In the Future Everything is Perfect

by | Feb 24, 2014

Photo by rhett maxwell

This week is so crazy, you guys. Today alone I have a client meeting, a lunch meeting, a 2-hour home repair that took months to get on the calendar, and I’m giving a talk before dinner. That’s on top of my normal writing deadline, dog walks and workout––not to mention eating, showering and looking presentable.

Tomorrow isn’t looking much better. And I’m traveling to five different cities in the next four weeks.

Last year with my wedding, site redesign, and book launch, I didn’t think my life could get any busier or more stressful. Somehow my schedule for 2014 is already more intense.

We all have things that make our lives crazy. If you aren’t juggling 12 projects and an insane travel schedule, maybe you have a demanding full-time job plus kids to raise, or you’re taking 20 units this semester and working part time to meet your ever-growing tuition bills.

The question is: where does this leave us if we want to start doing something new, like regular exercise or cooking? How will we ever be able to squeeze one more thing onto our to-do list?

Interestingly, most of us don’t think of it this way. Instead we tend to fall for a perceptual fallacy that convinces us that things won’t always be so hard. The logic goes something like this:

“No way I can start working out today. I’m way too busy. But I’ll regroup this weekend and things will cool down next week, so I’ll start first thing on Monday. Bikini season here I come!”

The mistake we make is believing that the chaos of life is temporary, and that in the future everything will be perfect.

You will be well-rested, full of energy and motivated to tackle all your goals.

Your kids will start soccer, so you’ll have way more time to focus on your own things.

It won’t rain.

Your car won’t break down.

Life will be ideal and there won’t be anything to stop you from doing what you want.

And in the future, you’ll only want the highest, most noble things for yourself. Brownies and mac & cheese won’t even cross your mind.

It may sound silly, but research has shown time and again that we consistently over-estimate our chances of making difficult decisions in the future. That is, our present selves are supremely confident that our future selves will behave like model citizens.

Sure sometimes the circumstances really will be extenuating (there really is nothing like finals week in college), but 90% of the time they aren’t.

I don’t know about you guys, but this happens in my house almost every week. Each Sunday my husband proudly declares that we’re cooking at home every day, not going to restaurants, and not drinking alcohol until Friday. Yet we rarely make it until Wednesday without at least popping one bottle of wine.

It’s so harmless, and besides, we won’t go out next week at all. (Yeah right.)

The reason we make these mistakes is because we fail to anticipate the difficulty of making the right decision in the future, when the reality is that we will likely have the same obstacles then that we have now.

When we believe our problems today are unique and won’t be an issue tomorrow, we are taken off guard and have no way to deal with them when they inevitably occur. This makes it nearly impossible to ever get ahead, and it’s only one part of the problem.

One of the most insidious issues with misjudging our future behavior is that it licenses us to behave worse in the present. Remember the what-the-hell effect?

When we believe that we will behave ideally in the future, we also assume we’ll be able to make up for any poor choices we make today. This leads to a situation where you think you’re staying on track, but you’re actually slipping further and further in the wrong direction. It isn’t pretty.

The solution for this dilemma isn’t especially obvious.

Yes, if we had 20/20 future goggles we could predict each day accurately and plan for our weaknesses, but I don’t think Google will be releasing those for another few years.

Ironically, even when we are explicitly told NOT TO assume conditions will be perfect in the future (like I’m trying to tell you now), people tend to show as much optimism about their future behavior as if they were asked to predict how they would act in an ideal world.

Go figure.

Still, if you are able to predict what challenges you’ll face and plan for them, you’ll have a much better chance at reaching your goals than if you assume everything will go right tomorrow.

Ask yourself if you’re currently doling out more work and responsibility to your future self than it deserves or can handle, and try giving Future You a bit more compassion.

Put yourself in her shoes and imagine how it will feel to be in her situation. Would she feel overwhelmed? Frustrated? Exhausted? What can you do today that will make it easier for her then?

Being a better predictor of future obstacles can also help you set more realistic expectations of yourself, which if nothing else can give you a clearer picture of your healthstyle and help reduce the guilt you feel from not working out five days a week (or whatever you thought you could accomplish in an ideal world).

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal suggests another strategy for becoming more in tune with the struggles of your future self: limiting the variability of your action.

