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Learning to love your future self

Learning to love your future self

You don’t love yourself. You don’t give a damn.

Or rather, you care a lot about your present self. It’s your future self that you don’t care about. The problem is that your future will become your present sooner or later, and then you’ll curse your past.

How difficult it is to live with oneself.

Let’s start with a quick experiment: think of something you have to do but don’t want to do. Done? Now imagine you already did this something.

It’d feel good, wouldn’t it?

You know what? If you were to do this thing right now, you could give your future self the gift of this feeling. That is what you’d do. If only you loved them.

But you don’t.

Just like when you procrastinate and leave your work for tomorrow.
Just like when you stay up late even though you have to get up early.
Just like when you don’t study and end up doing it under stress two days before the exam.
Just like when you don’t take care of your health, well aware that you’ll suffer the consequences.

Just like these and many other cases when you make irrational choices that will harm you… just not right now.

And I’m talking to you, but I should talk to myself too. The truth is that I haven’t yet learned how to love my future self. But I’m working on it.

Why do we behave like this? Are we stupid or is there a reason?

Future at half price

The answer is both: we are stupid and there is a reason.

The reason that makes us stupid is called Hyperbolic Discounting and it’s one of the many biases that affect us. It’s not the only obstacle that hinders the love for our future self, but it has its share of responsibilities.

I saw it mentioned for the first time in an Italian book (Riconquista il tuo tempo) and it is our brain’s tendency to “discount” the future. It’s as if what will happen weighted less than what happens in the present.

Paraphrasing Wikipedia a bit: one of the consequences of hyperbolic discounting is that it creates temporary preferences that lead us to make irrational choices. Choices that our future self would prefer not to have made, despite having the same information.

In our little brain, immediate sacrifices weigh much more than those that are distant and thus more abstract.

For example, some experiments highlighted inconsistencies in the answers to these questions:

  1. Would you prefer $50 now or $100 in a year?
  2. Would you prefer $50 in 5 years or $100 in 6 years?

In the first case, we tend to choose the $50, while in the second the $100. Although both questions involve a one-year difference, in the first case renouncing to $50 is an immediate sacrifice and that’s why it seems more painful.

A common manifestation of hyperbolic discounting is an unjustified optimism for our future that makes us procrastinate. We tell ourselves that not today, but tomorrow for sure! Tomorrow we’ll be more motivated, tomorrow we’ll be less tired, tomorrow we’ll have more time.

The examples we made above are born from this very bias. It’s more painful to go to bed one hour earlier now than the thought that tomorrow you’ll be tired. It’s not that you don’t understand rationally that you need to sleep and that you’ll be grateful tomorrow if you do that. It’s just that your instinct doesn’t agree and, unless you pay attention, instinct rules your behavior.

Trying to love yourself

The idea for this article came to me while I was listening to a beautiful episode of the Not Overthinking podcast. As I was saying initially, I still haven’t learned to fully love my future self. Therefore, some of the strategies that follow come from my own experience, some from this episode.

The goal is to make our future self happy, as we’d do for a person we love. We desire to make their life easier. We want both to carry out now as many tasks as possible and make an effort to help them stay on the right track.

It could be helpful to employ any technique that lowers the willpower barrier, or that increases our motivation, like the > 0 mantra.

But more specifically, I find it interesting to focus on those strategies that involve an initial effort that will benefit us later in time. Our future self, looking back, will thank us and will finally realize the purity of our love. 💗

Just as the Smart Passive Income podcast intro says:

Welcome to the Smart Passive Income Podcast, where it’s all about working hard now so you can sit back and reap the benefits later

Investing in research

Investing in research is useful when you miss information.

We all know that we need to eat healthily to be healthy, but we still struggle to put this knowledge into practice. We eat what our parents got us used to or, even worse, we buy premade food or random things because:

  1. we don’t have many ideas about what we could eat
  2. we don’t feel like wasting who knows how much energy cooking
  3. we need to do grocery shopping quickly and we don’t want to be wondering what the best food combination is

This is an instance of a lack of information. We don’t know what makes a diet healthy, nor which recipes we might like, nor how to minimize the time spent cooking.

