Photo by Jon Sullivan; public domain

We are notoriously bad at predicting how we will think and feel and behave in the future.  Psychologist Daniel Gilbert has devoted much of his research and writing to the topic of the mistakes that we make when we try to imagine our “future selves.”

It turns out, though, that meeting and getting to know our future selves can be a useful way to boost our self-control.

A researcher from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, Hal Ersner-Hershfield, designed a fascinating study in which selected participants saw a virtual reality image of themselves. The image was specially designed to allow them to see what they will look like when they reach retirement age.  The participants in the control group did not see such an image.

The study participants who saw an image of their future self later allocated twice as much money toward a hypothetical retirement savings account compared to participants in the control group.

Getting to know their future selves made the participants more willing to take care of them.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, in her book The Willpower Instinct, reminds us that there are other ways to enhance our connection with our future selves (or strengthen our “future-self continuity,” which is the technical term):

  1. Spend some time imaging how your future self will look, think, and feel if you do not stay on track with an important change effort.  Allow yourself to feel the fear, regret, or self-disappointment that may result.  For example, picture yourself unable to pay your rent five years from now because you let your credit card debt build to an overwhelming level.
  2. Spend some time imagining how your future self will look, think, and feel if you do remain committed to an important change effort.  Feel the associated sense of pride and accomplishment.  Perhaps you picture your future self relaxing on a beach in Hawaii because she made regular contributions to a savings account instead of spending every last dollar of each paycheck.
  3. Write a note to your future self.  If you were to write a message to your future self, what would you want to include?  Can you tell your future self what you are going to do now to help him or her achieve a goal?  Can you hear any wisdom (or gratitude!) from the older, wiser version of you?

What do you want for your “future you?” How does this influence the choices that you make today?