I’d Hate to Be That Guy! – Future Self Continuity

Future Self Continuity

Today I want to talk to you about...you.


Not you as in the you-reading-this-post-right-now, but the you-of-the-future. The you who is going to achieve all the great things you have planned for your life. The you who is going to have all kinds of incredible experiences to share with the world.

What does your future look like?

When we fantasize about the future, about what kind of person we’ll become, what kind of parents we’ll make, what kind of kids we’ll raise, what kind of career we’ll have, we naturally assume the best. You would think having that kind of positive outlook would be a good thing...and it is, except when it isn’t.

Do you remember all those times when you put something off that you knew you should be working on because…

...you were just too tired

…you weren’t quite sure what to do

…maybe your friend was having a great party and that cute girl or guy was gonna be there

...you just really needed to watch that Lord of The Rings marathon (for the fifth time)?

Every time you made one of those decisions to put off doing something, you were passing the buck to future you.

What will tomorrow bring?

When you put something off for no good reason, you rationalize that future you will be more prepared, more organized, have more time, more energy, more [insert here whatever thing you don’t currently have enough of] than you do right now. And so, it only makes sense to put it off until then, right?

This false logic is called future discounting, and we all do it. The reason we do it is because of a quirk in your brain that causes you to think about your future self as a different person. Even though you consciously understand that future you and right-now you are the same person, your brain doesn’t process the concept of future you that way.

In a series of experiments, people were asked to think about friends or family members while having functional brain scans. They were then asked to think about themselves as they are today, and then at a point several months to several years in the future.

These experiments showed that the areas of the brain that are activated when thinking about your current self is different than the ones that are activated when thinking about future you.

That finding, in and of itself, isn't terribly surprising. The future is kind of an abstract concept and you might expect that thinking about yourself in that context would use different parts of the brain than when thinking about your current, tangible “reality”.

Why future self continuity is a problem

But the part of the experiment that's really interesting is the fact that the brain uses the same areas when thinking about future you as it does when thinking about other people!

So, not only do you naively think that future you will have more time, energy, etc., but because you think of that future self as a different person, you have no problem satisfying your current, impulsive desires at the expense of future you. This connection (or lack thereof) between you and future you is called your future self continuity.

The reality, of course, is that future-you does not have any more time, energy or motivation. He or she is just like you, and will likely make the same kinds of choices that you make today.

If you want to avoid pushing all your problems and responsibilities off on future-you, the key is to make a more tangible connection between your current self and the abstract future-you, so that your brain subconsciously understands that future person really is you. Doing so will greatly enhance your future self continuity.

Using technology to increase your future self continuity

There are a couple different ways to use technology to make that connection to future-you. One is a service called FutureMe. It is a very simple website that allows you to send an email to yourself, at a future date that you specify. You could use it to tell your future self about…

...your current state of mind

...struggles you are experiencing

...things you are worried about in the future

...things you hope to accomplish, or anything else you would like your future self to know about your current situation.

There are also some apps and websites out there (like AgingBooth) that allow you to take a picture of your current self and the software will automatically age the image to show you what you may look like well into the future.

Another simple, low-tech way to improve your future self continuity is to spend time thinking about the future. It doesn’t really matter what you think about, as long as it involves you in some way, and you visualize it in vivid detail, attaching as much emotion and sensory information as possible.

Research has shown that doing this type of visualization gives your brain a more concrete connection between right-now-you and future-you, and reduces your likelihood to push today’s problems off into the future.

Since another aspect of growing your motivation involves defining your future goals and getting crystal clear on what success looks like, this future-self exercise is a great way to kill two birds with one stone!

I look forward to hearing how this strategy works for you. Leave a comment below to let me know!