Me vs. My Future Self: How An Inability To Relate To Our Future Selves Hinders Progress

Doctor of Clinical Psychology By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere.
Brunette Looking At The Mirror
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I used to have the most indifferent attitude toward exercise, supplements, and sunblock. So much so that even the most lackadaisical among my friends would be concerned. Not only was I unable to see how they could benefit me at the moment, but I also couldn't envision myself ever needing them. Now, logically, I understand why they are important.

In neuroscience speak, my ventromedial prefrontal cortex did not get activated when thinking about my future self. In other words, I saw my present and my future selves as two distinct people.

Studies have shown, when we view our future selves as different from our present selves, we are less likely to do the things that are good for us, like exercise, save money, or eat vitamins. We are also more likely to engage in immediate gratification. Here's why that may be happening, and what to do about it.

Why can some of us not relate to our future selves?

1. ADHD

Today, I understand my future blindness to be rooted in ADHD. The brains of people with ADHD are wired to grasp time differently and are naturally not as good at future-planning. Before you imagine this to be a justification for why I can be irresponsible, let me assure you, it's not. This is simply a way I began to understand my natural propensity and finally stop blaming myself. Learning this helped me turn things around, so that indifferent attitude is a thing of the past.

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2. Your friends are unmotivated.

Another reason for not relating to our future selves could be the company we keep. Entrepreneur and personal-development educator Jim Rohn famously said, "We are the sum average of the top five people we spend the most time with." In other words, if we hang out with people who don't care about their futures, it can become difficult to grasp why you should care about yours. Even if you try to change things, the company you keep can sometimes dissuade or shame you from growing.

3. You feel too comfortable.

Other clients of mine who experience future blindness tell me it's because their lives are always cushy. They know they don't lack resources, and therefore, they can solve most problems with money—including future health problems. 

4. Perfectionism

It's a common misconception that lack of maturity or "adulting" skills leads people to separate their future selves, but I've found another reason to be more true: perfectionism. There are too many goals, dreams, and accomplishments we aspire to. It can become too overwhelming, so instead, we file it away.

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How to connect with your future self and think ahead:

1. Find your purpose.

The clients who come to me, ready to begin planning and building foundations for the future, are often inspired by some catalyst—whether it's recovering from their third round of burnout, losing a loved one, or leaving a toxic relationship. When motivated, we're all fired up to make changes. Unfortunately, motivation is elusive and cannot be counted on.

When motivation begins to wane, think back to that breaking point. This is your purpose, or, as I call it, your "never again" flag. Whenever you inevitably resist future-self actions, ask yourself: Does this lead me closer to the self I want to become?

2. Consider the company you keep.

This is pretty self-explanatory. Being around people who value their future selves will likely inspire you to do the same. If you know someone who is disciplined, ask them about the moments they resisted their future-self habits and how they continue to stick to them now. Then, ask for advice on how to allocate your time, money, and energy to meet your future goals.

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3. Take baby steps.

Starting small will make it less likely for you to become overwhelmed and give up. Start with one or two small habits, and as those become autopilot, then add another. It's important to make sure you aren't just piling up goals or ripping off someone's routine—ask yourself or consult an expert to curate what's best for you.

4. Make it easy to repeat your goals.

This five-step formula will turn actions into habits easily so that you can accomplish and stick to your goals:

  1. Figure out the obstacle standing in the way of your goals and eliminate it. You'll only get this data with enough observations. For example, if lying in bed after getting home from work makes you nap, that could be disrupting your sleep, so try to sit in a chair or go for a walk instead.
  2. Make the habit unmissable. If the goal is to start taking supplements more regularly, begin setting them next to your toothbrush or your glass of water before bed; that way, you can't miss them in the morning. If you're wanting to exercise more, start leaving your workout clothes by the door so it's easier to change when you get home.
  3. Hold yourself accountable. Share your goals with a coach, a friend, or a partner so they can check in with your progress.
  4. Make timelines. Schedule progress points on your calendar or set alarms to remind you.
  5. Reward yourself. After doing something that helps you reach your goal, reward yourself with a small treat. The dopamine that floods your brain will make you want to do it over and over again.
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5. Stop saying "I can't," and start saying "I don't."

Instead of saying "I can't stay up late; I have to work tomorrow," say "I don't stay up late; I have to work tomorrow."

Jeff Haden, speaker and author of The Motivation Myth, writes, "'I can't' is a decision based on external causes or reasons, whereas 'I don't' has conviction; it sounds like a part of who we are." The language we use matters, and that one-word difference can alter your mindset, giving you more power over a situation.

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