Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today   

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Leader’s Edge: Leadership

Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today*

By: Hal Hershfield

Little, Brown Spark 2023

304 Pages 

Find it on Amazon*

*As an Amazon Associate Missio Nexus earns from qualifying purchases.

Summary

Hal Hershfield is a professor of psychology, marketing, and behavioral decision-making at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management where he has won numerous teaching awards. His research on future selves has received attention in major American newspapers as well as television news stories. He is also published in academic journals.

Basing his argument on years of research, Hershfield explores how connecting with our “future self” can improve our lives right now and help us achieve our goals for the future.

In a thorough exploration of the subject, the author argues that while we want the best possible future for ourselves, we often fail to make decisions that would truly make that future a reality. Why choose steak over vegetables, waving off concerns about high cholesterol? Why splurge on luxury cars rather than save for retirement? 

The bookexplains that our future self often looks like a stranger. Many view their future as very distant, making them more likely to opt for immediate gratification, disregarding health and wellbeing in the years to come. Hershfield summarizes evidence that people who are able to more vividly connect with their future self are better able to balance living for today and planning for tomorrow. He describes the mental mistakes we make in thinking about the future self and provides advice for imagining one’s best future in a way that makes it more likely to be their future reality.

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Best Illustration

The bookexplains that our future self often looks like a stranger. Many view their future as very distant, making them more likely to opt for immediate gratification, disregarding health and wellbeing in the years to come. Hershfield summarizes evidence that people who are able to more vividly connect with their future self are better able to balance living for today and planning for tomorrow. He describes the mental mistakes we make in thinking about the future self and provides advice for imagining one’s best future in a way that makes it more likely to be their future reality.

Best Idea

“In the span of a few seconds, our thoughts can careen back and forth from the present into the near or far future, back to the present, then to the past, and back to the distant future, in what’s known as mental time travel. Our skill at such time travel may be, as Steven Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “the defining property of human intelligence.” Kindle location 82, 85

“What sets our species apart… is this ability to contemplate the future… we thrive by considering our prospects.” Kindle location 87

Best Take Away

My research focuses on understanding how this ability to time travel—albeit in our own minds—can help us manage our emotions and improve our decisions about the things that matter. Things, for example, like our finances or our health. Those are just two of the areas where our present-day wants run up against our long-term wishes. We want the slightly over-budget, nicer car; we want the extra cocktail or delicious-looking dessert. And yet at the same time, we wish to be financially stable and physically healthy.” Kindle location 107

Our Recommendation

This book is unlike many popular “self-help” books in that Hershfield discusses numerous academic psychological studies from which he derives his conclusions. In this respect it has much more “substance” than the previously mentioned volumes. His premise is very interesting and if one has the persistence to read a significant amount of research data, the book is a profitable read.

Best Quotes

“By strengthening the connections between our past, present, and future selves, we can gain a new perspective on what’s important—and help create the future we want. That, in essence, is one of the main points of this book.” Kindle location 111

“My research tells us… instead of there being a central self at our core, we are instead an aggregation of separate, distinct selves. You are actually a ‘we.’” Kindle location 118

“Learning how to effectively time travel can improve the way we think about and treat these different future selves, and thus help us create a better future.” Kindle location 132

“To make better decisions today that create happier tomorrows, we need to find ways to close the  gap between our current and future selves. That is the goal of this book.” Kindle location 142-143

“If we can treat those distant selves as if they are close others—people we care about, love, and want to support—then we can start making choices for them that appreciably improve our lives now and later.” Kindle location 148

“…The focus of the book’s second section (is to) highlight three common time-travel ‘mistakes’ we make. We ‘miss our flights,’ or get overly anchored on present-day concerns, failing to consider the future at all. We engage in ‘poor trip planning,’ thinking ahead in some surface-level way, without deeply considering what the future will look like. And finally, we ‘pack the wrong clothes,’ relying too much on our present self’s feelings and circumstances and projecting them onto a future self who might not feel the same way.” Kindle location 151

“Creating a better tomorrow shouldn’t be all about pain, so I also highlight techniques that make present-day sacrifices feel easier to tackle.” Kindle location 157

“One of the most popular articles published in the New York Times was entitled ‘Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.’ In it, philosopher Alain de Botton made the pessimistic but reassuring claim that there are no perfect unions and no perfect partners. We marry others not necessarily because we want to be happy (although that’s why we think we marry!), but because we want to make permanent the feelings we had at a relationship’s beginning. That urge, though, might not be entirely rational. ‘We marry,’ de Botton writes, ‘to bottle the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us,’ failing to fully recognize that our feelings for our partners will morph and shift in ways we can’t anticipate.” Kindle location 12

