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Do Your Future Self a Favor: Deal With Your Problems Now

It’s hard being a parent, especially when your kids are young. Between making breakfast for a picky crew, diaper changes, getting the Legos out of the plumbing, finding the keys your toddler hid in a potted plant and getting everyone into clean clothes, just getting out the door in the morning can be a full day’s work.

So while just taking a shower feels like an Olympic sport, it’s tempting to put off dealing with the big things. You’ll start that exercise program next week. You’ll look at your retirement savings later. Future You, the version of yourself that is magically more relaxed and prepared than Present You, will handle all these issues with grace. You don’t need to worry about them.

The New York Times reports on research about this common phenomenon, and what we can do to break our bad habits now.

According to the New York Times, the problem is that we imagine our future selves as being completely different people. The parts of our brains that think about others light up when we think about our future selves. And those imaginary future selves have more resources than we do. So of course we want to shift our problems onto their very capable shoulders. Per the New York Times:

Ignoring the needs of our future self is one way we create problems for our present self. Another way is by dumping all the issues we don’t want to deal with now on the mythical future self who’s somehow going to be more patient, more organized, more restrained — more everything we’re not now.

“It’s hard to imagine that we’re going to be under the same stress” when we’re older, Dr. McGonigal said. “It seems like we will have more time and energy and we can let the future person deal with what we can’t deal with now.”

The key to dealing with this: identify with your own aging. The more you can conceptualize that in the future you’ll be the same person you are today, the more you can act today to help out your future self. Showing people computer models of themselves at retirement age prompts them to invest more in their 401ks, for example.

Other than looking at computer models most of us don’t have access to, how can you strengthen your sense of a future self? The experts consulted by the venerable Gray Lady are woefully thin on advice. So here are some ideas I made up:

  • Imagine that you’re doing the future thing right now. Think you’ll join an exercise program in the future? is it what you want to do now? If you wouldn’t enjoy it in the present, you probably won’t like it any better in the future.
  • Notice and appreciate things your Past Self has done for you. If Past You set up a retirement account and it’s doing well, check out how good that feels. You can do the same kind of favors for Future You.
  • Pick something from your to do list and just do it today. It can be something small. You don’t have to set up your 401K, join a gym, and clean out your closet all before sundown. But choose one thing you’ve had on your mental list of things to do “someday” and make today the day for that thing. See how it feels.

Pretty soon you’ll get some momentum going for living out your future dreams right now. At least that’s my theory. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll have made some small progress on your goals. Future You will thank you for it.

Photo: Earls37a

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