A new book says the way we think about our future selves can have a big impact on our lives
In our busy world, it seems like something is always falling through the cracks — and all too often it’s planning for the future. After all, it’s hard to focus on distant goals when you struggle to get through this week’s to-do list. Of course, the future eventually becomes the present, and smart decisions today will bear fruit tomorrow.
Hal Hershfield tackles this subject in a new book, Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today. Hershfield is a professor of marketing, behavioral decision-making and psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. He contends that we sometimes treat our future selves poorly — by, for example, avoiding exercise or indulging in an unhealthy diet.
Hershfield maintains that planning for the future involves more than self-discipline, motivation or sticking to a game plan; it also requires rethinking how we view tomorrow. He expands on those thoughts in this interview.
Sometimes we have real difficulty appreciating how our actions of today will impact the people that we eventually will become. In part, that’s because there may be a disconnect between our current and future selves such that we think of our future selves as if they are other people.
The brain activity that comes when we think of our future selves in 10 years looks more like the brain activity that comes when we think about another person right now. When we are making plans for the future, many of us sometimes fail to recognize that we have difficulty stepping into the shoes of our future selves and seeing the world through their eyes and feeling their feelings. It’s not as if we don’t know the future will come. It’s that [people are] not fully able to recognize how things will change.
This is almost as difficult as asking, “Why are some people more extroverted, while others would rather sit on the side of the party? Why are some people adventurous and open to new experiences but other people prefer the same thing over and over again?” These are sort of core aspects of our personalities. Lots of different inputs go into why we may be better or worse at connecting to our future selves — including, but not limited to, what was modeled for us, what our upbringing was, how stable our circumstances are.
Psychologists talk about that. They call it “domain specificity.” It’s basically the recognition that there are different domains in our lives and we don’t act the same across all of them. There may be domains in someone’s life that they view as being more of a core part of their identity. And they will work hard to do right in those domains. They may look highly future-oriented when it comes to those domains.
But they may not care as much about the way they look, or they don’t think as deeply about the people in their lives because they’re focused on other things. Those other domains can end up getting less focus and less attention.
Ironically, when given the choice between using our own simulations about the future to make a decision or asking someone else — a stranger who’s lived through a given experience — we mostly prefer our own simulation. We say, “I know me. I am unique. If anybody knows how I’ll react to something, it’s me.” But it turns out that there’s some wisdom in averages. And if we talk to other people who’ve gone through a given experience, [taking their advice] may be a lot better than trying to simulate it ourselves.
Living in the moment means being present for what’s happening right now. Part of the reason that is in harmony with planning for the future is that, ultimately, when we arrive at the future, we want to look back and feel satisfied with the choices we made and the way that we spent our time and allocated our resources. We can live today in a way that’s meaningful, that allows us the creation of memories and experiences, and at the same time, we can do more to make sure that the future looks the way we want it to look. Those two things don’t have to be in competition with each other.
The subtitle of the book is making tomorrow better today, not making tomorrow better than today. It’s not saying that we suddenly want the future to be radically different from now and that now needs to be a painful thing. Rather, the way we think about the future, the way we connect with and relate to our future selves, can change the decisions that we make right now, which has this added impact of affecting how we feel right now.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for space.