Updated on 06.14.10

Saying “I Will Do It In The Future” Is an Excuse for Failure

Trent Hamm

My office is a mess. I don’t feel like cleaning it – I’d rather play with the kids right now. So I say, “I will clean it in the future,” and I go play. A week later, my office is still a mess.

You’re not saving for retirement. You’re also spending as much as you bring in because you’re going out a lot and you just picked up a big HDTV and those car lease payments are whittling you down. So you say, “I will start saving in the future.” Five years later, you don’t have a dime in retirement.

I’m overweight. I was in pretty good shape, but my exercise routine was blown away by the writing, editing, and promotional work for my upcoming book. I’d like to run, but there is so much else to do. So I say, “I will go exercise in the future,” and I work on other things. A month later, I still haven’t started that exercise routine.

You’re in a truckload of debt, but there are a bunch of things happening this summer that you want to do. So you tell yourself, “I will come up with a debt repayment plan in the future.” A year from now, your debt situation is worse (if that’s possible).

I need to redo our will to account for our newborn son. It’s one of those “important but not urgent” tasks, so I’ll tell myself, “I’ll adjust the will in the future.” A month later, it’s still not done.

Going back to school. Looking for a different job. Taking charge of our spending. Kicking a smoking or a drinking or a drug habit. Rebuilding a relationship with our father or our mother or our sister or our brother.

There are countless things that we ought to be doing now, but instead of doing them, we simply say, “Our future self will do it.”

Guess what? Our future self is pretty unreliable, too. He/she doesn’t think that the task in hand sounds like much fun, either, and he/she is just as likely to put it off as you are.

Actually, your future self is even more likely to put it off than you are because you’ve already established a pattern that putting off that important thing is okay.

If you want to actually succeed in life, stop relying on your future self to take care of things. Now.

If you’re in debt and want to fix it, start fixing it now.

If you’re overweight, start eating better and exercising now.

If you’re not saving for retirement, set up retirement savings now.

If you want to get household tasks done, do them now.

Don’t find excuses to not do them because you want to do something “fun” today. There will always be something fun to do, which means there will always be a reason to avoid making the hard changes.

If you won’t make the change, your future self certainly won’t, either. By skipping out now, you’re telling your future self that not doing it is just fine.

Are you going to do something today, or are you going to give you and your future self permission to never actually get around to it?

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Vicky says:

    Never ceases to amaze me how your posts are almost always relevant to what I’m doing in my life, right now.

    I’m trying to find the courage to drag myself back to school. Thank you for the extra kick!

  2. Kelly says:

    I am in the middle of a debt repayment program. It will be finished in three years. After that is completed, I will have a lot of money freed up per month if I stay with my current position. Three years from today I will be 40 almost 41 yrs old. That is when I will go back to school. I want to become a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner! Seems like forever but really it’s not. My son will be older, 9 yrs old. I would like to start classes now but I just can’t swing it financially.
    I need to begin an exercise program as well. I bought a Wii Fit Plus and rarely use it. Thanks for reminding us that today is the day!

  3. David Amann says:

    Of course, we can’t do everything right now. We can only do one thing at a time. Prioritizing is a fact of life.

    There is a good way to help your future self do important things. It’s called an Activity Trigger, and it’s discussed in Dan and Chip Heath’s book “Switch”.

    When you think of an important thing that you need to do, but you can’t do it now, write down in your journal or on your calendar where and when you will do it. Be as specific as possible. Set up a reminder.

    This has even better effects if you take 30 seconds and visualize yourself doing the thing in the future. See the clock. Imagine the surroundings of where your going to do it. Then, imagine how great you’ll feel after you have made some headway.

    Studies have shown that Activity Triggers have increased the liklihood of performing the desired behavior from the 20 and 30% range to the 70 and 80% range. Pretty good increase for such a simple method.

    Hope this helps.

  4. Keri says:

    Thanks for another great article. I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I have a big problem with this. I like your idea of considering your “future self.” =)

    I find that I do this with little tasks, to: things that it would be easy to do right at that moment. I tell myself I’ll do it in a minute or an hour, but then I forget.

  5. Julie says:

    Yep, I agree with every example, except for playing with the kids. Not much, especially cleaning!, is worth getting in the way of playing with your kids. The years when they’ll still want to play with YOU are far too short! Enjoy those times and don’t feel guilty about it at all!

  6. Brent says:

    This hit home. Just what I needed to hear today. Thanks Trent

  7. David @The Frugality Game says:

    This is true of the little things, as well as the big things:

    – The email I’ve been meaning to send.
    – The project I’ll work on tomorrow.
    – The dishes that could wait to get done.

    The sooner I start, the happier I’ll be (because there’s always something else when the future arrives).

    Also: good point about future self being a habitual procrastinator by that point. On the other hand, if we do it now, future self will have a habit of productivity. Nice.

  8. Kris says:

    Trent, I don’t know if you saw this recent xkcd cartoon, but it’s pretty relevant to this post:


  9. Abby says:

    This is so very true…you have to make yourself do whatever it is that you want to accomplish now! The only place I ever got by putting important things off is the same spot I was before, wishing I would’ve been more proactive. You can talk and talk all you want, but it won’t happen unless you take action. I talked about going to Italy to study for a couple years before I finally said “I am going and I’m making this happen.” It was the best decision I ever committed to!

  10. I think the hardest part of creating change isn’t actually changing, it is finding the desire to change. You have to want it before you are able to make any progress and you have to want it really bad, otherwise it just isn’t that important. Sometimes things need to get really (really!) bad before people reach a point where they realize they can’t go on this way any longer.

    In my own experience, I’ve found that once my finances began to come under control, I lost a lot of motivation to keep pushing to improve. Its like I have to force myself to keep on persisting. I’m still making progress but I don’t have the “Gazelle Intensity” that I used to.

    At the beginning of the year I made a resolution to get healthy. I spent a lot of time in the gym, began eating healthy food and lost about 10 pounds. Even though I hadn’t reached my ideal image in my mind of a chiseled male model, I found myself slipping on my diet and exercise schedule. The motivation had dwindled and like my financial situation, I found myself having to force myself into the gym.

    I think that is a common problem with a lot of people. When we are comfortable with the way things are, even if they aren’t perfect (and maybe even bad), this is the life we know and have become accustomed to. Its kind of like a pig in their own…mud. Okay, maybe that’s not a great analogy, since pigs like mud. ;) The point is, if there is no desire to change, we won’t change, even if we know we are making poor choices.

  11. Kevin says:

    I totally agree with the message, but I think the advice at the end could have been a little more practical. Trent suggests that I stop procrastinating and update my will “NOW.”

    Really? Right now? Uh .. I’m kind of at work right now. But Trent’s advice implies that if I dont’ do it RIGHT NOW, then it will never get done.

    I think some more practical, bite-sized steps would have been more helpful. Obviously I can’t start saving for retirement RIGHT NOW (I need to meet with someone at the bank to set up an account, need to schedule automatic transfers, etc.), but I can Google my bank’s phone number, call them, and make an appointment in less than 2 minutes. I can’t update my will RIGHT NOW, but I could call my lawyer and make an appointment.

    Overall, good advice.

  12. AJ says:

    I’m pretty sure Trent wasn’t talking about those of us at work, since we’re supposed to be busy, you know, working instead of reading his blog. :-)

    That said, I’ve been living in my parents’ house for over three years now because of this prinicple. Just last weekend I realized “Wow, I can’t put up with this anymore”, but I’ve gotten so used to not finding an apartment that I know exactly what he’s talking about here. Time to start doing something about that, I think.

  13. Kara says:

    I just started reading “The Other 8 Hours” and this fits right in with the opening chapter.. and with what #6 Kevin says- Do a little something each night.. maybe tonight I’ll print my resume and hand write notes for updates.. tomorrow night I’ll retype it.. I want to lose weight so on my lunch break I’ll google some healthy recipes or walk around the building a few times..

  14. Suzie says:

    Do it now!

    Ahh, but there are so many things I need to do right now :/

  15. Crystal says:

    This is so true. When I just jump in, things get done. When I just talk about a plan, it usually gets put off until I just jump in. My weight loss goals fail because it’s never “later” in my head but my monetary goals are hit because I place more importance on them and work at it to make it happen.

  16. MJBrenner says:

    I think, Kevin, that NOW can mean to have a discrete plan to address the situation. Saying that you will update your will, “in the future,” is the same as never updating. Making a plan to call your lawyer on your lunch break and schedule an appointment for next week – that is the reasonable, “NOW,” for that activity.

  17. Leah says:

    This shouldn’t be used to justify procrastination (nor should it be construed as legal advice!), but you should know that many state’s laws will read in a provision for children who were omitted from the will unless it’s clear that the intent was to disinherit the child. In a lot of states, this requires the person to expressly say in his will, “I intentionally make no provision for my third child John Doe.” Of course, this just adds one more headache to the probate process, and since the law is unpredictable, nobody should rely on this to give a gift to a child not named in the will. (Note, though, that I have no idea what the law says in Iowa!)

    I wish you’d do an entire post about estate planning, by the way. What has been your approach? Did you call a lawyer? Did you buy a fill-in-the-blank form? What do you suggest for average Americans who don’t want (or have the resources) to hire a lawyer to do a comprehensive estate plan?

    Be forewarned, though, that as a recent law school graduate, I will probably criticize it heavily. :-)

  18. Chaturon Wattaporn says:

    For lasting change, to create a new life, you need to instill new habits. Not just ‘do it now.’ But do it now at a set time every day.

  19. Dog Walking Vancouver says:

    This is a great post. Procrastination is the enemy of success!

  20. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    For me it was even worse. I would say, I’ll do it later and then use that to justify extra excess now. “I’m going to start saving tomorrow so I can buy more junk today!” or “I’m going to start watching what I eat tomorrow so let’s get some big macs as a last blow out party kind of thing”.

    You’re absolutely right though Trent, start now, not later.

  21. J. O. says:

    Aha – a slightly different perspective on why I find it harder and harder to do things I’ve already been putting off. It helps to look at it this way, and makes it seem like I still have a choice, not that I’m just “wired” this way.

    Well said – thanks, Trent.

  22. Victoria says:

    I’m one to do things immediately, particularly small tasks. I find it takes far less time to just do it right then rather than putting it off. Plus, I don’t like it weighing on my mind. And once you’re in the beginning or middle stages of a long-term project, I’d say patience is the key.

  23. Lindasy says:

    Too true. I don’t know where the quote came from but growing up I was always told “If you do the things you have to do when you have to do them you can do the things you want to do when you want to do them.”

  24. prufock says:

    It’s impossible to do everything NOW. You can’t go for a run, clean your office, and rewrite your will all at the same time. You can only pick one, and everything else has to be saved for “in the future.” It’s a matter of prioritizing. If cleaning your office were more important than spending time with your kids, you would probably do it. If exercising were more important than working on your writing, you would probably do it.

  25. Pieces says:

    Thank you for this post. I have a habit that I need to break and I keep telling myself I will start tomorrow. And you are right–it keeps getting easier to say that as I have set a pattern of putting it off. Now I am going to start today.

  26. John S says:

    Not to be contrarian, but I often find that I am spontaneously motivated to complete projects I have been putting off for weeks or even months. One day I’ll just be walking by a lightswitch I’ve been meaning to replace, and it will just hit me. I’ll go shut off the power and do it immediately. It was not premeditated and I never know why I chose that exact moment to finally do it.

    So when I tell myself that I’ll do it in the future, when I feel like it… I’m actually telling myself the truth.

    Obviously, some projects can not wait. For example, it’s of little use for me to put on my winter tires in January. I need them on in November. Your advice is well suited to such projects.

    For that matter, the “Do it now” attitude is fairly useful and motivational in general. We are definitely too inert and complacent as a culture.

  27. Nicole says:

    Later: The Best time to do anything

  28. Sometimes I follow this path with doing things in the future and never doing them.

    I guess in my mind I will have to make those things I am blowing off more important somehow.

  29. Kell says:

    Thank you for the post. I enjoyed the idea of not letting the future take care of itself but rather being proactive in making small steps.

  30. Ken Kurosawa says:

    Noted! And back to work!

  31. Dan Ariely (“Stuff Your Brain Says”, (http://danariely.com) says our brains are not terribly rational in how we judge immediate pain or gain, relative to future. We quite regularly choose satisfaction now that we know sacrifices much greater results in the future.

    Case in point: Right now, I am supposed to be working. ;P

  32. Some Way of Life says:

    Agree with Prufock’s comment. You can’t do everything now, so you have to prioritize and ask yourself what you’ll be happier about in the future: That you kept a clean office or that you spent more time with your kids?

