When was the last time you asked yourself: “What would my future self thank me for?” You might never have pondered this, but often, you will have experienced the benefits of considering it, even if you weren’t aware you were doing at the time. Maybe it’s loading the dishwasher before you head out on an emergency shift, clearing your diary the day after an on-call that you anticipate to be busy, or making your lunch the night before work. All of these things make our life easier, but often it feels hard to do it, however logical it might be on paper to think in this strategic way. We can often see the opposite when we procrastinate on a task - we push it forward, anticipating that maybe in the future, we’ll have more time or resources, or maybe it’ll feel a bit less daunting, until it catches up with us. Procrastination is another story in itself.
It’s interesting when you really start to consider the relationship that we have with our “Future Self”. I’m not the only one with this interest though, and came across a fascinating study. Hershfield, a psychologist at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, wanted to know why many people didn’t tend to save for their retirement. The 100 year life is real, so why aren't people preparing for it? He set up a study to find out how much people identify with their 'Future Self'. Hershfield and team scanned the brains of participants whilst asking them to what degree did certain traits identify with their: ● Current Self, ● their Future Self, and ● another person Perhaps unsurprisingly, people’s brains were most active when thinking about their Current Selves and least active when thinking about another person. Hershfield’s team found that the brain activity of participants considering their Future Self and another person, closely resembled each other- far more so than when considering their Current Self.
Put simply, 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 the person who just served you in Tesco, someone on LinkedIn or Ed Sheeran. Ie, our brains often thinks our Future Self is someone totally different.
With this information, saving for retirement is the neurological equivalent of giving money away to another person. Acting in your own self-interest (as your brain classifies it), it becomes perfectly logical to not start saving for retirement. The same goes for procrastinating on a task - passing it to our Future Self - feels like we’ve given it to someone else, often forgetting that they’ll likely have similar time pressures, struggles and worries to those that we have in that moment.
In a further study, Hershfield wanted to look at how to help bridge together the gap between Current Self and Future Self. He and his team took photos of study participants, then used technology to age their faces. Participants were able to look into a mirror and see their aged selves looking back at them, interestingly those that experienced this said they would save 30% more of their salary for retirement than the control group.
If you want to, you can even use apps to take a glimpse at future you! But, I know you’re a busy veterinary audience in often hectic clinical scenarios, so perhaps it’s wiser for us to look at some other strategies that can be useful in helping us to remember that Future You is the same as Current You:
● Writing a letter to or from your Future Self can help you feel connected. This might be around a goal, ambition or future plans.
● Transferring years into days, can make the future seem closer and hence us more connected. e.g. 20 years is 7305days, the latter some how seems less far away.
● Consciously ask yourself: "What would my future self thank me for?" Remembering your future self will also have time pressures and challenges. E.g. If you haven’t had 5 free hours to study for the last few weeks, it is unlikely that will be available in the near future, how about lowering the bar and making it more doable? This ties in nicely with
self-compassion tools, or treating yourself with the same kindness and empathy that you would of a friend or loved one.
I’d love for you to think about what your future self would thank you for over the next few weeks.
Ersner-Hershfield, Hal et al. “Don't stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving.” Judgment and decision making vol. 4,4 (2009): 280-286.