Investing in research means spending our willpower to solve these doubts and then create a meal plan. After the initial investment, we’ll just need to turn the autopilot on and stick to what we decided. No more uncertainty on what to buy or cook, and no more fear of wasting time in the kitchen.

Another example of investing in research is conducting experiments to get information about your behavior and preferences.

Suppose I read that journaling may be beneficial and want to increase the chances of keeping the habit. In that case, I could experiment with different tools. Many people enjoy the Day One app so I try it but I discover it’s not for me. I could then move towards Notion that I already love and that I’d like to use more. Or, if I’m old-style, the right strategy could be to start with a fine physical notebook. It’s worth trying!

Perhaps I want to become an avid reader instead and I noticed that everyone recommends classics. I can never go further than the first two pages though. Maybe it’s better to try with science fiction. Or fantasy. Or popular science. Or poetry.

The answer will change for every one of us and that’s precisely the point. The key is to recognize the benefit of asking the question and then start experimenting. It’s better to use your willpower to test ten different things and find the one you like, rather than to force yourself to repeat ten times one you don’t like.

Building systems

Building systems means creating mechanisms that your future self will just need to follow without making any new decision.

Sometimes creating a system happens right after the research step. The example of nutrition fits this case too. A meal plan or a precompiled shopping list are forms of systems.

Routines make for another example. As I mentioned elsewhere, I read every day after lunch. If my day were a machine, reading would be one of its gears.

Many of the strategies that help me remember are systems too.

Let’s wrap this section up with an example kindly offered by the industry I work in (software development): the post-mortem.

A post-mortem is a process with these steps:

  1. an incident occurs
  2. you do what you can to solve it
  3. you carry out an analysis to understand what went wrong and what you can do to prevent it from happening again
  4. you put these learnings into practice

This process and (often) the resulting actions are systems that help us learn from mistakes and prevent them. In my own little way, I try to approach my mistakes with the same mindset.

At a closer look, it’s possible to build systems everywhere. You just need to spend some energy to plan and kickstart the system and then simply follow it.

Changing your environment

Changing your environment means intentionally adjusting the world you live in, both physical and virtual, so that it pushes you to do what you want to do.

We are already used to act on our environment, in some fashion.

Imagine you need to study and your room faces a bustling street. It’s often noisy and you can’t focus. You could move to another room, go to the library, rent a different flat, get soundproof windows, or use noise-canceling headphones. These are all ways to change your environment to adapt it to your need to study.

The goal is to make changes that your future self can benefit from.

Removing distractions and temptations is another way to change the environment. If I know that I have no self-control when I have sweets and snacks at home then, well, it’s better not to buy them at all. Today I make a choice that changes my environment. Tomorrow, my future self won’t be able to stuff himself because he’ll have no thrash food around.

The same is true for one of the biggest plagues of the modern world. No, it’s not COVID, it’s the addiction to social media. After realizing there’s something wrong with how I use my smartphone, I could decide it’s time to call it quits, setting limits, or throwing it to the other side of the universe whenever I need to be focused.

If I want to read more, it’s better to have my Kindle readily available (or a book, in case of reading aristocrats). If I want to play video games less, it’s better to keep my Switch out of my sight.

I could also resort to symbolism by placing reminders of my goals around me. If I want to write more I could stick a portrait of Shakespeare to my laptop (lol) so that I’ll see him every time I get close. If I want to do more physical exercise I could keep an action figure of The Rock (hi Matt D’Avella) staring at me from my desk.

Just let loose. Tinker and fix all you think is needed to gift your future self a more pleasant environment and one with fewer opportunities to make the wrong choice.

In conclusion

Loving oneself is not easy.

Sometimes it even seems that self-sabotaging is what comes most naturally. But it’s just because living with being human is no small matter. It’s a neverending fight where we try to adapt a brain that evolved to live in the wilderness to the jungle of modern civilization.

So loving yourself is not easy. But it’s worth learning.