Me vs. my future self: How our inability to relate to our future selves hinders our progress toward our goals

I used to have the most lax attitude towards exercise, supplements and sunblock that would freak even the most lackadaisical amongst my friends. Not only was I unable to see their current utility in my life, I also couldn’t envision myself as ever being in need of them. Now, logically I got why they were important. But that was it. In neuroscience speak, my ventromedial prefrontal cortex did not get activated when I thought about my future self. In other words, I saw my present and future selves as two distinct people. Indeed, studies have shown that when we view our future selves as different from our present selves, we are less likely to do the things that are good for us— e.g. exercise, save money, eat vitamins, and are likelier instead to engage in immediate gratification.

Why we can’t relate

Today, I understand my future blindness to be rooted in ADHD; our brains are wired to grasp time differently and we are naturally bad at future-planning. But before you imagine this to be a justification on why I can be irresponsible, let me assure you, it’s not. It’s simply a way I understood my natural propensity, and stopped blaming myself. Instead, armed with that knowledge, I learned to turn things around. That lax attitude is a thing of the past.

Another reason can be because of the company we keep. Jim Rohn’s famous quote that we are the sum average of the top five people we spend most time with comes to mind. Hang out with people who don’t care about their future, for whatever the reason, and it becomes difficult to grasp why you should. And even if you try to change things, the company we keep can sometimes dissuade us or shame us.

Other clients— even the high-performing ones with demanding jobs— who experience future blindness tell me that it’s because things in their lives are always cushy. They know that they don’t lack resources, and that they can solve most of their problems with money. Including future health problems.

But what I’ve also found is that another reason why we don’t bridge that gap isn’t out of a lack of maturity or adulting skills. It is also rooted in perfectionism— there are too many things we aspire to, it’s too overwhelming, so we file it away.

How to connect with your future self and think ahead

1. What’s your #NeverAgain flag in your head

Clients who come to me keen to start planning and building foundations for their future, are often set off by a catalyst. This could be recovering from their 3rd round of burnout, losing a loved one, leaving a toxic relationships. When motivated, we’re all fired up to make changes; however, motivation isn’t the cat that runs to you when you stick your head out of the door and call for it. Instead, motivation is elusive and cannot be counted on. Because human nature loves to sabotage itself and then throw pity parties. And as we lack motivation, we often forget why we want to live our new lives. And so here’s what I urge my clients to do— have a #NeverAgain flag in you head. Remember your catalyst. And ask yourself every time you inevitably resist doing Future Self actions, “Does this lead me closer to the self I want to become?”.

2. What’s the company you keep?

This is self-explanatory. Being around people who value their future selves will likely inspire you to do the same too. And if you know someone who is disciplined, why not ask them how they started. Ask them about the times they resist their habits, and how they continue to stick with what they do. Also, ask them if they can show you their calendars— if something is a priority, how we allocate our resources (time, money, energy) will reflect that.

3. Baby steps

Start small, or you will sabotage your progress and give up. I encourage clients to break their goals down into three categories of Eat, Move and Sleep. They can comprise of Super Easy Goals because you already do them sometimes or have an app to remind you (e.g. “I will drink 7 glasses of water a day” or “I will walk to the supermarket instead of drive”); That One Nagging Thing, which is the thing that preoccupies you the most; and medium to hard goals (e.g. “I will intermittent fast for 16 hours a day”). Pick a mix of three goals and aim to do it a few times a week, rather than every day. What matters is that you’re starting a new habit. As these habits become autopilot, then add another. It’s important here to make sure you aren’t just piling goals or ripping off someone’s routine— ask yourself or consult an expert to curate what’s best for you.

4. Make it easier to do it over and over again

First, figure out the obstacle— you’ll only get this data with enough observations. For instance, some clients figured out that if they lay in bed when they arrive home, they’ll nap, and this would disrupt their sleep routine. For others, it’s not to exercise on a certain day because they always have very full meals. Second, make it unmissable. Like, put your supplements on the counter top next to your morning water. Or, lay out your exercise clothes by the door so you can change into them immediately when you get in the door. Third, keep yourself accountable. For instance, with your coach, or to embark on something with a friend. Fourth, schedule it into your calendar and set alarms to make sure you do it. Last, reward yourself with a small treat after you’ve done it. The dopamine that floods your brain will make you want to do it over and over again.

5. Ask yourself, what are you already doing for your future self?

Even though I did not engage in supplements, exercise or sunblock for a long time, I’ve been using eye cream, saving money and upgrading my professional knowledge for a long time. That’s because they benefit my present self and/or I enjoy them. With that, I couldn’t simply write myself off as ‘undisciplined’. This mindset is a big breakthrough, because it tells you you have it in you to do more.

And, it doesn’t matter what your motivations are. Perhaps, it’s to look good. Or to prove someone wrong.

Chances are, that wouldn’t be your only motivation, we humans are a multitude of emotions and motivations. Whatever fuels it, let it kickstart your new lifestyle. Our motivations may change over time, and that’s okay.

6. Stop saying “I can’t”, say “I don’t”

“I can’t stay up late, I have to work tomorrow”.

“I don’t stay up late, I have to work tomorrow”.

One word difference, and they can make or break your success. When we tell ourselves “I can’t”, we are more likely to fail than when using no strategy. Author of The Motivation Myth Jeff Haden writes that “I can’t” is a decision based on external causes or reasons, whereas “I don’t” has conviction, it sounds like a part of who we are. The language we use matters, so learn to phrase things with “I don’t”.

Today, I eat my supplements, exercise and wear sunblock. Added to my repertoire of discipline, I can officially declare I can do #adulting. I’ve also coached my clients who never once thought past the next 1 month to start building routines and living with 5-year plans whilst being comfortable in who they are. I wish you all the best in bridging your present and future selves with this system.

If you could like further help with taking accountability for making changes, please get in touch.