Your Future You Needs You

I must say I am finding all sorts of avenues to court joy these days. Sometimes it’s in the competency of the woman who needs to draw a vile of blood from me, or in a colleague who sends an especially sweet text after an afternoon run with me, or a dear friend who has offered to do me a huge favor with her precious and newly retired time. Joy floats all around in those sweet gifts. But there is something else that I am feeling. I am just really happy with many of my choices: those made yesterday, last year, maybe even ten years ago, when I set in motion a lifestyle with Future Me in mind. You get what I mean right? It didn’t all happen at once, but little by little I realized that I needed to lead Present Me around on a short lease and think about tomorrow. She’s a bit of a wild child who wants to run, well wild, this Present Me. She’s not always reliable. She’s not factual either. Oh the stories she tells afterwards are pretty colorful, but they can led to a less than happy future me. Sometimes Present Me does win me over, and sometimes, even in her worst decisions, I smile, a bit hungover, with sore dancing feet, and an embarrassing selfie plastered all over my socials at midnight… but mostly, I keep her in check.

Actually, this notion of our two selves comes from Katy Milkman, who is a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School. In her new book, How To Change, she studies how we can use the mind to combat the limitations of the mind. On Hidden Brain last month she stated, “Some of us figure out that we have two selves and that they are in conflict, and this is a challenge we need to resolve, but some of us go through life without paying a lot of attention to this fact, or trying to find ways to overcome it.” Her words struck a cord with me because I know this internal struggle well. My spouse and I often joke about having a ‘bad brain’ and this is exactly what we meant by that silly expression.

Shankar Vedantam is the host of the podcast Hidden Brain, and as he started the episode “You, But Better” which aired on December 26th, I was captivated. “There are two kinds of challenges we face. One kind involves a novel problem. We don’t know why we’re sick. A new disease suddenly sweeps the world, and it doesn’t have a cure. Novel challenges call for discovery, invention. As a species, we are very good at coming up with such discoveries, but many of the setbacks in our lives are not caused by such problems. They’re caused by problems whose solutions were discovered a long time ago. Think about the leading causes of death in most countries. They are connected to smoking, diet, and sedentary lifestyles. We know what we ought to do to live better. We should eat right and exercise and get a good night’s rest live, within our means. So, why is it so hard to actually do those things?” His question generated plenty of discussion from Ms. Milkman. In fact, each question he asked brought more and more evidence that our Present Me is up against quite a bit in our day to day, causing all sorts of challenges for Future Me.

Shankar Vedantam asked, “How do temptations often derail us from reaching our aspirations?” Once again Milkman answered with clarity, “present bias is one of the most pernicious obstacles we face when it comes to achieving our goals.” This Present Me really isn’t thinking about our health or wealth or much else needed for Future Me to live in joy. We are basking in the Present after all. When it comes to our physical being, this is where we need to be living off the dividends we put in, and continue to do, despite the cold or grey or impulse to hibernate in January. We need to plan for down the line.

So, as we are on the eve of the Chinese New Year, I propose that we each set some new goals for ourselves, for every new beginning is a new opportunity for change. As Milkman suggested, “Who I was last year, that was the old me. This is the new me. Or who I was last week, that was the old me. This is the new me. And that gives us license to say, well, their failures were sort of the failures of a different person. Yeah, last year I couldn’t quit smoking or get an exercise routine going, but that was the old me. The new me can do it. So, it gives us more optimism, and we’re also more likely, it seems, to step back and think big picture about our lives and our goals at those moments because they’re disruptions to the day to day, and those kinds of disruptions lead to more reflection. Most of the time when we try to set a goal or try to make a change, we do fall on our face. Maybe once, maybe twice, maybe 10 times. It’s rare to succeed on your first try. So, it seems really adaptive to me that we’ve developed these ways of setting those failures aside and feeling fresh motivation.” So try again, and again: you are worth it.

Of course, I do also want to suggest you reward your Present Me with bubbles and love too. Milkman reassures us when she states, “in some ways, being non-judgmental about ourselves can help us become the people we want to be.” Be kind to your flighty and impulsive self, the one that says yes too often or not at all, the one who runs away or runs straight into it, the one who is your constant on the couch. Love all of you. That will be the best gift for Future Me ever.

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