Do you often find yourself fighting an uphill battle when it comes to changing habits or putting things in place which will help you meet future goals? You’re not alone. Our minds naturally tend to disconnect from our future selves, making it challenging to make long-term decisions. When we think about ourselves in the future, it’s like we are a completely separate person.  We don’t see ourselves doing things from a first-person perspective, we tend to see ourselves from the outside in the third-person. This makes it more difficult to connect our current self and what we do and want now, with our future self and what’s best for them. Instead of fighting this inherent bias, we can use it to our advantage by visualising and befriending our future selves, changing habits to more positive ones, and maintaining better routines becomes easier.

Seeing Your Future Self as a Friend

In a study by Hal Hershfield, subjects who described themselves 10 years in the future showed neural patterns similar to those observed when discussing strangers; that is, people saw their future selves as completely separate and distinct from themselves. Using fMRI technology, the team was able to assess whether people felt strongly connected to their future self (small amount of brain activity) or if they felt their future self was a stranger (large amounts of brain activity). The individuals whose brain activity changed the most when discussing their future selves were the least likely to favor immediate rewards over long-term gains.

Psychologists have found that perceiving your future self as a separate being can be advantageous. Anne Wilson, a psychologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, suggests that you can turn your future self into a friend by feeling connected to it. Hal Hershfield also recommends treating your future self like a close friend. Just as successful marriages and friendships thrive on a deep sense of connection and overlap, the same can be applied to your future self. Embrace the idea of your future self being someone you love and care about. This mindset allows you to be future-conscious and make decisions that benefit your long-term well-being.

By nurturing this relationship, you can build self-discipline, change habits, and create lasting positive change.

Gaining a First-Person Perspective

Studies have shown that when thinking about the distant future, we tend to adopt a third-person perspective. For example, if you imagine your birthday next year, you’ll envision it through your own eyes. However, if you imagine it 20 years from now, you might picture an older version of yourself blowing out the candles. This perspective shift can have a significant impact on your decision-making. While some individuals already perceive their current and future selves as the same person, many do not. By actively changing our attitudes and perceptions, we can align our present actions with the interests of our future selves.

Changing Habits with the Power of Visualisations

Visualisations have proven to be powerful tools in shaping our behaviors and decisions. Studies have shown that emotional responses are heightened when people are presented with vivid examples. For instance, donors give more to charity when they hear stories from victims, and pulmonologists smoke less because they witness the consequences of smoking in patients’ lungs.

Researchers have taken this concept further by digitally aging individuals through photographs and exposing them to their future selves in virtual reality environments. In an experiment where subjects had to allocate $1,000 among different options, those exposed to aged avatars were more likely to invest in a retirement fund, favoring long-term rewards. When the future is firmly connected and understood as a logical consequence of the future, changing behaviours becomes easy(er).

Ethical Behavior and Future Self-Connection

Building a closer relationship with our future selves can also influence ethical decision-making. Hal Hershfield collaborated with researchers from the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement and the Kellogg School to investigate the impact of future self-connection on ethical behavior. In one study, young adults who wrote letters to themselves 20 years in the future were less likely to make amoral choices compared to those who wrote to themselves in a shorter time frame. In another study using avatars of future selves, participants were less likely to cheat on a test when presented with their future self-avatars.

These findings suggest that fostering a connection with our future selves can encourage better behavior and decision-making.

Understanding the Impact of Today’s Decisions on Your Future Self

Now that we understand the power of visualisations and befriending our future selves, let’s reflect on how this knowledge can benefit us personally. Take a moment to consider the habits you want to change or the routines you want to improve. It’s likely that you’ve made numerous attempts in the past to address these areas but found yourself backsliding. Instead of attributing your struggles to a lack of self-discipline or feeling like a failure, embrace the idea that your future self is waiting for you to make a positive change.

One common stumbling block in changing habits is our failure to fully recognize how we’ll feel about our decisions in the future. Research shows that people tend to focus on their immediate feelings and disregard other emotions or the duration of those emotions. For example, if you lose your job, you may initially assume your life will be significantly worse. However, you might overlook the potential for new opportunities or the realization that you needed a break. Economist Steven Levitt has demonstrated that people tend to stick with the status quo and underestimate the potential positive impact of change on their well-being. By considering the long-term implications of today’s decisions, you can make choices that align with your future self’s best interests.

To make effective decisions for your future self, it’s crucial to understand what’s most important for you. Is your life’s purpose happiness or the search for meaning? While these two concepts may overlap, they can also diverge. Pursuing a life rich in experiences might provide more meaning, even if not every experience is happy. Clarify your goals and let them guide your actions. For example, if you seek greater satisfaction and meaning in your career, you may consider a job farther from home, accepting a longer commute. Although this decision may reduce immediate happiness, increased job satisfaction can make it worthwhile. you might even be able to sneak in changing habits around your commute over time that lead to greater satisfaction in other areas of your life.

Putting Effective Tools in Your Toolbox

Supportive tools and strategies can enhance your ability to stick to new habits and routines. One practical and effective approach is to find an accountability partner who can help you stay committed to your goals. Sharing your aspirations and regularly checking in with your partner creates a sense of responsibility and support that improves your chances of success.

Additionally, consider evaluating decisions from a time versus money perspective. A study conducted by Cassie Mogilner Holmes and others found that people who prioritise time over money tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. Keep this in mind when making choices that involve allocating your resources.

Harnessing the power of visualisations and befriending your future self can be a transformative journey toward changing habits and maintaining better routines. By recognising that your future self is a vital part of who you are and building a strong connection with them, you can make decisions that align with your long-term goals and well-beinIt’s important to always consider the impact of today’s choices on your future self, clarify what you’re optimising for, and utilise tools such as accountability partners to support your journey.

Embrace the opportunity to create a brighter future by being kind to your future self and take action in the present.


Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

Photo by Tadeu Jnr on Unsplash

Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash