13 min read

šŸ“š Your Future Self by Hal Hershfield

šŸŽÆ Read This Book If

You want to find better balance in your life by understanding how to connect with your future self, making prioritizing them that much easier.

šŸ”‘ Key Points

  • We are constantly changing, to account for this change think, of yourself as many selves over time.
  • We often put too much emphasis on our present self, while ignoring the change our future selves will experience.
  • To make our tomorrow's better, we need to feel a connection to our future self and trick our minds into doing what's in our long-term interest.

šŸ¤” Main Ideas

We're always thinking. Even when we're not thinking, we're still thinking. This can create a chain reaction of one thought to the next, our mind jumping through space and time, where our first thought could be completely different (yet uniquely linked) to our first.

This is called mental time travel, and we're quite good at it. It's been claimed as to what sets our species apart, the "ability to contemplate the future. . . we thrive by considering our prospects."

Unfortunately when our minds are running wild, our thoughts aren't always helpful. But what if thinking about our lives in different times, can help us manage our emotions and improve our decision making for what really matters?

By strengthening the connections between our past, present, and future selves, we can gain a new perspective on what's important ā€“ and help create the future we want.

Instead of there being a central self at our core, we are instead an aggregation of separate, distinct selves. You are actually a we. Even right now, you might have a morning self, work self, nighttime self, and selfs everywhere in between.

When you think back to who you were ten years ago, you might look like a completely different person than who you are today. If you think about that difference projected into the future, it's easy to imagine a different version of yourself again. How we think about and treat our future self can actually help us create a better future.

To make better decisions today that create happier tomorrows, we need to close the gap between our present and future selves. By treating those distant selves as if they were loved ones, we can make choices for them that improve our lives now and later.

By thinking about our future selves, we can plan for them, shape them, and change them. Your fate is not fixed. Not even close.


Who Are We as We Travel Through Time?

Are We the "Same" over Time?

Imagine a boat that's sailing around the world. Along its journey, it makes many stops along the way for repairs. A new sail, some floor boards, the list goes on. By the time it sails around the world, years later, every piece has been replaced. When the journey ends, is it still the same boat, or is it now an entirely different boat?

We're always changing, while staying the same (at least on some level). If you're a shy child, you're more likely to be a shier adult. Although our experiences shape who we become, people with shared experience aren't shaped in identical ways. There is stability in where you stand compared to others, but it's still possible to show growth in important traits.

We have five core personality traits: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, agreeability, extraversion, and neuroticism. Most people only show significant change in one area over a decade. So although we change over time, we are more so staying the same.

So we're not an entirely new boat, but we're definitely not the same boat. It really comes down to our own perception. If the boat still feels like our boat, then we'll treat it like it. Whereas, if it feels like a different boat, we'll treat it with less care, as if it were a rental.

If you feel a strong connection between your present and future selves ā€“ even though your present self is different from your past self, and your future self will be different from who you are today ā€“ you are much more likely to perform the hard work of self-improvement.

So what makes us, us? Maybe it's your body (but that changes), or your mind (but that forgets). Research suggests that what makes us, us, is our sense of "moral self" ā€“ the person that we most want to be. We see drastic change in a number of areas of our lives, things that don't necessarily define us. But through that change, the thing that does define us, is the person we are, the person we strive to be.

Is Future Me Really. . . Me?

When we turn into new future versions of ourselves, our thoughts and feelings change in ways we can't anticipate. We can't know what we will think and feel, since those thoughts and feelings may change drastically once we turn into our future selves. Our future selves, on some level, will always be strangers to us.

If we are confident that our future selves will maintain some of our core moral values, then perhaps it's all right to still care for them and plan for those distant versions of us, even if there is some mystery around them. Gaining a better understanding of how we view our future selves ā€“ as either extensions of us or as other people ā€“ can provide insight into the choices we make today.

Instead of a single constant self, we are a collection of separate selves. With each of our identities thought of as a series of interlocking selves over time. Each successive self has a lot in common with the one before and the one after. But with enough distance, we start to lose some of those connections. With a lot of distance, past selves or future selves may feel like strangers, or completely different people altogether.

Why does any of this matter? We treat strangers differently. Even nice people tend to act in self-interested ways, prioritizing themselves, friends and family. If we view our future selves as strangers, and if we tend to act in self-interested ways, then what rational reason is there to do things for their benefit?

Research shows that in our mind's eye, and in the activity of the brain, we tend to think of our future selves as a completely different person.

We may see our future selves as other people. But what truly matters is what sort of people they are. If they are strangers, then there are not many good reasons to sacrifice for them. But if they are closer to us, more of a best friend or loved one, then we may be considerably more likely to do things today that benefit us tomorrow.

Relationships with Our Future Selves

When we have a stronger connection to our future self, when we feel more similar to them, we are more likely to do things that benefit them, like forego money today for more money down the road.

The more of a connection people felt with their future selves, the more they had saved, and the better their overall financial well-being was.

Research shows that there's very little difference in brain activity when thinking about yourself and someone similar to you (a best friend, parent, loved one), but a bigger difference when thinking about a stranger. A study found that the more similar our future self felt in our brain (measured by an MRI), the more someone's future self felt similar, the more patient they were to wait for a bigger reward later.

Research shows that our relationship to our future self extends beyond dollars and cents. We're more likely to make long-term ethical decisions, study harder in school, eat healthier, and exercise more. All leading to better well-being and higher life satisfaction.

When people consider what makes them feel a sense of connection with future versions of themselves, they naturally incorporate the idea of self-improvement. I can feel a bond with my future self ā€“ sensing that he and I are similar and share a connection ā€“ but still anticipating that I'll get better at the things that make me "me" over time. I won't become a different person, just a better one.

Changing your sense of connection to your future self, can boost your willingness to take more action on their behalf. The closer you feel to your future self, the better you'll prepare for your future, whatever it brings.


Understanding the Mistakes We Make as We Move from Now to Later

Missing Your Flight

We often focus too much on our current selves. The present becomes our anchor, distorting our decisions about the future ā€“ we sometimes make decisions in the present that negatively impact our future self.

We often discount the value of a future reward by thinking that our present self needs it more than our future self will. We overestimate the importance of what's happening in our lives right now. It can put us in a position of acting contrary to how we ideally would.

In the absence of an immediate reward, we value the future and choose to be patient. But when a temptation is available now (or soon), the future is devalued more intensely. When choices are far away, we're more likely to make the better one, but as that choice nears we change our mind to the one that's most presently satisfying ā€“ like saying we'll eat a healthy snack tonight, but turn to junk food. There are three main trains of thought as to why we're such impulsive creatures.

First, uncertainty of the future. The present moment, is a lot more certain than the distant future, nothing is guaranteed. Our evolutionary success largely depending on taking the sure thing.

Second, we magnify our present day emotions. We allow ourselves to feel like whatever is happening in the present, is more important than anything that can happen in the future.

Lastly, time rarely feels consistent. A defined block of time, feels a lot longer in the present, than a decade from now. The longer time feels, the harder it is to be patient.

Since we spend most of our lives in the present, rather than the future, we overweight the present. Leaving less weight, or importance of planning, for our futures. Which causes our future selves to be unprepared for their own present.

Poor Trip Planning

Procrastination doesn't just put something off until tomorrow, it prioritizes our present self over a future self that is all seriousness, won't want to do the task either.

It's as if we want to arrive at one particular version of the future ā€“ where we are happy, healthy, and financially secure ā€“ but allow ourselves to go down a path that could potentially land us in a very different place.

A study showed that participants who felt more similarity and emotional connection to their future self, were least likely to delay critical tasks they set out to do.

Procrastination is a battle between our past, present, and future selves. It happens because of our poor trip planning, or our inability to consider our future selves in a deep and meaningful way. This is because we tend to think our future feeling will be less substantial and less intense than the ones we have today.

Poor trip planning extends beyond simple tasks to future commitments. The Yes/Damn Effect refers to when our present self commits our future self to something (Yes, I'll do that. Damn, I wish I hadn't said yes.)

We tend to think that our future self will have more free time than our present self, but when the time comes, it's never the case. We are bad with accurately predicting the little time consuming things that make up our day. It may come down to a balancing act of how much burden do you want and what potential opportunities could arise.

Packing the Wrong Clothes

The mistake of packing the wrong clothes is when we rely too much on our present self's feelings by projecting them to a future self who might not feel the same way.

This happens in two main ways: we use the emotional state of our current selves to make decision for our future selves who no longer feels the same way, and when we anchor on less emotional states we fail to appreciate the strong emotions that our future selves might experience.

Projection bias refers to our tendency to make decisions for the future based on our current emotions and drives, rather than on the emotions and drives we will predictably be experiencing when those decisions go into effect.

The end-of-history illusion states that although we recognize that we've evolved from who we once were to who we are now, we fail to see that we will continue to change in the future.

Even though our tastes and preferences are always changing, we make decisions that impact our future self, based on our present self. Only later having to grapple with that our past self made important decisions that are impacting us now.


Solutions for Smoothing the Path Between the Present and the Future

Making the Future Closer

We have a more emotional connection with identifying with the singular, over the multiple. By getting to know our future self, the singular, we can close the distance between them and our present self.