For example, to avoid going out to restaurants too often my husband and I have developed a shopping strategy to buy enough food to cook at home at least three nights per week, which greatly increases the chances that we will. Though we would like to cook five nights per week, we realized this wasn’t realistic. With our new system we at least force ourselves to cook more than once or twice. This stops us from being too all-or-nothing about our home cooking habit.

The disconnect between your present self and your future self can be one of the biggest sources of healthstyle frustration. Getting to the root of your future setbacks and motivations isn’t easy, but you can figure it out through trial and error. Try something new and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out the way you hoped, ask yourself what went wrong and try again. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

What does your future look like?

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13 Responses to “In the Future Everything is Perfect”

  1. Tess says:

    I think of the quote from “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” It is all too easy to get overwhelmed in life, but I shouldn’t let the fact that I can’t or won’t do something, like exercise or cooking at home, 7 days a week keep me from doing it at all.

  2. Dorothy says:

    What a great piece! Also applicable to not only health habits, but to decisions in general (e.g. changing jobs, relationships). Thanks for the thoughtful & thought-provoking post!

  3. Natalie says:

    Hi Darya!
    My husband and I make the exact same promises at the beginning of the week and also usually don’t make it through Wednesday either- what are your tricks for limiting alcohol intake during the week? I struggle with this one especially! Thanks for such a great post.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Haha, indeed. For us it comes down to two things: stress and habits. Exercise and meditation help ease the stress, but don’t eliminate it.

      The habits/rules I use to minimize drinking are:

      1) 1 night off per week, no excuses. It’s hard sometimes. I usually try for two nights, but sometimes social obligations make this unrealistic.

      2) 2 drinks max on week nights. Nothing good happens after two.

      3) Choose lower alcohol drinks. I drink mostly white wine these days, or low alcohol beer (usually Japanese). I love the higher alcohol stuff, but save it for weekends.

    • Hi Natalie! Sorry to butt in with more advice, but what my husband and I found to be helpful was actually buying wine that’s on the more expensive side. Not only do we get to enjoy better wine, but it forces us to savor a small glass every night rather than chugging our way through a $6 bottle from Trader Joes!

  4. Natalie says:

    Thank you, ladies! These are excellent suggestions that I’m excited to implement :)

  5. Aqiyl Aniys says:

    I agree the chaos in life is not temporary and it wasn’t meant to be, though I believe our society makes the chaos much harder than it needs to be. Even so, life is mean to me a test and hardship will always be there and we need to understand that it will always be there. I believe life is about the character we build through the hardship and we must find the time to do the things that will make us better in the face of the hardship. This is how character is built.

  6. Tracy says:

    Are you reading my mind? :) Too many times I’ve made less than ideal choices, justifying it because I’ll be “good” next week when there’s not so much temptation. The future version of myself who lives in a stress-free world is definitely a fantasy.

    Great article!

  7. Summer says:

    Amazing post Darya!
    It’s like you just walked into my brain and described one of the biggest things I struggle with to maintain sanity. As a fellow nutritionist/entrepreneur I suffer from over-promising (especially with my work) and being overly optimistic that I will have more time in the future. I’ve started to set really firm boundaries and make an effort to say no more often to keep my calendar clear. It’s definitely a work in progress, but I’m getting so much better.
    I’ll be bookmarking this post for my clients!

  8. Nathaniel says:

    This is incredibly insightful

  9. Lisa says:

    I seem to believe that my future self is a superwoman who can clear my list of “to dos” within an hour. I literally place on my calendar these words “clear to do list”. I then find myself dragging and dropping that item into the next day, and then the next and so on. Thanks for helping me to break the cycle.

  10. Liz says:

    Reading this was a huge “aha!” moment. I do this all the time and didn’t know there was an explanation for it. I’ll be approaching my daily decisions more mindfully now!

  11. Lana says:

    This is perfect! I totally needed to read this, as I am in a moment where the future seems brighter. I love the way you articulate this simple concept. The struggle in our house is sleep…we find ourselves up all night working (as we do so from home) and then lack sleep all week! We say we’ll go to bed earlier the following night and instead end up eternally fatigued :X I think we need to have an auto-off on our computers?!

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