To Be Better at Planning, Get to Know Your Future Self
‘Self-continuity’ is an underrated but vital decision-making strategy
Thinking about the future often invites a strange sort of cognitive dissonance: We have all sorts of expectations, hopes, and fears about it — but the image of who we’ll be remains murky. Many of us see our future selves as abstractions, or even as strangers.
In part, that’s accurate. One of the longest-running studies on personality found that our six core traits change almost completely between adolescence and old age. But for many of us, the difficulty in imagining what we’ll be like in five years, or in 50, is the result of cognitive biases — errors in thinking — that distort the way we understand the world and our place in it.
No one is completely immune to the bias of shortsightedness, which is baked into who we are as a species. “Our brains evolved for a very different world than the one in which we are living,” explained Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor and author of Stumbling on Happiness, in a TED talk. “They evolved for a world in which people lived in very small groups; rarely met anybody who was terribly different from themselves; had rather short lives in which there were few choices, and the highest priority was to eat and mate today.”
There are ways, though, to override this bias. And the more continuity you share with your older self — the more the future you feels like a direct extension of who you are now — the more motivated you’ll be to make wiser decisions that will benefit you later on.
Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been studying the concept of the future self for over a decade. In 2009, Hershfield and his colleagues at UCLA surveyed a diverse group of working adults between the ages of 20 and 86 about their connection to their future selves, from a financial perspective. The researchers found that the more people felt similar to their future self, the more assets they had accumulated. Other studies have found that self-continuity makes people more ethical and more inclined to develop positive health habits such as working out regularly.