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Why “Future You” Sucks

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How To Achieve Greatness Today, Not Tomorrow

Note: This article was selected as the Personal Trainer Development Center’s Best Fitness Article for the week of February 14, 2021.

Allow me to introduce Present You to Future You.

Before you become formally acquainted like a cheap Tinder date, you should probably know Future You (while obviously just as sexy) sucks.

You see, Future You lies. A lot.

Through the avalanche of promises towards exercising tomorrow, guarantees of choosing the salad over the burger next time, and the assurances of starting the diet on Monday, Future You proves over and over to be a master of deception.

Future You – that person who exists in some way-off future – lures you into believing that tomorrow, the day after, or next week, he or she will be more energetic, have more time on their hands, and possess a boatload more willpower. Unfortunately, these vows are nothing more than the works of Pulitzer Prize fiction.

We like to think of our future selves as different people, as strangers almost. And this disconnect, unfortunately, causes all sorts of problems.

Therefore, we’re going to take an in-depth look at who Future You really is. Why does he or she cause you so many headaches? Why do we overestimate our ability to complete certain tasks in the future? And how can we finally beat the extravagant promises they make, once and for all?

Who is Future You?

Present You is the person reading this blog post. He or she may be a little hungry, probably wants to get a little bit leaner, build a bit more muscle, and may or may not need a poo.

Future You is the person you imagine when you’ve finished reading this blog post. You imagine that person a little hungrier and probably feeling relieved at having done that poo.

You’ve probably noticed Future You comes across a lot better than Present You. Especially when imagined some way off in the future. Richer. Leaner. More successful. More muscular. Bathing in powerful rays of enthusiasm, motivation, time, and willpower. Future You, at least in Present You’s mind, kicks ass.

You’re not the only one. It’s been shown people will assume they’ll live longer, stay married longer, and travel more than the average person [1]. Even cancer patients are sometimes more optimistic than their healthy counterparts [2]. When we imagine ourselves as someone in the future, we imagine them to have finally reached our goals. They’ve been the ones to have made a difference to our lives. They rock.

Ultimately, we think of them as someone different. And it’s this glaring mental error we all commit – regarding ourselves as strangers – that ensures we fail to ever really change.

Idolizing and imagining Future You as someone who will complete the tasks you can’t quite manage in the present moment, causes you to procrastinate, avoid, and languish in the depths of your laziness.

You get to enjoy the immediate benefits of your choices (watching Netflix instead of crushing a heavy set of deadlifts) because someone else (that’s still you, by the way) will bear the consequences (deadlifting tomorrow). We’re willing to burden them with our current levels of idleness. Why bother now if Future You will take control of things later on?

It’s why you tell yourself you’ll exercise tomorrow instead of today. Why you’ll be in a better frame of mind to diet after Christmas instead of the beginning of December. And it’s why you’re convinced you’ll become leaner when you’re not as busy, stressed, or struggling for enthusiasm. By transferring the discomfort of the present onto that fuzzy future, you feel an immediate sense of relief.

This is obviously flawed. Unfortunately, you continuously fail to realize you’ll still experience precisely the same thoughts and beliefs in the future, as you do now. When we conceptualize our future selves, we scarcely ever see them as us. Because we’re constantly evolving, we find it difficult to correctly imagine what we’ll be like in the future. We lack a sense of connectedness to that individual and forget they’ll probably feel that same laziness and dread as we do now. We’ll still want to avoid those deadlifts.

And this causes more problems than we’d like to believe.

Why Future You Sucks

We’ve established that we treat our future selves as strangers. Someone we look up to. Someone we imagine will be more successful. More inspired and galvanized. And someone who will probably be going crazy hosting wild Harry Potter themed parties with A-list celebrities because they’re so cool.

Why are we so bad at predicting how Future Us will act?

You’re Tricked Into Believing You’ll Think And Feel Differently

Part of the problem lies in our inability to access our future selves’ thoughts and feelings. After all, they haven’t happened yet, so we don’t really know how we’ll think or feel.

It’s why students given the option of drinking a ‘soy sauce and ketchup’ concoction were convinced they’d be happy to drink more the following semester than in the next five minutes [3]. And why people who are hungry right now, are more likely to overstate their enjoyment for a bowl of spaghetti in the future, than those who are currently full [4].

We simply can’t fathom how different we’ll feel one hour, one day, and one week from now, so make wild predictions to make ourselves feel better. As Dan Gilbert, in his book Stumbling On Happiness, says, ‘…we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today’.

If faced with the familiar dilemma of choosing the piece of fruit or double-chocolate-chip cookie as a snack, you may well justify your decision by stating you’ll ‘choose the fruit next time.’ This is because you’re convinced you’ll be able to make more rational decisions next time around. Or you believe you’ll be more motivated or display greater levels of self-control to choose the Fuyu persimmon instead of the cookie. We know this isn’t true.

