Whenever I speak to my friends who have gotten tattoos, I am struck by their level of certainty that later, in the future, they will not regret the decision. For myself, I feel certain that I am not equipped to predict what taste my future self will have, and therefore, don’t feel empowered to make decisions for her. So, I have no tattoos. This idea of considering the concerns of my future self is something I have been personally conscious of for most of my life. But I didn’t know that it was central in research being done to determine why some people procrastinate in doing the things that they, themselves, believe they should do. It turns out, that having a clear connection to and a distinct idea about your future self is strongly correlated to whether you procrastinate or not.
According to research psychologists Fuschia Sirois and Timothy Psychyl , when people have a lack of emotional connection to their future selves they have more difficulty in both making long-term, project-based plans and in fulfilling their goals. This “connection” can be demonstrated in fMRI scans of peoples’ brains. When subjects are asked to consider themselves at some specific point in the future, scans of their brains show variation in what “lights up” as active part of the brain. In the brains of those with strong connections to themselves in the future, the areas of the brain that are active when thinking about themselves today are more or less the same as when they think about themselves in the future.
But for some other subjects, when they think about their futures selves, they are so disconnected from the idea that their future self IS themselves that their brain looks the same as when it is thinking about a celebrity or a fictional character. This variation has been strongly correlated to procrastinating behavior. It’s as though being disconnected in that way lets us off the hook for making choices today that will not bode well for our future selves. Said another way, when you are not looking out for your future self, you make bad decisions and saddle her with the consequences of today’s lack of conscientiousness.
The correlate of this research is just as you expect. People who feel a strong connection and responsibility for their future selves are less apt to procrastinate and more likely to consider the future impact of choices today. So if you procrastinate, you may want to spend some energy getting to know Future You – and establishing an emotional connection to her or him, in service of giving yourself strength in the “getting down to work” area.
You may well ask how one establishes such a connection. Well, one good beginning is to actually think about how your procrastination will change your own circumstances and experiences tomorrow, next week or next month. In other words, project yourself into a sort of mental movie whose plot follows the natural chain of events starting with what you do right now. If we could craft a synopsis of your mental movie it might go like this:
“I don’t pay the bill today. The bill sits on the pile of other unpaid bills. Tomorrow, when I go to pay the bill, since I also have all of tomorrow’s things to do, I don’t get around to paying the bill. Next week when I sit down to pay the bill it is part of a larger pile of bills that have now collected since I haven’t gotten around to paying bills. So I don’t pay the bill next week, because I have pressing bills to pay from last month. Then in two weeks when I sit down to pay this bill, I notice I have missed the deadline and must now pay a late fee. So in two weeks, when I pay this bill, it is bigger by $25 and I have to find extra money to cover it. All of this because I am watching Game of Thrones now instead of just paying the bill. Maybe I should just pay the stupid bill now!”
When you take the 15 seconds to imagine a scenario like this and mentally picture yourself in the future – whether it’s a future one hour from now, one week or ten years –you build a connection to that self. This actually changes the structure of your own cognition, and starts your neurons firing in different parts of your brain – the parts that see FUTURE YOU as a part of PRESENT YOU — the you that you know and protect from harm. That transformation will begin to generate a greater sense of urgency to do the things you may be procrastinating today.
Connecting to Future You can also change other choices you make in the present. For example, imagine you are working on losing weight and getting fit. Think of a moment in which you are faced with a choice of whether to eat something that is not on your current eating plan – a rich piece of beautiful, dark chocolate cake. Pause for a second and picture yourself tomorrow. You are standing on the scale in the morning and looking down at the numbers. See your own feet in your mind standing with the scale’s digital LED between your toes. Now imagine the number. What number should be there, according to the plan? And what number might be there if you go off the eating plan? Now imagine that number. How do you feel as you see a higher number? How do you feel about you — the you who chose to eat that piece of cake last night? Why did you do that to Future You? What were you thinking back then yesterday? Now, back in the present moment of choice, do you still want to eat that chocolate cake?
Future you can provide a standard against which to true yourself. That effect may be to give you strength, or saddle you with shame. You can choose. But if you foster a sense of connection, responsibility and ownership of Future You, you will have an extra tool for building what we often call willpower or discipline. Maybe willpower and self-discipline is really nothing more than a profound connection to yourself and your changing reality over time. Give it a try and see if it makes a difference. If it does, great! If not, then next week I’ll have a new tool for you to try out!
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