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Can’t work towards your long-term goal? Blame your brain

No, it’s not your lack of self control. It’s how your brain was wired.

Can’t work towards your long-term goal? Blame your brain
[Photo: jesse orrico/Unsplash]

Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, wanted to know why people weren’t saving for retirement.

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Across the board, people are living longer. Logically, they’ll need more money to live comfortably in their post-work years. And yet, savings rates in the U.S. have gone down in recent decades, not up.

To help explain this seemingly irrational behavior, Hershfield and his team scanned the brains of study participants while asking them to what degree various traits – like “honorable” or “funny” – applied to their current self, their future self, a current other, or a future other. As participants answered, Hershfield’s team recorded which parts of their brains lit up.

Unsurprisingly, people’s brains were most active when thinking about their current selves and least active when thinking about a current other. But Hershfield’s team found that participants’ brain activity while considering their future selves more closely resembled brain activity while thinking about a current other rather than the current self.

Put in practical terms, when thinking of yourself in a month or a year or a decade, your brain registers that person in ways similar to how it would register Taylor Swift or the mailman or the lady driving the car in the next lane over. Understood in that way, saving for retirement is the neurological equivalent of giving money away to someone else entirely.

In light of Hershfield’s study and others like it, I wanted to answer one simple question: Is it possible to make our present selves give a damn about our future selves? The answers I found were anything but simple.

Why do we self-sabotage?

Seen through the lens of the present self versus the future self, our self-defeating actions–like choosing to watch Netflix rather than go to the gym–suddenly make perfect sense.

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We get to enjoy the very concrete, immediate benefits of our actions while someone else (namely, our future selves) suffer the hypothetical, far-off consequences. As a result, the decisions we make for our present selves often look very different from our decisions for our future selves.

We believe that tomorrow will be different. We believe that we will be different tomorrow; but in doing so, we prioritize our current mood over the consequences of our inaction for the future self.

Of course, the future self inevitably becomes the present self, and we are left to deal with what we avoided in the past as well as our feelings of shame, guilt, and worry. We overcommit and then procrastinate on our commitments. Then we punish ourselves for this procrastination, creating further negative feelings around the next tasks before us. So begins the cycle of increasingly negative emotions and further procrastination.

Understanding our procrastination through the lens of the present and future selves, we’re left with three possible solutions:

1. Force your future self to do whatever it is your present self doesn’t want to do

In the psychological warfare between your present self and your future self, your present self has a couple of key advantages.

First, you can be fairly confident that your future self will think and act in the same exact way that your present self thinks and acts. That means you have full knowledge of your future self’s weaknesses and can anticipate your future self’s actions and counteractions with reasonably high accuracy.

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Second, your present self can do any number of things to make your future self’s life easier. Or harder depending on how you look at it. And until time travel is invented, your future self can’t do a thing to stop you.

Make it easy for your future self to do whatever it is your present self doesn’t want to do–whether it’s setting up automatic withdrawals from your bank account every month if you want to save money, or prepping healthy meals on Sunday if you want to improve your diet.

The specific tactics you use to set your future self up for better choices will depend on your unique goals. The important thing is to remember that your future self is going to do everything in her power to not do whatever it is that you want her to do, so you’ll need to be both creative and ruthless.

2. Convince your present self that your future self is, in fact, still you

If the central problem is that we think of our future selves as other people–people we clearly don’t mind screwing over–it follows that trying to identify more closely with our future selves will encourage us to make better long-term decisions.

In a followup to his 2009 neuroimaging study, Hershfield wanted to explore ways to bridge the disconnect between the present and future selves and encourage people to save more for retirement. He and his team took photos of study participants, then used image processing to visually age their faces. Participants were then placed in a virtual reality setting where they could look into a mirror and see their aged selves looking back at them. Participants who saw their aged selves said they would save 30% more of their salary for retirement than the control group.

Whatever your long-term goals may be–getting in better shape, launching your own business, writing a book–thinking about your deadline in terms of days rather than months or years can help you wrap your mind around how close the future really is.

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3. Forget about your future self and use your present self’s love of instant gratification to your advantage

While the two tactics above can be effective in making better long-term choices, in the end, you’re still struggling against human nature. Our brains are hard-wired for instant gratification. Instead of fighting your present self’s need for immediate rewards, why not use it to your advantage?

When most of us set goals, we focus on long-term results we want to see–e.g., losing weight, getting a promotion, retiring in comfort, mastering your craft, etc. While those visions of our future selves can be inspiring, when it comes to actually doing the day-to-day work it may be more effective reframe activities in terms of their immediate (or at least very near-term) rewards.

Take writing this article, for instance. It’s easy for me to imagine how amazing it will feel at the end of the workday to have this article done and off my to-do list for good.

Note that I did not say how amazing it will feel when the article is published to the fanfare of thousands of adoring fans and I’m offered a book deal and I turn it into a New York Times bestselling masterpiece and go on a first-class world tour to promote it, etc., etc. Instead, I’m going to focus on the sense of accomplishment I’ll feel in just four hours time when I will no longer have to feel guilty about not finishing this thing I’ve put off for so long that it’s started to feel like a squirmy eel in the pit of my stomach every time I think about it.

This isn’t just me talking anecdotally. Research partners Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach of the University of Chicago have made a career out of studying the differences between the goals that people achieve and the ones that fall to the wayside:

“In one study, we asked people online about the goals they set at the beginning of the year. Most people set goals to achieve delayed, long-term benefits, such as career advancement, debt repayment, or improved health. We asked these individuals how enjoyable it was to pursue their goal, as well as how important their goal was. We also asked whether they were still working on their goals two months after setting them. We found that enjoyment predicted people’s goal persistence two months after setting the goal far more than how important they rated their goal to be.”

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This pattern held true across a wide variety of goals from exercising to studying to eating healthier foods. For example, people ate 50% more of a healthy food when directed to focus on the good taste rather than the long-term health benefits.

These findings suggest that when it comes to achieving your goals, enjoying the process itself is more important than wanting the long-term benefits. In other words, present self trumps future self.

Who says instant gratification has to be a bad thing? By all means, set ambitious long-term goals for your future self, but when it comes to actually following through day-to-day, make sure your present self knows what’s in it for her too.


A version of this article was originally published on Doist and is adapted with permission.

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