“We have five core personality traits—openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism—and most people show significant change in one of them across ten years. That’s something—one big trait changes over a decade! But four out of five remain pretty much the same. Continuity seems to be the pattern that wins out.” Kindle location 14

“If you feel a strong connection between your present and future selves—even though your present self is different from your past self, and your future self will be different from who you are today—you are much more likely to perform the hard work of self-improvement.” Kindle location 15

“If our future selves are strangers—like that coworker you barely know—then sure, there aren’t many good reasons to sacrifice for them. But if our distant selves are seen as more emotionally close to us—more like best friends or loved ones—then we may be considerably more likely to do things today that benefit us tomorrow.” Kindle location 45

“The more connected people are to their future selves, the better the grades they get in high school and college, and the more likely they are to exercise.” Kindle location 58

“The relationships we have with our future selves play a crucial role in the decisions we make. Stronger connections to our distant selves are linked to positive outcomes.  These improved outcomes can be found in a variety of areas, like enhanced financial well-being, a greater likelihood to exercise, better grades, and better psychological well-being.”  Kindle location 70

“In the decisions we make, in other words, we anchor on and pay too much attention to the thoughts and whims of our present selves…” Kindle location 77

“If we are hungry, thirsty, or feeling otherwise deprived in some visceral or deep-seated way, we will do our best to satisfy that need, even with something we’ll later regret. When we give in to those visceral impulses, it’s as if there’s an impetuous, toddler-like version of ourselves who wins out over the more patient adult inside us. Put in more biological terms, in our brains, we have a dopamine system (the toddler) as well as a system associated with our prefrontal cortex (the wise adult). The dopamine system triggers an emotional reaction to whatever is right in front of us.” Kindle location 88

“Our first time-traveling mistake is that we get overly focused on the present, failing to consider the future. There are at least three reasons for this tendency. First, the present is simply more certain than the future, and we’d rather take a sure bet now than a risky one later. Second, our present-day emotions seem more powerful than the ones we expect our future selves to feel. Third, time feels as if it lasts longer in the present, making it more difficult to exhibit patience. We may fail to see the ways in which our present selves add up to and become our future selves.” Kindle location 98

“Chronic procrastination is associated with a litany of undesirable outcomes, including poor mental health, anxiety, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.” Kindle location 101

“We know that our future selves will find it painful to do whatever task we’ve put off for them, but we trick ourselves into thinking that those future selves won’t find it that painful.” Kindle location 110

“When committing our future selves to some activity, consider both sides of their well-being. How much burden and stress will they experience? But also: what opportunities could arise for them by signing up to do something later rather than now?” Kindle location 120

“The second time-traveling mistake is that we think ahead to the future, but only in a surface-level way. Procrastination is a classic example of this mistake: in not considering the future in a particularly deep way, we fail to recognize just how much our future selves will want to avoid the same negative situations we’re escaping today.” Kindle location 122

“’Projection bias’ refers to our tendency to make decisions for the future based on our current emotions and drives rather than on the emotions and drives we will predictably be experiencing when those decisions go into effect.” Kindle location 130

“Even though our tastes and preferences are always evolving, we often make decisions with our current selves in mind. Only later do we grapple with the fact that our previous selves—who no longer share the same viewpoints as those of the people we’ve become—made important decisions that affect us now.” Kindle location 145

“Our final time-traveling mistake: we fail to recognize the ways in which the future may be different from the present. Projection bias is one example of this mistake: we take our present-day emotions and over-project them onto our future selves. The end-of-history illusion is another example: we think that our current personalities and preferences won’t change that much in the years ahead. As a result of both projection bias and the end-of-history illusion, we may make decisions we’ll later regret, from what we eat to the careers we pursue.” Kindle location 147

“Students were confronted with images of their same-aged or digitally aged avatars every few weeks as they responded to check-in surveys. Those who met their future selves displayed a higher motivation to learn about financial planning and greater confidence in their financial abilities, which ultimately translated into increased financial knowledge (or what researchers call ‘financial literacy’.)” Kindle location 163

“When high school students befriended their forty-something future selves on Facebook for a week, they were slightly less likely to act in delinquent ways that week.” Kindle location 166

“Researchers Dan Bartels and Oleg Urminsky have found that to change behavior, we must know that our future selves exist and care about the outcomes that will befall them. With the appropriate context, seeing older versions of ourselves may help on both fronts: just like glasses help with seeing, and cochlear implants help with hearing, age-progressed images serve as aids to our imagination, making our future selves more top of mind and enhancing our ability to empathize with them.” Kindle location 167

“To bridge the gap between present and future selves, you can ‘make the future closer.’ You can do this by visualizing the future self with age-progressed images or by writing letters to and from your future self. But context matters. Simply seeing your aged self or writing letters to or from them may not be enough to change behavior. Instead, pair these ‘vividness’ exercises with situations where you can make an immediate choice (like an online investment platform).” Kindle location 176

“Pre-commitment was first formally discussed by Thomas Schelling, an economist who won the 2005 Nobel Prize, in the context of preventing the escalation of the Cold War. Back in 1956, he suggested that nations could lessen the likelihood of an all-out conflict by committing to a course of action in advance.” Kindle location 185

“If psychological commitment plans—or any sort of commitment plans—are offered in a way that doesn’t signal urgency, they most likely won’t be adopted.” Kindle location 190

“Before we set out to constrain our future courses of action… we must first appreciate that there are things in our environment that tempt us and then identify what those things are.” Kindle location 204

“To better ensure that you arrive at the future you want, consider ‘commitment device’ strategies that make it harder to fall prey to temptation. The weakest form is known as a ‘psychological commitment’: make a plan to commit to a course of action. Try to recruit an accountability partner—someone who can make sure that you do the thing you said you were going to do. Stronger yet are commitment devices where tempting options are removed from your environment. More extreme still are commitment devices where punishments are enacted if you veer off track. If possible, make the punishments automatic so that you leave no room for negotiations with yourself.” Kindle location 204

“Bereaved adults who express positive emotions when talking about their deceased spouse show lower levels of grief over time. Reliving happy memories alongside feelings of sadness results in a healthier course of bereavement.” Kindle location 215

“The larger lesson is that, by adding a measure of positive emotion to the negative, we make it easier to cope with life’s stressors and push through difficult times in the present to better times in the future.” Kindle location 215

“Making the big small isn’t just about purchasing consumer goods, however; there are other areas in which this strategy will help. For instance, when it comes to paying off debt, people have an easier time following through on a debt repayment plan where they start by paying off smaller accounts. And asking people to donate four hours of their time per week—or eight hours every two weeks—results in more success than asking for two hundred hours annually. Generally speaking, breaking a larger goal into its smaller components can help make present-day challenges feel easier, even if there’s some nuance to the strategy.” Kindle location 223

“I’ve spent most of this book preaching the importance of knowing and befriending our future selves. It might seem strange that I’m suddenly discussing times when we should skip sacrifices and… just go for joy in the present. But I don’t think so: living too much for tomorrow may make life worse for both our present and future selves. Unfortunately, there’s no guidebook to figuring out the so-called right balance between now and later.” Kindle location 228-229

“We’re regularly reminded that we need to save for tomorrow. To some extent, that’s a central message of this book. But as Richards put it, that’s only one side of the coin: ‘Don’t forget about the other side: Spend for tomorrow. Because it’s not just money you’re going to need off in the distant future.’ If we live only for tomorrow, we’ll deprive our future selves of the very memories and experiences and friends and family that help make life worth living.” Kindle location 229

“The final way, then, to make the present easier is to give in occasionally. To skip the sacrifice and indulge in the experiences that cost money and time but bring a different sort of wealth. That may be a way not only to make tomorrow better, but to make today better, too.” Kindle location 232

“Tension exists when Current You has to sacrifice for the benefit of Future You. But you can improve future outcomes by making those present-day sacrifices easier to undertake. One category of strategies is to ‘take the good with the bad’: Experiencing positive emotions in the face of negative events may provide a buffer of sorts, allowing better insight into stressors big and small.” Kindle location 232

“’Temptation bundling,’ where you pair tempting positive activities with the things that feel like sacrifices, can be effective. And ‘tangential immersion,’ where you pair the boring task with something that’s slightly more interesting, can help you stay on track.” Kindle location 232

“You can also ‘make the big small’ and break sacrifices down into smaller, easier-to-accomplish pieces. We must also find ways to celebrate the present. Recognize that if we live only for tomorrow, we may arrive at a future that’s devoid of the memories and experiences that make life worth living.” Kindle location 232

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