The well-being of our future selves ultimately depends on the decisions we make today.

To better understand this relationship, a study took a photograph of each participant, digitalized it, and ran it through an age progression program. Half of participants interacted with a present self through virtual reality, while the other interacted with a future self. The aim was to understand if interacting with a version of yourself create a bias towards them.

The study showed that those who interacted with a future version of themselves, allocated significantly more money to long-term savings than those who interacted with their present self.

Similar studies show similar results. Having something as simple as an image that represents our future self, can make us prioritize them more. This extends beyond our finances, to exercise, healthcare, and even ethical behaviour. From savings to ethics to health, visualizing future you can create positive change.

An aging app alone doesn't create change. In order to change our behaviour, we must know that our future selves exist and care about them. This keeps them top of mind and enhances our ability to empathize with them. It can force us to live more intentionally. Time capsules or writing letters to future you can be an effective way to practice this exercise.

We can also reverse time travel: start where you want to end up in the future, and think back to where you are today. This can increase our sense of closeness to our future, leading us to take action today to take care of tomorrow. Simply by changing how we think about things, we can increase our chance of positive change.

Staying the Course

There will be present selves who will, despite our best wishes, make our lives look different from our hoped-for ideal. Using a pre-commitment approach, we figure out exactly what will tempt our future selves, and build a plan that reinforces what we really want.

One way to do this is through psychological commitment, by stating in advance what you want or don't want to do. They've been shown to be successful in promoting the positive behaviour we hope for. But there needs to be a sense of urgency, or an incentive to take action, otherwise they go unadopted. We can get this by enforcing a deadline, or an accountability system.

A step further is known as take away options, which focuses on removing undesirable behaviour from our day to day. We can remove distracts to be more productive, or access to long-term savings if we're trying to grow wealth. By removing the short-term temptations of something, we have a better chance of acting in our long-term ideal way.

On the extreme side, we could add appropriate punishments to our bad behaviour. We may have the best of intentions, but our present self might find a way around them. By establishing a way to hold ourselves accountable, with short-term undesirable punishment, again we can do better to act in a way that's beneficial for our future self.

We all our human after all, we all give into temptation when we know it isn't the best thing for us in the long run. Before we can boost our self control, we need to recognize our failings.

Making the Present Easier

From the perspective of your present self, optimizing for your future is mostly downside: Present You makes the sacrifice while Future You reaps the benefit. The unpleasant action occurs now for the promise of something better later.

Well-being isn't only about chasing happiness, it's about learning to find glimmers of joy and pleasure even in our more difficult moments. The true benefit from taking the good with the bad, may not be instantaneous but rather something that unfolds gradually over time. By adding a measure of positive emotion to the negative, we make it easier to cope with life's stressors and push through difficult times in the present to better times in the future.

Making the big small, focuses on breaking a larger goal into its smaller components to help make the present-day challenges feel easier. By making things feel smaller and easier, we avoid feeling overwhelmed and can move towards accomplishing a goal with less stress.

We also have to remember to celebrate the present. Both: saving everything for tomorrow while your present self suffers, and spending everything today so your future self suffers, are bad strategies. There needs to be balance.

Living too much for tomorrow may make life worse for both our present and future selves.

If we live only for tomorrow, we'll deprive our future selves of the very memories and experiences and friends and family that help make life worth living.

The final way to make the present easier is to give in occasionally. To skip the sacrifice and indulge in what makes us happy at the cost of building wealth. This may not only make tomorrow better, but to make today better too.

šŸ§  Final Thoughts

Your Future Self is a book you're unlikely to see on many recommendation lists from Financial Planners. It doesn't dive into investment strategies, historical returns, or the next big thing. But what it does give us, is something more important.

We often view saving for retirement as a herculean task. So much so that many people give up before even giving it a proper shot. But what if something as simple as how we view our future self, could make us better investors? That's exactly what this book shows us.

It shows us the importance of planning. Becoming more familiar with our future selves, by thinking about our ideal retirement: age, lifestyle, expenses, hobbies, and budgets, can help us become more aligned with that version of ourselves. Making it easier in the present to justify saving over spending, and for a lot of people the issue with investing stems from an issue with saving (you can't invest if you can't save).

If you're struggling to prioritize your future self, over your present self, start by thinking more about who you want to be, what you want your future to look like. As simple as it seems, it could be the change you need to begin prioritizing your future by making better financial decisions today.

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All ideas, quotes, and illustrations are borrowed or based on Your Future Self by Hal Hershfield. To learn more, visit www.halhershfield.com.