seeking pleasure in the here and now is incredibly difficult to resist.

But by working WITH these emotional desires, you are far more likely to build the behaviours that you want, and to achieve the long-term goals that will radically improve the stranger in the distance – the future self.

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