Future Me, Where Are You?

Photo by César Abner Martínez Aguilar on Unsplash

“I’ll face that tomorrow, when I have more energy.”

“I’m going to find some time next week when I’m caught up.”

“I’ll have the energy to face that after I change my diet.”

Sound familiar? We all have a hypothetical future self who tends to be much more together and energetic than we feel at any given moment. Why do we believe that tomorrow, or next week, or with the ingestion of more salads, we will be an entirely different person?

Future self does not exist yet, so it is easy (and fun!) to envision a self that lacks all the factors keeping you stuck. Future self gets plenty of sleep, exercises without sore muscles or minor injuries, lacks the unproductive thoughts and mental health issues of current self, feels motivated all the time, and is just basically a badass.

My only complaint about future self is that she never shows up. I wake up in the morning plagued by the same spinning thoughts and body aches that made it hard to focus yesterday. I feel the same lack of motivation to start a new project or work on an old one. I don’t particularly want to eat a salad.

A mistake that is easy to make is thinking our conscious mind is — at some point — going to be in control of our actions. It never is. The unconscious mind is so much more powerful and effective, our measly intellect doesn’t stand a chance. We tend to ignore the fact that we are primarily acting on thoughts we don’t know we’re having, and erroneously try to consciously think our way into a better or more productive life.

While the unconscious mind is incredibly complex and sophisticated, its motivation is quite simple. It is programmed for survival. It responds to cues like “this cookie is full of calories” and floods you with rewarding endorphins which make it almost impossible not to want to eat another.

You have a lifetime of reward cues programmed into your operating system that are based on your experiences and also generations of evolution. It is possible to shift existing cues and create new ones, but it is not easy. And it’s not a matter of thinking. You have to convince your subconscious mind that a salad is better than a cookie.

Cognitive behavioral therapy tries to get at underlying beliefs and question them consciously to start to reprogram unconscious thoughts. The problem is that the unconscious mind is difficult to convince with facts. It’s looking for survival cues in every microsecond and is not particularly interested in your future self or future health. If an action is not connected to immediate survival-based rewards (calories, sex, warmth, escape from predators) it’s not worth doing, according to your brain. So the trick is convincing your brain that the desired behavior is rewarding in this moment as well as in the future.

That’s where tricks come in. Activities (and cookies) you really like already have built in reward cues you have developed over your lifetime. You can identify your existing happy cues and start to associate them with desired behaviors that may have a longer reward cycle. In other words, if you finish a chapter of your book, you get a cookie.

Cookies, gold stars, little boxes checked off on to-do lists or habit-tracking app — these seemingly small (and childish?) rewards can trick your brain into developing new behavior patterns. If it feels silly to give an adult a gold star for washing the dishes, just remember that your unconscious mind is working on the same principles it did when you were six years old. You gain wisdom and knowledge as you age, but the part of your brain that determines your behavior doesn’t evolve much at all. It still wants a gold star.

The only way to get to the future self you imagine is to repeat the behaviors you want until they are just part of who you are. It’s an uphill battle and can take years. It’s natural to want change to happen quickly, but it rarely does.

How to Become Your Future Self in Five Easy Steps

One: Answer a simple question: What kind of person do I want to be? Do you want to be the kind of person who meditates and eats vegan? How about a world traveler who takes amazing photos? Maybe you want to be the world’s most dedicated fantasy football player. Or someone who scuba dives and loves chihuahuas. A quiet accountant? A bawdy comedienne? A tightrope walker! Are you a whiskey drinker or a teetotaler? Do you care about fine dining? Do you make art? Are you a minimalist or a collector? Is family the most important thing for you? Are you a loner or a pack animal? Write down a description of your mythical future self in as much detail as you can.

Two: Identify the gaps between current self and future self. Okay, so you want to be a sober vegan? Going to the bar for a burger is not helping. If you’re going to be a tightrope walker you’ll need great balance and a strong core. Write down all of the things that need to change in your life to get to the person you described.

Three: Make a simple plan. For each change you have identified, what are the daily behaviors that will bring about the change over time? If you find yourself with a long list, focus on just one or two to start, and start with the easiest ones! If you push yourself too hard you will want to give up.

Four: Stack habits. Take your one or two behaviors and stack them onto your existing daily routine. Do you get out of bed every day? Do you shower? Find spaces to fit new habits immediately before or after existing ones will help you remember to do them regularly. It’s easier to do something every day than sometimes.

Five: Rinse and repeat. Your vision for a future self may shift over time, so revisit it every so often. It is a good idea to set a date yearly (or quarterly, or monthly) to recalibrate. The initial behaviors you picked will eventually become second nature. It may take some time, but once you no longer have to think about them or force yourself into action you can start layering in other desired changes. The only way to get to your future self is to repeat your future self’s behavior, over and over and over, until future self is you.

In the Meantime, Don’t be a Jerk

By this I mean: don’t be a jerk to yourself. You have recognized that future self is not who you are today, so don’t beat yourself up for not being that person who doesn’t exist. If you are actively changing behavior and miss a day (or a week), just get back to it as soon as you can. If you continually fail, there could be a couple of of things going on:

Outside influences. I’m going to use addiction here as an example because it is a common and straightforward one. It can be hard to quit using an addictive substance because the substance is addictive. It is not a moral failure, or something wrong with you. Anyone who uses an addictive substance can become addicted. Anyone who does so regularly IS addicted. This is not because of some maladjustment, it’s because of the substance, which is addictive — an outside influence.

Of course we also have toxic relationships, bad jobs (and good jobs), diseases, accidents, poverty, natural disasters, bad weather, taxes, etc. etc. etc. Life is full of stuff, much of which is outside of our control. If outside influences are coming between you and your future self, identify ways you can work around them or change them.

You’re not being honest with yourself. If you say you want to be vegan but you keep buying steaks, you may want to adjust your goal to include steaks. When visualizing future self, it can be tempting to envision the ideal human. Don’t. Identify your true self, steaks and all. I am never going to be a person who will go to a fitness bootcamp. That’s just not me. Take a look at your future self description and be honest, “is this me?” If not, shift it to match who you know yourself to be.

Your Future Self Will Sneak Up on You

Your transformation to your future self will be gradual and slow, and then one morning you will wake up and realize you’re 90% there. No one gets to 100%, sorry. If you keep repeating the behaviors of your future self, over time that becomes who you are.

Unfortunately, there is no one who is going to show up tomorrow and be more motivated than you are today. So for now just be who you are and accept your (lack of) motivation as your current reality.

I write. I think. I manage stuff. I chirp.

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