Imagine Your Future Self

Have you ever wondered why it can be so difficult to stop procrastinating?  We’ve offered tips before on how to stop procrastinating, and you could procrastinate all day by reading the science behind it.  (Ask me how I know – from the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience to a fascinating working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research on college students’ procrastination and present bias, I may have read it all.)

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The short version, though, is that humans have trouble picturing our future selves, a phenomenon known as present bias, which makes procrastination appealing.  As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert explained in this week’s Video of the Week “the ease of remembering versus the difficulty of imagining” is at the root of the problem.  This isn’t a character flaw: according to Dr. Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, 95% of us admit to at least occasional procrastination (which probably means that 5% of us are liars).   And we’ve likely all heard of the marshmallow test, where children’s ability to delay gratification has been associated with all kinds of future benefits. (If you haven’t, check it out here.)  As ingrained as present bias may be, you can learn to diminish it.  The more you can see yourself as connected to your future self, the more likely you are to take actions today that will help yourself in the future.  While we know instinctively that this is true, it has huge impacts on our lives, including how likely we are to save for retirement.

So how do you diminish your present bias and ultimately be better able to make decisions that will help future you?

Here are some strategies:

First, start small. Imagine post-weekend or post-vacation you.  If you find yourself on Friday afternoon wanting to waste time reading the internet (unless, of course, you’re catching up on the Apochromatik blog), ask yourself what you can do to help Monday morning you.  Most likely, you would like to come in to a clean desk, with a clear list of priorities for the week, and without nagging tasks left over from the week before.  After imagining what you would like Monday morning, be specific in thinking about how you will feel if those tasks are done.  Will you feel relieved?  Happy? Grateful?  Whatever it is, take time to picture it in detail.  Then set a timer and force yourself to spend 15 minutes doing things to benefit yourself come Monday morning. On Monday morning, make a conscious effort to appreciate how the work you did Friday afternoon made your Monday more pleasant.

You can do the same thing by thinking ahead about how you want to come back from a vacation and ask yourself what you can do before vacation to make your life better after vacation.  I like to do this about a week before a vacation, because when I put it off until the day before I’m leaving, it doesn’t get done.  Instead, ask yourself what professional and personal tasks you can do in advance to help post-vacation you have a less stressful return. That might mean getting a jump start on a work project due after your return, placing a grocery order for the day you get back, cleaning your office before you leave, or packing the weekend before a trip so you can reserve the night before your departure for picking up your house.  Then picture (and this is key to developing this skill) how you will feel as a result.  Finally, take the time to do those tasks, and then to appreciate them upon your return.

Once you start thinking ahead and taking actions to benefit future you, you can start to think in terms of longer periods of time. Summer is a great time to do this.  Ask yourself now what professional or personal things September you would be excited about and glad to look back on, then get moving.  Maybe that means making a summer bucket list with your family to take advantage of warmer weather, and then scheduling and taking action to make those things happen.  Or maybe that means satisfying a December professional continuing education requirement in August when the office is quiet so you aren’t trying to complete it in the busy time around the holidays.  (If your office is quieter during the summer, our tips on how to take advantage of a quiet office can be helpful any time of year.)  Maybe there’s a new habit you want to create – check out our tips, pick one to adopt, and get going.  Or maybe you know that September you will be better off if you stop pondering and finally get your resume ready for the busy fall hiring season.  ( can help you do this quickly and easily.)

Second, as you imagine future you, be specific.  Imagine (writing down is even better) what you will feel like when you open the door to a clean office Monday morning, turn in a project without being exhausted and frazzled, go into the fall after truly enjoying time with family and friends this summer, or can say “sure, I’ll send you my resume” without having to go into a frantic panic.  This may feel silly, but the more vivid an image you create for yourself, the more likely you are to follow through.  That, in turn, will enhance your ability to imagine future you and make decisions you’ll be glad for in the future.

Third, set yourself up to take action by carving out the time to do it, whether an hour a week before a vacation, 15 minutes on Friday afternoon, or a 30 minute family meeting to create a summer bucket list.

Fourth, be realistic. As the marshmallow test shows, present bias isn’t just a bad habit you’ve picked up, it’s often deeply engrained and something that has been affecting your decision making your entire life.  You won’t change it overnight.  But the more you can consciously think in terms of future you, the more you can start taking action and making better decisions.

Fifth, celebrate your victories.  Don’t just sit down at your clean desk Monday; take a moment to be grateful to Friday you for taking the time and making the effort to set you up for success. Don’t just think “it’s nice to turn in a project early.” Reward yourself.  By giving yourself time to mentally (and even out loud) express gratitude and reward yourself, you will start to associate visualizing future you and taking care of tasks in advance with positive feelings. Remember that progress and improvement (not perfection) are the goal.  Every time you bargain with your future self, you move beyond your own present bias and can enhance your future happiness and success as a result.  Don’t procrastinate – get started today, and let us know how we can help.