The Dance Between Your Present Self and Your Future Self

Almost every choice I make in my life boils down to a choice between my “present self” and my “future self.” Over the last decade, the single biggest change I have made in my life – the one that has triggered my financial turnaround and launched a new career – was simply choosing my “future self” more and more often.

So, let’s step back and take a look at what that means, starting off with a couple of examples.

Let’s say I’m at the grocery store and I have a grocery list in my hand. I’m wandering down a particular aisle and I spot a delicious snack on the shelf. It’s not a particularly healthy snack, mind you – let’s say it’s a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.

My “present self” thinks, “Yum! I can afford it, too!” If I listen to that approach, the bag of chips will wind up in my cart, then in my cupboard, then in my belly.

My “future self” thinks, “Those seem tasty, but they’re massively unhealthy and they cost $4 for that bag. Don’t really need ’em.” I’ll walk on by, keep the money in my pocket, and avoid eating a few unhealthy snacks over the next few days.

Or, let’s say I’m considering buying some laundry detergent.

My “present self” thinks, “Man, I don’t wanna be here. Let’s see – there’s Tide. I know what Tide is. I’ll grab that bottle and get outta here.”

My “future self” thinks, “Hmm… there are a lot of brands here. The store brand here is pretty good and the price is good, too. What’s the container that gives the cheapest price per ounce? Ah, there we go.” (This actually only takes about five seconds longer than the “present self,” by the way.)

Or, let’s say I’m talking to friends about something we can do together.

My “present self” thinks, “Going out to a movie sounds like the funnest option. Let’s do that!”

My “future self” thinks, “Going out to a movie sounds like the funnest option, but none of the other options sound too bad, either, and they’re cheaper and allow us to talk. Let’s have a potluck dinner this time.”

To put it in simple terms, my “present self” is always thinking about the most enjoyable thing to do right now. My “present self” skips exercise. My “present self” rushes through work. My “present self” binge-watches House of Cards. My “present self” snarfs down most of a large pizza or half a bag of Doritos and washes it down with ginger ale (my sweet and bubbly beverage of choice).

On the other hand, my “future self” thinks about which option will create the happiest and most enjoyable life down the road. My “future self” is the one that convinces me to go on a long walk. My “future self” makes a healthy dinner at home. My “future self” tries to do good work. My “future self” works on building positive relationships. My “future self” is the half of me that’s working toward financial independence and working on trying to make my life as healthy and long-lasting as possible and working on having a lot of good relationships to fill those years.

Almost every decision and every situation involves a battle between those two mindsets. Do I do what my “present self” wants and choose the option that brings the most momentary pleasure? Or do I do what my “future self” wants and choose the option that builds a better life down the road?

The truth is that when I step back and look at the big picture, outside of the situation of that moment, the “future self” side of things is almost always the best choice. The “present self” option usually gives a burst of pleasure that’s better in the short run, but that burst almost never lasts. However, the benefits of the “future self” choice tend to last and last and last. The impact might not be big in any given moment, but if I make enough “future self” choices, I’m going to build a really nice life.

There are a few principles I go by when it comes to that dichotomy.

First, the perfect is the enemy of the good. I’m not too hard on myself if I choose to listen to my “present self,” which I certainly do quite often. Instead, I simply try to listen to my “future self” as often as I can. If I’m not perfect about it, it’s no big deal.

Sometimes, I’m going to end up making choices that I regret. I’ll think back and realize that I wasted an afternoon on nothing at all or that I ate a bunch of terrible food or that I didn’t exercise. That’s okay. It’s just a reminder that I need to listen to my “future self” a little more.

Second, I think about “future self” choices when I’m doing other things. I’ll often think through situations in my life and the consequences of my various possible choices in those situations when I’m doing things like driving to pick up my kids from soccer practice or loading the dishwasher or walking to the library.

The purpose of this is to both consciously and unconsciously reinforce the benefits of listening to my “future self” more often. I find that the more I think about things like this, the more natural it becomes for me to just choose the “future self” option. I often don’t even consciously think about it.

What does that actually look like, though? Some of the time, I think through what I need to be doing to build a better future. I’ll think about the state of my physical fitness and what I need to do to get to where I want to be. I’ll think about our financial state and what I need to do to get us to where we want to be. I’ll do that with almost every aspect of my life.

At other times, I’ll think about specific life situations that I find myself in. I’ll think through my last grocery store visit and ask myself whether or not the “present self” choices I made were really worthwhile (usually, they weren’t). I’ll even go so far as to visualize myself shopping at the store and imagine what a better outcome would look like (avoiding the chips aisle, for example). I’ll think about going to the bookstore and then think about how I could have decided to go to the library instead. What this does for me is that it “trains” my mind to make better decisions in those moments.

Third, I try to do things to improve the quality of “future self” choices in the moment. In other words, I work to remove potential obstacles that might cause me to choose the “present self” option.

For example, I keep a small duffel bag around with exercise clothes and everything I would need to go get some exercise in it, ready to go. That way, if my “present self” is arguing on behalf of spending the next hour playing Factorio instead of exercising, I no longer have the “excuse” of needing to find all of my stuff.

Another great example comes from our deep freezer. We have piles of meals made in advance out there, which is a perfect response to my “present self” wanting to be lazy and go out to eat instead of making a meal at home. I basically make it as easy as I can to make a meal here.

Fourth, I think about the benefits that are in my life thanks to my “future self” choices in the past. The truth is that my life is pretty good and, while some of it is luck, much of it has to do with having made a lot of good “future self” choices over the years.

I’ve chosen to work on hard things instead of easy ones. I’ve chosen to spend less when it would have been easier to spend more. I’ve chosen to give up some hobbies because they didn’t bring me any lasting fulfillment and use that time instead for other things that build long-term fulfillment.

Those things seem like small choices in the moment – and they are. They often seem like less fun choices in the moment – and if you look just at that moment, they often are less fun.

The thing is, though, that they each add a little bit of something positive to your future when you do make those hard choices. And if you do them often enough, they add up to some pretty big things.

They add up to a better job and a better career path. They add up to having money in the bank. They add up to feeling pretty good each day when you get out of bed. They add up to having a deeper understanding of the world because you spent time learning hard things. They add up to lots of good personal and professional relationships.

Together, those things add up to a pretty good life, and it all comes down to listening to your “future self” just a little more often each day when you’re making choices. Sure, your “future self” might not be encouraging the “fun” option, but he or she is offering up an option that will make things better over the long run. Much better.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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