13 min read

The Importance of Getting to Know Your Future Self

Two different people ask you to help them with a big favour, they’re both moving on the same day. The catch: one is your best friend, and the other is a complete stranger. Who do you agree to help? Most likely, your best friend.

Maybe it’s evolutionary, taking care of our group can lead to better odds of survival. Maybe you also have to move in the near future, so you think you have better odds of your best friend returning the favour. Or maybe you’re just a nice person, and you want to help out. Whatever it may be, we’re more likely to prioritize our loved ones over a complete stranger, especially when it creates inconvenience for ourself.

Let’s look at another one. Two people ask you to borrow $1,000: one of them is your present self, and the other is your future self. Who do you agree to help?

Your answer, is likely dependent on how you see your future self. Do you feel unfamiliar with your future self and see them as a stranger? Or do you feel connected to your future self and see them as a loved one?

This article is largely based on the research of Hal Hershfield, and his new book: Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today. Hershfield is a Professor of Marketing, Behavioural Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. www.halhershfield.com

Key Takeaways:

  • Our lives are made up of different versions of ourselves: past, present, and future.
  • We prioritize ourselves and our loved ones over strangers, but we tend to view our future self as a stranger, making it difficult to prioritize actions that will benefit us in the future.
  • By becoming more connected to our future self, we can make better long term decisions that’ll help us reach our goals with ease.

The Idea of a Future Self

If you think about yourself in five year increments in the past, I’d bet that there’s differences between each of those versions. Changes that you anticipated, but likely many more changes that you never saw coming. Those changes compounded over time, to make you the person you are today: your present self. Even though you’ve always been the same person, we can think as though there have been different versions of you (with each version being an upgrade).

So we can imagine the same thing moving forward. Always being the same person, but within that person, small changes that add up to different versions over time: your future self. Some of those changes we can envision (buying a house, having a family, changing careers, etc), but a lot of the things that influence our future will be surprises. Things our present self would say ‘No way! You’re crazy!’ if our future self travelled back through time to tell us what happens.

Even though you’re going to change into future versions, there will always be things that remain the same. Foundational characteristics and values that help define who you are. If you look back on your past versions, even amongst all of the change, there’s a lot of similarities to your present self. As we look ahead to an uncertain and unpredictable future (things that can make us feel unconnected to our future self), focusing on what we hope won’t change (our kindness, morals, core characteristics, etc.) can help make us feel more connected to our future self.

How We Think of Our Future Self

We can think of our lives as being made up of different versions of ourself (past, present, future). With each version, comes some change, but the foundation for what makes us who we are, remains. If you described yourself today and what’s important to you, it’s probably different than what you would’ve said if you completed the same exercise 20 years ago. If we have different versions with small changes, over a long period of time, those changes can become big differences. With enough change and time, it can make past versions of ourself look like strangers.

The same can be true when we look forward. We have a good idea of who we’ll be tomorrow, next week, even a few months from now. But as the timeline becomes longer, the certain becomes uncertain. Our future self begins to feel like someone we don’t know, and that makes it difficult to prioritize for them.

Princeton Psychology Professor, Emily Pronin, conducted a study with two groups. The first group was asked to describe a meal they were currently eating. While the second group was asked to describe a meal they would have in the very distant future. She found that the first group largely described their meals from the first person. Whereas the second group was more likely to use a third person perspective, using ‘he’/'she’ rather than ‘I’. Their future self became a different person to their minds eye.

A study conducted by Hershfield used an MRI machine to look at brain activity in response to a series of questions. The study looked at blood flow to key areas of the brain that are known to be active when we either think about ourself or think about someone else. As you can see below, the study found that our brains think of our future self more similarly to another person than to our current/present self.

Your Future Self by Hal Hershfield

In both studies, our biology makes our future self seem like a different person, rather than just a different version of ourself.

In the example earlier, I suggested that more likely than not, you’d rather do something for a loved one than a complete stranger. That includes our future self. It can be difficult to prioritize things that we should do (and know we should do) for someone that we don’t really know, irrational even. Making it much more likely that we’ll do things our present self would rather do. Things like: spending money now instead of saving, skipping the gym instead of getting in a workout, getting fast food when we should be making healthier choices, or general procrastination.

Why Our Future Self Is A Stranger

Have you ever gone shopping with the intent to only buy one specific thing, but end up buying a bunch of things? Although it seemed like a great idea at the time, you later admit to yourself that you really didn’t need any of the extra things you bought? It happens to all of us.

We often get anchored in the present, believing that what’s happening is more important than it really is. If you think back, I’m sure you could think of moments that felt like the end of the world, when it was impossible to imagine anything moving forward. But here you are, having been through many other ‘end of the world moments’. Looking back at them, I’m sure most of them don’t seem quite as bad as they felt at the time.

Just as it’s the case for the bad, it’s also the case for the good. Dopamine is triggered in our brain by things right in front of us, and it’s powerful. In a moment, it can push the desires of the logical portion of our brain (prefrontal cortex) to the back of the line. Leading us to make what feels like good decisions at the time, only to regret them later. We go to the store with a plan, and that plan goes out the window as soon as something catches our eye.

For our present self, time now can feel very stretched out. We can break a day down by the minute. While if we are looking to the past or the future, huge periods of time seem very small. Our minds exaggerate the length of time in the present, while compressing time that’s furthest out. To get a sense of this, right now what feels longer to you: the previous year of your life, or your year of kindergarten? They will be the exact same length of time, but our minds anchor to the present, distorting our perspective of time.

We can think of this in terms of frequency, with each wave being a measure of time. If our present self is at the left edge looking forward, from our perspective today, each future year feels like less and less time. Even though they’re all the same. Far enough out, an entire decade feels like the same length of time as a year in the present.

We can also get anchored in our planning decisions, again, exaggerating the present over the future. A classic example of this is procrastination. We put off a task that our present self doesn’t want to do, with the expectation that our future self will decide that they love to do that exact thing. Personally, I’ve never loved doing something that my previous self put off. In most cases, I’m probably worse off because other things have come up between then, resulting in a longer to do list than it was in the first place.

We also make mistakes in regards to how we think the future will compare to the present. Projection bias is taking our present self’s emotions and thoughts and over-projecting them into the future — we believe the way we feel about things will always be. The end-of-history illusion is the idea that we won’t change as much in the years ahead, as we have in the years behind. We can look back and realize all of the changes we’ve made, yet we’re reluctant to look forward with the same open mindset for change. Change is good, especially if we view change as improvements over time.

These are all ways that we put too much emphasis on the present, which blocks our future self from view, and makes them appear as a stranger to us. But by changing the way we think about our future self, we can bring them back into view.

How We Can Connect With Our Future Self

Japan ranks near the top of lists for life expectancy around the world. There’s many factors that attribute to this, one of them is believed to be ikigai, meaning ‘reason for being’. The idea of ikigai goes back centuries, and provides people with a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction. For a living being, staying alive has to be the top priority. So if someone has a strong sense of their reason of being, does that connection with their future self help them live as long as they do?

Throughout the various studies that Hershfield and his associates have conducted, the results often show a gap between how we view our present and future self, and there’s a lot of benefit to closing that gap. A weaker relationship to our future self, usually comes with more regrettable long term decisions. If we can close that gap, by becoming more familiar with our future self, it can allow us to better balance our priorities between the present and future.

Future self-continuity scale

The easiest way to get to know someone, including your future self, is to give them your time. One thing Hershfield suggests is to write a letter to and then from your future self at a point in time. To express to them what’s important to you today, and what you hope to accomplish by the time you’re them. And then to write a letter back saying what you would require to do in order to reach those goals. It’s the idea of working backwards, or making something big, into a series of small steps.

As a Financial Planner, we take time to identify goals and timelines with our clients. Life happens and plans change, but we’re always trying to make the best decisions we can with the information that we have. By identifying big life goals and their timelines (buying a house, sending a child off to university, selling a business, retiring, etc), we can begin to build what the future may look like, and then we can figure out the best way to get there.

A goal 40 years out might feel too far away to prioritize, or too overwhelming and unlikely (so why bother?). But if instead of thinking as a big goal as something that’s unattainable, we like to think of it as a series of small steps, we not only feel more connected to what our future self wants, but also have a plan to get there.

Let’s say your goal is to accumulate $1,000,000 by the time your retire, which is 40 years away. That can naturally feel overwhelming, or even impossible. It’s even tough to think of where to begin, because any reasonable amount of money is so small in comparison. But, if you earned an annual return of 6%, the math says you would need to contribute $230 a paycheque. When we put it like that, well it seems entirely probable.