    Yeah, yeah, yeah… I get what you’re saying though, and I think it is great advice: If there is something you really want to do… or something that you just really need to do, don’t wait for the planets to align. That time in the future when you will have more time to do whatever it is you are putting off… it’s a myth. That time will never come. If there is something you really want to accomplish, or a healthy habit you want to maintain, you just have to give them the highest priorities you can. Maybe not THE highest… your loved ones certainly deserve some of your time, but sometimes you have to say getting exercise is more important than mowing the lawn. Or getting a personal project done is more important than keeping a clean desk. Sometimes you just have to admit when you probably won’t ever get around to something and let it go so it doesn’t make you feel guilty for every day it doesn’t get done.

    I must say though…I disagree with the following statement: “There will always be something fun to do, which means there will always be a reason to avoid making the hard changes.”

    In my experience there will be times in life when there really isn’t anything fun to do. Family members get cancer, friends die, couples split up or divorce, people get laid off, etc. There are times in life that are dominated by anxiety, pain, hardship, grief, and loss. Fortunately there are also times when we seem to have everything to be thankful for. It’s important to enjoy those times and to avoid turning down an opportunity to do something fun with someone you love. Of course you should take care of yourself, your finances, and your family. But if doing all of this creates real conflicts and requires you to choose between work and chores vs fun and family, maybe it is time to consider a major life change.

  33. Marge says:

    Yes, we all delay, but there are times when forcing something happen is not worth the energy. The things that need to get done usually happen in due time, with exception of paying off bills and exercising. It does, however, sometimes feel like when you have a little extra cash or time, something is usually waiting in the wings to take it away. It is really about balance, with a dash of luck, and don’t forget the karma. Do for others and don’t forget yourself.

  34. Mark says:

    From the title this article seems to be pretty good, but today I simply don’t have the time to read it, I will do it tomorrow.

    Seriuosly I think that we postpone things just because we are not motivated enough. Sometimes we must focus on our goals and start working, even if we will see the result far away in the future.

  35. Judith Waite Allee, author/speaker says:

    Trent, I love the perspective and I’m *going* to work on my will today!

    On the other hand, the Serenity Prayer’s “wisdom to know the difference” comes into play–you just can’t “do it now” for everything.

    I like David Allen’s approach in his book, “Getting Things Done.” Capture all “to-do’s” and have a “Someday-Maybe” category for things you’d like to do but can’t realistically start. The secret is to review the list every week. He says it’s amazing how many of those “someday-maybe’s,” even the wish/dream far-out ones, do eventually materialize into finished projects. I’m still working on implementing the system, but I’m imbued with hope.

    By the way, the only part of your post that I don’t agree with is the 1st sentence:
    “My office is a mess. I don’t feel like cleaning it – I’d rather play with the kids right now. So I say, “I will clean it in the future,” and I go play. A week later, my office is still a mess.”

    Well, the office can wait. I think a lot of us are guilty of procrastinating on playing with the kids and grandkids so we can check off items on our to-do lists. Kids are only in the present right now. Good for you for playing with the kids!

  36. Guy says:

    Great article. Great insight. And often the “fun” thing is only marginally less onerous than the thing you’re avoiding. If there was something more fun than that you’d put it off, too. Thanks for the inspiration.

  37. serendipity says:

    I understand that we should do things as soon as we realize it. But since we can do only one thing at a time , as #13 prufock says, we have to prioritize things in terms of what’s really important to do at this right moment.
    What’s really important here, I think, is that you should maintain a good “balance” . For example,if you work all day not having time with your family, you might end up with making a bad relationship with your wife or children. So I think that “balancing” things is also important.

  38. impressed person says:

    Upon reading this article, I feel it relates to pretty much everything I do everyday… and I always say I’m gonna do it later, I will do it later and at the at that time, I always mean it but later never comes. Until I’ve read this article I’ve never actually thought about how little I get done as a result compared to how much more could be done. I guess you could say that this article is gonna be my reminder as to why now is always better than later. And will be my push into getting a job done.

    And the whole balancing things by #37 i completely agree. I happen to feel that most families do not spend enough time together and tend to end up with bad family relationships… I’m 17 and live with my mother, but I only see her once a week if I’m lucky, and when I do all I can think to say is hi and then I go upstairs to my room because anything after that socially feels awkward, I feel this is due to a lack of communication between us and at this point it seems downhill does that sound like a good relationship? so word of advice to the parents spend time with your kids while their still kids, because if you don’t you might end up with a relationship where your child will feel awkward around you.

    PS. this is biased, for anyone who doesn’t know what that means; it means it is written from my point of view, that doesn’t necessarily make it true, it is arguable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *