It’s understood that a person’s mood and physical state can affect decision-making. If you’re hungry, you’re more likely to value eating. If you’re tired, you’re more likely to value sleep.

In 1998, 2 researchers had a hungry question. They wanted to know if people could recognize that within themselves. To measure this “intrapersonal empathy gap”, they had participants make advance choices in what foods they wanted to eat.

There were 2 experimental groups. The first was “hungry”, taking place late in the afternoon. The second was “satisfied”, taking place immediately after lunch.

Both groups had to decide between 2 food choices to be given to them a week later: unhealthy or healthy.

A week later, at the designed time of eating, they were offered the ability to change their advance decision. They could choose unhealthy or healthy food.

What did they discover? 2 things:

  1. Hungry participants were more likely to choose unhealthy future food than satisfied participants.
  2. Participants very frequently chose unhealthy snack options for immediate consumption – even if they made the healthy choice in advance.

The study showed that participants chose healthy food “for the future”, and unhealthy food “now”. And when the future came, they changed their minds to unhealthy foods. 1

In other words, they misjudged their future selves only a week later. Are we really this bad at predicting our own behavior?

Knowing Our Future Selves

Try to imagine your future self a month into the future. What do you see a year from now? What do you see 5 years from now?

I think most of us would say we could predict our future selves. But imagine what you would’ve predicted about the present you, 5 years ago.

You probably think your past self was an idiot, and would be pissed at how we sabotaged them. But don’t get caught in a self-deprecating spiral. It’s not entirely your fault.

Hyperbolic discounting is a term I borrow from behavioral economics. It states that people make choices that are inconsistent with time. In other words, they make choices today that their future (ideal) selves would not want to make in hindsight.

We think that we’ll be smarter, wiser, and better equipped to deal with a temptation in the future. We think today is different. We can lapse once, and then never again. That’s how it works, right?

Then tomorrow, we get into the same situation. And make the same decision.

Future health pales in comparison to that impulse chocolate bar. We feel that trigger in our head telling us to eat it. And we oblige. We only live once, right?

On one time occurrence, this behavior makes sense. But one-time occurrence is not what happens. Impulsive eating choices become habit. A one-time chocolate bar repeated every couple days becomes 20 pounds over the year. If there’s a satisfaction in being fit and healthy, we’ll never find it because we’re too busy acting on impulse.

We undervalue the future in an irrational way, because we are not predisposed to predict it. And if we never recognize that the future starts with the present, we’ll never get big things done.

Don’t fret. This is a cognitive bias, but we can take steps to overcome it.

If you have long term goals that you keep procrastinating because impulse gets in your way, I have a few habits that can implement today.

How to Start Valuing the Future

Understanding that our bias may sabotage our goals is the first step. The second step is taking back control. There are a few habits you can use to bulletproof your future (and better) self:

1) Recognize the Impulse. You know the feeling. You want something, and you want it now. As soon as you recognize that you’ve triggered your “want” impulse, imagine the choice was in the hands of an objective friend.  What would he/she advise? Removing yourself from the equation makes the choice more objective, and reduces hyperbolic discounting effects. The more objective you make the decision, the better chance you have to avoid it by separating “you” from the “impulse”. You are not your impulse; you have the ability to decide.

2) Replace the Impulse. Simply fighting off impulse doesn’t always work. Your willpower will be depleted quickly, and you will be more likely to relapse. Instead, fill the gap with something else. If you’re craving junk food, slam down a cup of coffee or an apple. Do a bunch of push-ups. Do anything that you’d like to make a habit, even if your brain “doesn’t feel like it”. Behavior change doesn’t require your thoughts or emotions to match your behavior. Behavior overwrites everything. You’ll find that your cravings are very flexible, and the trigger that found had for junk food can be “shifted” to healthy eating or push-ups. 2

3) Force Commitment. “Just once” is a lie. For any behavior you want to change, tell yourself that if you do it today, you have to do it tomorrow.

Feeling the itch to watch 2 hours of Netflix? Make an obligation to watch 2 hours of Netflix every day for the next week. Your entire week, you’ll have to watch Netflix at that time.

Want to eat that box of doughnuts? Sure. You’ll have to eat those doughnuts every day for the next week.

This puts your mind into a long-term perspective, and forces you to make a decision. Is the long-term goal worth less than the impulse?

By thinking about our “one time” actions as recurring behaviors, we can better identify if it’s something we need, and put our future selves into perspective. If your future self would hate you for this, don’t do it.

It is imperative that you see your present self as the catalyst for your future self. There isn’t some magic that happens when you’re a week older that makes you want to change.

Don’t procrastinate good habits. Change happens incrementally, and it’s the small changes that exponentially create the biggest results. Start today.

Footnotes

  1. Predicting Hunger: The Effects of Appetite and Delay on Choice. Read and van Leeuwen. 1998.
  2. Replacing an impulse is a tactic found in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. An excellent read on how to change habits, and how they are important
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