You can be fairly confident you’ll still feel the same apathy for making a decision that aligns with your goals, whether it be tomorrow or next week. Always assume the worst of your Future Self.

Your Predictions About Time Are Blurred

I’m sure at some point you’ve made plans to see a friend, only for that day to arrive and you realize you actually don’t like that friend, let alone want to have a drink with them.

When we make goals or plans that seem distant or abstract, we fail to account for that plan’s intricacies. We believe everything will be fine. However, when that day does arrive, we focus on the concrete features of that arrangement, such as remembering your friend isn’t a very nice person who once kicked your cat, and we instantly regret agreeing to meet up with them in the first place.

This Temporal Construct Theory [5] can be applied to our fat loss and muscle building efforts as well.

When activities, chores, or tasks seem further away in time, they seem blurry. When we make predictions about the future, we forget we have no real understanding of how that situation will look when it does arrive. We have a tendency to discount the future because we don’t have an appreciation of how we’ll feel or act.

Take going to the gym, for example.

If, on Monday, we decide we’ll sit on the sofa and watch Netflix because ‘you’ll go to the gym on Friday instead’, your vision of Friday is blurred. It’s too far in the future to discern what will happen. Like getting stuck at work, not feeling well, or again, wanting to sit on the sofa and watch Netflix. You end up not going to the gym on Friday either.

You Believe You’re Unique

Do you believe you’re an above average driver? If you’re like the majority of people, you think you are. Whether you are or not (you probably aren’t), herein lies the problem: we believe we’re different to, and better, than our peers. And, therefore, we think Future Us will similarly be different to, and better, than everyone else. This psychological phenomenon applies to sex too, and why most of us think we’re great at fucking.

One study concluded, ‘Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy – not to mention more attractive – than the average person.’ [6]

If this is the case, we firmly believe we’ll be able to combat the problems of laziness, willpower, and lack of time better than our friends. Even if we know everyone else struggles.

This is because we know how we currently feel and think, but have to guess how others feel and think. And, when that happens, we assume Future Us will come out on top.

Take starting the diet ‘next week’, as an example. How many people do you know who have said the same thing; that they’ll start on Monday? Only then to find themselves the following Thursday repeating the exact same declaration because they’ve wolfed down fourteen packs of biscuits and not been to the gym once.

Why do you think you’ll be any different? We’ve already established you’re no more special, better, or motivated than anyone else (even if you think you are), so why assume you’ll be able to start next week?

Believing you’re unique means you’ll think Future You will perform differently to others. In reality, Future You is nothing more than a replica of everyone else experiencing the same troubles.

How To Beat Future You Once And For All

Future You will rarely help Present You out. As I said, Future You sucks. So how can we ensure we don’t fall for the fragile assurances and commitments Future Us will promise us?

If You Can Do It Now, Do It Now

The belief we’ll complete a task later or feel more motivated a few days down the line is flawed. Future You isn’t that kind.

People have trouble persuading themselves to do the things they should, or want to, do. Instead of making efforts to push themselves towards goals, projects, and deadlines, they convince themselves they’ll be better set later on and end up performing trivial tasks instead – like watching videos of people tripping over inanimate objects online.

Instead of relying on Future You, it’s time to start taking action now.

Herb Kelleher, the industry revolutionizing and straight-talking founder of Southwest Airlines, is famous for creating his business plan on the back of a cocktail napkin and transforming the airline from three jets to America’s largest low-fare carrier. He most poignantly, once said, ‘We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.’

Waiting for ‘motivation’ or the ‘right time’ is like waiting for a bus. Instead of waiting for it to arrive on your doorstep, you need to go and meet it yourself. Action begets motivation. Not the other way around.

Think about making those healthy habits as easy as possible to complete. Like having a bowl of fruit on your desk at work or your gym bag conveniently placed by the front door. The more straightforward something is to achieve, the less likely you’ll be to put it off for Future You to deal with.

Forcing yourself to get the ball rolling, with a task that’s small and effortless will enable you to start slowly plodding forwards. Stop entrusting Future You to kick your butt into action and just focus on that next, small step now.

If you can make a healthy meal now, do it now. If you can get a quick 20-minute gym session now, do it now. If you can do it now, do it now.

Imagine Future You Having Completed The Task

When we turn to Future Us to make decisions in the present, we often imagine not having done something. Whether that be putting off that 45-minute walk with Grandma or suspending the two-hour meal prep session on Sunday, we often call on Future Us to reassure us we’ll do it later. Seldom does that happen, of course.

Instead, focus on Future You having completed the task. How would you feel if you had gone on that 45-minute walk or prepped all your meals?

One experiment asked couch potatoes to imagine a hoped-for future self who had just exercised and enjoyed excellent health and energy, which increased their current willpower [7]. By imagining Future You being happier and more accomplished with completing the task now, you’re more likely to follow through with it and, in the case of this study, exercise more frequently later down the line.

