What Your Future Self Needs You to Do Right Now
Use the ‘bento’ framework to think beyond the present moment, even in a crisis
Gas is cheap but nobody’s filling up. Houses are full but streets are empty. Businesses are falling like dominos. This is our new normal.
It happened so quickly and drastically that we even talk about time in a different way, saying things like “Quarantine Day 15” to acknowledge life before and after the coronavirus pandemic hit.
In a crisis, reality changes. The normal ways of functioning stop working. We must match the strangeness of the situation with changes of our own.
We all move through life with a passive awareness of the world. Our instinctual mode — what psychologist Daniel Kahneman has coined System 1 thinking — allows us to respond to our needs on a moment-to-moment basis. But to be able to see the bigger picture, think conceptually about future events, and consider the needs of others, we need what I call an active awareness.
By this, I mean consciously operating within a broader arena than the here and now, creating a larger perimeter of self-interest. Think about it like this: While everybody runs in an alien invasion, most people run from the aliens. A much smaller number run toward something. But the ones with a plan they’re trying to execute are able to connect with what’s important and use their energy more purposefully.
To grow my own active awareness, I use the “bento” framework, an acronym for BEyond Near Term Orientation. It’s a simple two by two chart — or bento box, the Japanese packed meal — that breaks life into four dimensions, each representing a different space of my self-interest.
“Now Me” is what I want and need right now. “Now Us” is what the people closest to me want and need right now. “Future Me” is what the older, wiser version of myself wants me to do. (I call this my inner Obi-Wan Kenobi.) “Future Us” is the world that the people I love and care about — kids, especially — will inherit.
Here’s a heat map that shows what a passive awareness looks like:
See how you’re mainly aware of part of the picture, your “Now Me”? Passive doesn’t mean inactive. It means reactive. Running when a bear starts chasing you is passive awareness. You move, but you don’t think beyond “get away.”
With an active awareness, you see the whole thing:
Active awareness empowers you to not only make choices for your right-now needs, but your future needs as well. A person with active awareness has the ability to not just react to events, but to shape events before they reach them.
There are potential passive and active responses to every situation. Take the pandemic, for example:
Passive awareness tells us to buy toilet paper. Active awareness does the math and suggests buying a bidet.
Passive awareness tells us to stock up on frozen foods. Active awareness says don’t forget seeds and soil.
Passive awareness tells us not to bother with a mask since authorities had been saying they don’t work. Active awareness notes that people in cultures who are more experienced at this always wear masks, and propels us to do the same.
Passive awareness looks to satisfy the needs of the moment. Active awareness extrapolates that moment to potential futures.
Passive and active values aren’t in opposition. They’re complementary. The now matters. The future matters. The challenge and opportunity is to hold onto both at once.
While an active awareness is accessible to anyone, not everyone has it. It must be cultivated through practice. When I turn to the bento framework, I step into each of the four quadrants and engage with their perspectives. To access my Future Me, I imagine I’m the Obi-Wan Kenobi hologram version of myself, the version of me that ultimately gets where I want to get in life.
Here’s a quick exercise to help boost your active awareness:
Imagine it’s January 2022. The lockdown is finally over. You walk out of your house, elated. The worst is finally behind us.
It was a tough time for everyone. Like most, you lost someone. Still, you feel especially grateful because you made the best of the experience, all things considered. How? By making sure three things were always true:
So what were those three things?
Answering this requires stepping into your Future Me self. It asks you to use your Future Me eyes to look backward on your situation.
When my Future Me answered this question, he said these things were true:
1. I cared and provided for my family and loved ones.
2. I made the lockdown and homeschool an epic family holiday for our child.
3. I focused my more limited work time on a single project instead of trying to juggle several.
These answers will impact how I spend my time and energy. They’ll give my time purpose and meaning. Now, even while I’m figuring out the day-to-day logistics, I’m inching forward on my larger goals.
What are those goals for you? What are you working toward, beyond survival?