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 this year 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.
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?
Originally published Feb 24, 2014.