The tricky part might be sticking to it. Instead of relying on our present self to make good decisions for our future self, we need to eliminate the possibility for error. Our present self will often choose to put off pain points, but our future self ends up having to deal with all of them. Balancing the good and the bad is important, it can help level things out without such big swings in either direction. By implementing an accountability system, we can help our chances of being successful.

With investing, the easiest thing has to be automatic contributions that align with our paycheques. By allocating our money straight away towards long term goals, we can’t spend that money instead. A study showed that automatic enrolment and contributions towards employees 401(k) (a USA version of a Group RRSP), rather than requiring employees to enrol, resulted in those employees quadrupling their savings rate over four years. It’s a very simple thing that makes a huge difference in the right direction.

By thinking about our future: what we want to do, what we want to achieve, and what would make us proud of the life we’ve lived, it can help us feel more connected to our future self. We’ll have a direction to always move in, areas to improve, purpose to each and every day. We can find our own ikigai. From there, we can build a system that will help us stay on course, by breaking down big goals into smaller achievable steps.

The Importance of Getting to Know Our Future Self

Hershfield’s most known study is one focused around saving for your future self (link). Participants were given a series of questionnaires, including questions about allocating a surprise $1,000 between their present and future self. Prior to going through the questions, participants were photographed and a Virtual Reality version of themselves were created for them to interact with. For the first group, this version was as they were today, a present self. For the second group, this version was put through an aging algorithm, creating a future self. The study found that the group who virtually interacted with their future self, allocated significantly more to long term-savings, than those who saw their present self.

Various versions of this study were recreated. With different variations, in different environments, the results continued to show that people who interacted with a virtual future self, allocated more money to their future self. Merrill Lynch even ran a “Make Future You Proud” campaign, and created a website designed to age a photo of yourself. Establishing good financial habits aren’t as easy as simply using an aging filter. But, getting to know your future self can help identify the outcome you want to pursue, and it still requires action to be taken in order to get there.

With all of the studies we’ve taken a look at so far, there’s been a clear correlation between: how connected you feel to your future self, and your future success. Hershfield has found that those people who reported a stronger connection to their future self: accumulate more financial assets over time, find more purpose and happiness, and are healthier overall. Reinforcing the idea that the more connected we are to our future self, the more likely we are to prioritize actions that benefit them.

In finance, our success comes down to doing little things right, for a very long time. By changing our perspective on how we see our future self, that could be all of the change we need in order to make significant long term change.

Let’s say someone contributes 5% of their annual income towards their retirement. And let’s say by getting to know their future self, they are able to prioritize investing more, and they make a commitment to instead contribute 7.5%. Only an extra 2.5% doesn’t seem like a lot, especially if they are able to take tax advantages of certain accounts. Over a 40 year period (assuming the same annual return), they would end up with 50% more money at retirement. And during their retirement (assuming over 30 years), they’d be able to withdraw 50% more on an annual basis.

A 2.5% difference today, and over the next 40 years, could result in a 50% difference for your retirement. That’s what I mean when I say that our financial success comes down to doing the little things right, for a very long time. Chances are that you wouldn’t even notice an extra 2.5% off your spending today, but I guarantee you would notice an extra 50% in income during retirement. It’s about understanding what a difference it could make, and prioritizing taking action rather than sitting idle.

It’s important to touch on the idea of balance. Let’s say right now most people are 95/5 toward their present self. Balance in this case doesn’t mean 50/50, but maybe something more along the lines of 90/10. We just saw what a difference an additional 2.5% can create, so it’s about finding that sweet spot between living your life in the present how you want, and doing just a little bit more for your future self. It’s not about complete sacrifice and a life without, but creating a future self that doesn’t have to worry about money.

You could make sure you’re maxing out your RRSP match plan at work. If you’re already doing that, start accumulating personal investments. If you already have those, bump up your contributions a bit. Studies show that our spending habits adjust, and we find we could contribute progressively more and more. Worst case? You reach your goals sooner. You retire earlier. You retire more comfortably.

Although the majority of Hershfield’s work has been related to personal finance, there have been other similar studies that have produced positive results in areas of ethics, health, and exercise. So whatever goals you have, by getting to know our future self, we can more easily prioritize for them and work towards our goals. We can save a little bit more, eat a little healthier, and crush that next workout.

To learn more about Hal Hershfield and his research, visit www.halhershfield.com.

Keep doing things your future self will thank you for.