The next time you attempt to rely on Future You to guide your decision making, layout all the possibilities. How will you feel if you don’t do it now? How will you feel if you do do it now?

Chances are, you’ll realize Future You will be a whole lot happier and fulfilled if you call Grandma up or make your way to the kitchen.

Ask Someone

The problem with relying on Future You to make predictions about how you’ll feel when the time comes to choose a salad or go to the gym, is we have no information to go by. We’re simply making a wild guess as to how we’ll feel. As we know, this doesn’t always go to plan.

Instead, find someone who’s currently experiencing what you want to experience. Whether that be someone at the gym or a friend who’s already started losing weight.

By unearthing the thoughts, feelings, and emotions, of someone else who’s in the moment, you won’t have to rely on those wild guesses.

If you find out your friend, who’s currently crushing a set of heavy-ass deadlifts, feels strong, healthy, and on top of the world, you’ll probably realize you’ll want that feeling now and head to the gym. Or, if your friend who’s currently embarking on a diet has started to shed a few pounds and is feeling a lot more confident in themselves, you’ll be less likely to procrastinate and start today.

If we find someone who’s currently experiencing the decisions we’re pondering, we’re more likely to gain a realistic and improved view of how we’ll feel. Not the irrational and impractical forecasts we usually like to relieve ourselves with.

Speak To Your Future Self

Imagine receiving an email from Past You. Its ping sends a glorious rush of dopamine through your bones, and you find out he or she felt rather lazy a few days ago. Past You didn’t want to go to the gym but felt extremely bad and begged you to do it now. Would you be more inclined to do it? I’d take a guess and say you’d feel a twang of sympathy towards Past You and may well hit the gym.

Now, it’s possible to reverse this and think about sending that email to Future You. Imagine writing that email.

What are your current goals and aspirations? Describe to Future You what you’re currently doing. What would your future self thank you for, if you were completing certain tasks today?

By simply contemplating what you’d put in that email to Future You, you’re more likely to feel connected to your Future Self. And, if you want to sculpt a physique with bulging biceps or an eye-popping chest, you’re going to want to complete those tasks now. One study showed that people who wrote a letter to themselves 20 years into the future were more likely to exercise in the following days [8].

By sending, or simply imagining sending, a message, to Future You, you’ll be more inclined to take action now. You don’t want to let Future You down after you’ve just described your hopes and dreams, so set about choosing the low-calorie option or knocking out a quick biceps session.

In Summary, Future You Just Needs Some Help From Present You

Future You – that person who exists some way off in the future either tomorrow or next week – lures you into believing he or she will be more energetic, have more time, and possess more willpower. We like to think of our future selves as different people, as strangers almost. And this, unfortunately, causes all sorts of problems.

We’re unable to accurately predict future thoughts and feelings, we’re unable to make precise predictions the more an event is in the future, and we often believe we’re unique and won’t succumb to problems like others.

Instead, if you can perform a task now, you should avoid procrastinating. You should not only imagine Future You having completed the task but speak to someone who’s currently experiencing what you want to go through.

Avoid relying on Future You to make decisions for Present You. It rarely works in your favor.

References

[1] N. Weinstein, ‘Unrealistic Optimism About Future Life Events’, Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 39: 207-32 (1973)

[2] H. E. Stiegelis et al., ‘Cognitive Adaptation: A Comparison of Cancer Patients and Healthy references’ British Journal of Health Psychology 8: 303-18

[3] Pronin et al., ‘Doing Unto Future Selves as You Would Do Unto Others: Psychological Distance and Decision Making’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34: 224-36 (2008)

[4] D.T. Gilbert, M.J. Gill and T.D. Wilson, ‘The Future Is Now: Temporal Correction in Affective Forecasting’ Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 88: 430-44 (2002)

[5] Liberman, N., & Trope, Y. The Role Of Feasibility And Desirability Considerations In Near And Distant Future Decisions: A Test Of Temporal Construal Theory. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 75(1), 5–18 (1998)

[6] J. Kruger, ‘Lake Wobegon Be Gone! The ‘Below-Average Effect’ and the Egocentric Nature of Comparative Ability Judgements’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 221-32 (1999)

[7] E.C. Murru & K. A. Martin Ginis, Imagining The Possibilities: The Effects of a Possible Selves Intervention on Self-Regulatory Efficacy and Exercise Behaviour, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology 32: 537-54 (2010)

[8] Rutchick, A. M., Slepian, M. L., Reyes, M. O., Pleskus, L. N., & Hershfield, H. E Future Self-Continuity Is Associated With Improved Health And Increases Exercise Behaviour. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 72–80. (2018)

About the Author

Daniel Harrod is an online fitness and nutrition coach who helps people get lean, strong, and sexy. Based in England, he likes helping people change their lives, Diet Coke, and rest days. He hates whisky, Zumba, and Tottenham Hotspur FC fans.

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