You know you want to lose weight. Maybe you feel you really NEED to, or you have health problems that are weight-related, and your healthcare provider is urging you to shed some of those extra pounds.
Or, maybe fat loss isn’t a concern for you, but want to eat more healthfully or exercise more.
Perhaps you have a habit – like smoking – that is detrimental to your health, and you’d like to stop it.
It’s just so damn hard to make big changes though, isn’t it?
Lifestyle changes can be very challenging indeed. One significant reason is that it is human nature to seek pleasure and avoid (perceived) pain.
We also tend to live in the moment. Serious issues we should deal now with can be handled tomorrow. Or next week. Or next month.
But why do we do this? Why do we put off what we know needs to be done now?
Because we have a tendency to feel disconnected with the individuals we will be in the future.
How often do you think – really think – about what your life will be like in 1, 5, 10, or even 30 years?
Does your older self seem like a stranger?
There are two ways we create problems for our future self. One is by ignoring our future self’s needs. The other is by expecting our future self to deal with all the issues we don’t want to face right now.
For some reason, we are inclined to believe that our mythical, superstar future self is going to be more patient, more organized, more restrained, more motivated — more everything that we are not right now.
Do you tend to put off tasks – like weight loss – for a later date? Do you ever have thoughts like, “I’m going to eat this cake today, but starting tomorrow I’ll eat nothing but healthy food”? You’ll go to the gym, ditch the sodas, or toss out those cigarettes tomorrow.
Why do we think that our future self is going to miraculously want to handle everything we don’t even want to think about doing right now?
An intriguing theory about why we tend to choose immediate gratification over rewards that will pay off later has emerged from the field of addiction studies.
In the article To Change Your Life, Learn How to Trust Your Future Self (which I recommend reading in its entirety), Jeff Wise explains this concept:
The struggle, then, isn’t really between good and bad, but between the future and the present. And what’s exciting about this way of looking at things is that not only does this explain why some people can, and do, win the battle against temptation, but it also gives the rest of us a strategy for how we can do the same.
Wise refers to studies with pigeons conducted by George Ainslie that uncovered the likely reasons we seem to be hardwired to give into temptation. He provides an example that I certainly can relate to:
Suppose you want to become a novelist, so you decide to start getting up every day at 5 a.m. to write. How wonderful it will be to summon the muse tomorrow, you tell yourself as you set the alarm clock and slip into bed. Next thing you know, the alarm is going off, it’s pitch black, and you find yourself smacking the alarm’s off button, thinking, Ugh, no way, and sliding back into the pillow’s sweet embrace.
Of course, eventually you do wake up, at which point you realize that you’ve screwed up. You’ve shortsightedly traded your literary career for a few moments of comfort. But you couldn’t help it. When that cozy pillow was just a few inches away, totally un-discounted, its reward value was huge compared to its distant, steeply discounted alternative.
While we may indeed be hardwired to choose immediate rewards – even if they are much smaller and shorter in duration – Ainslie’s discovery has a silver lining.
Unlike pigeons, humans have the ability to foresee future payoffs — not just one, but strings of them stretching off into the future. When you struggle to get out of bed early, the trade-off isn’t really between one moment of indulgence and one moment of future contentment. It’s between a moment of indulgence right now versus many years spent enjoying a successful career.
Collectively, those moments of satisfaction will add up, a process Ainslie calls “bundling.” Like a worker assembling a gift basket, the brain’s subconscious reward circuitry computes the collective value of all the different benefits that will accrue tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and ties them all together in a package. Even if any of the individual future rewards may seem distant and hence hold little value, the whole bundle added up together amounts to something quite large—larger, even, than a single moment of pleasure in the here-and-now. The mountain will always remain larger than the tree.
In other words, mentally project yourself into the future so you can experience the satisfaction of tomorrow’s rewards today.
Researchers have found that people who more strongly identify with their future selves are better at self-control.
Wise quotes psychologist Hal Hershfield:
“Being able to step into the shoes of our future selves is akin to being able to realize both the positive and the negative ramifications of our decisions.”
In this TED Talk, Hershfield describes how we can help our future selves.
In order to “bundle”, you have to learn to trust yourself.
If you have a long history of unsuccessful lifestyle change attempts, you may believe that you are bound to fail any future attempts. You may have lost faith in yourself.
Wise describes an old study that supports this concept:
In the mid-1970s, psychologist Stephen Maisto conducted an experiment that would be forbidden today. He gave recovering alcoholics either a spiked punch or a similar-tasting virgin one. He then told half of each group that they’d just consumed alcohol, and the other half that they had not. As you might expect, half the test subjects experienced a sudden surge in craving. But it wasn’t strictly the ones who’d consumed alcohol. Whether they actually had or not, it was the ones who believed they had. The alcoholics who thought they’d had a drink believed that once they fell off the wagon they’d be hopeless, and therefore couldn’t bundle. So they couldn’t.
This aligns with research on self-image and self-sabotage. If you see yourself as a lazy person, you will continue to avoid getting things done. If you see yourself as fat, you will continue to fail at weight loss attempts. If you see yourself as a smoker, it will be very difficult to kick the habit. If you see yourself as poor and bad with money, you’ll likely continue to experience financial struggles.
As Ainslie puts it, desire is motivated. We tend to think of desire as something immutable, a thing that you either possess or you don’t. But if we don’t really think that something is available to us, we don’t want it. If we trust ourselves enough that we believe we won’t give in to temptation, that temptation is effectively not available and we stop wanting it.
To learn to trust yourself, make a list of your talents, good habits you have established, and your successes in life so far.
You can also build self-trust with this algorithm from Wise:
Step one: Choose a simple rule for yourself, one so simple and clear that you can’t possibly fail.
Step two: Make sure you follow step one.
The point is not to build a habit, but to establish a pattern of evidence for your own brain to observe. Find a very doable piece of behavior to adopt, then focus on doing it, no matter what. A person who wants to get up early might say, “I’m going to set my alarm five minutes early.” A person who wants to stop being a slob might say, “I’m going to make my bed before I leave the bedroom each morning.” A person who wants to learn French might say, “I’m going to do ten vocabulary flash cards on the train ride to work.”
The goals are so small they seem almost useless. But keep at them. As you establish credibility, you can use your new bundling power to set more ambitious goals.
It may be difficult to view your future self as YOURSELF. If that’s the case for you, try viewing it as a person you care deeply about, and whose future you want to be filled with health and happiness. What current you does is going to impact future you in tremendous ways, so keep that in mind every time you make a decision.