Three sets of devices to close that difficult gap
In the previous blog post we looked at Dr Hal Hershfield’s notion of our “future self,” the person we will become one day, and how difficult it is to anticipate how this future self will feel, and how much of a stranger our future self seems to our present self.
That opens up a big gap between present self and future self. And if we can close that gap (which is extremely difficult to do, because of all the errors that it’s natural for us to make in anticipating that future self’s feelings), then we can start making choices for them that appreciably improve our lives now and later.
What can we do to close that gap? That’s what this blog post is about. I’m picking out the principles involved. Hal’s book contains multiple examples of each principle, examples that bring the principles to life. So, if this appeals to you, check out his book.
Hal says: to bridge the gap between present and future selves, you can “make the future closer.”
One way to do this is by visualizing your future self with age-progressed images. But context matters. The images by themselves may not be enough to change present behavior. It’s necessary to pair this “vividness” exercise with situations where you can make an immediate choice – like selecting a savings rate. We saw, last time, that this visualization caused higher amounts to be set aside as retirment savings for the benefit of the future self.
Another approach involves writing letters to and from your future self. Hal says this increases the sense of connection. Perhaps start with a long-horizon future self, and then move backward through time – this increases the sense of closeness. This sort of “reverse time travel” has been found to lead people to take action today to take care of tomorrow. If it’s too tough to think far ahead, think about the very same future in terms of days rather than years. Perhaps surprisingly, when people were asked to think about retirement starting in 10,950 days, they planned to start saving four times earlier than those asked to think about retirement starting in 30 years. Yes, days feel short and years feel long.
To better ensure that you arrive at the future you want, consider “commitment device” strategies that make it harder to fall prey to temptation.
The weakest form is known as a “psychological commitment”: make a plan to commit to a course of action. Try to recruit an accountability partner—someone who can make sure that you do the thing you said you were going to do.
Stronger yet are commitment devices where tempting options are removed from your environment. For example, there’s the “Kitchen Safe”: a locked box that sits in your kitchen, and you put tempting options in it, close it via its electronic keypad, and program it to stay closed for any time ranging from one minute to ten days.
More extreme still are commitment devices where punishments are enacted if you veer off track. If possible, make the punishments automatic so that you leave no room for negotiations with yourself.
Pre-commitment was first formally discussed by Thomas Schelling, an economist who won the 2005 Nobel Prize, in the context of preventing the escalation of the Cold War. Back in 1956, he suggested that nations could lessen the likelihood of an all-out conflict by committing to a course of action in advance.
Again, all of this pre-commitment is difficult. To come up with an effective strategy, you have to possess a healthy ability to take the perspective of others, and specifically, our future selves. When we take a pre-commitment approach, we must engage in perspective-taking and figure out what will tempt future versions of ourselves.
Tension exists when Current You has to sacrifice for the benefit of Future You. But you can improve future outcomes by making those present-day sacrifices easier to undertake.
One category of strategies is to “take the good with the bad.” Experiencing positive emotions in the face of negative events may provide a buffer of sorts, allowing better insight into stressors big and small. “Temptation bundling,” where you pair tempting positive activities with the things that feel like sacrifices, can be effective. And “tangential immersion,” where you pair the boring task with something that’s slightly more interesting, can help you stay on track.
You can also “make the big small” and break sacrifices down into smaller, easier-to-accomplish pieces.
Again, check out Hal’s book for examples.
We must also find ways to celebrate the present. Recognize that if we live only for tomorrow, we may arrive at a future that’s devoid of the memories and experiences that make life worth living.
The tension inherent in these trade-offs was perfectly captured in a quote attributed to Groucho Marx: “Why should I care about future generations—what have they ever done for me?”
This suggests that well-being isn’t only about chasing happiness—it’s about learning to find glimmers of joy and pleasure even in our more difficult moments.
By adding a measure of positive emotion to the negative, we make it easier to cope with life’s stressors and push through difficult times in the present to better times in the future.
I like the way Hal expressed things in his Rational Reminder podcast interview. He said something along the following lines.
- There’s a tension between our present and future selves.
- Balance is the goal: trade-offs, lose today to win tomorrow.
- Harmony is the ideal (both present and future selves are happy). If we can mentally and emotionally anticipate the good (the win) in the future, we can feel good about our sacrifice today – and end up win/win.
Hal shows us how to make the future closer, how to use commitment devices to avoid current temptations, and how to combine a sacrifice for the future with a good feeling today.
I have written about retirement planning before and some of that material also relates to topics or issues that are being discussed here. Where relevant I draw on material from three sources: The Retirement Plan Solution (co-authored with Bob Collie and Matt Smith, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009), my foreword to Someday Rich (by Timothy Noonan and Matt Smith, also published by Wiley, 2012), and my occasional column The Art of Investment in the FT Money supplement of The Financial Times, published in the UK. I am grateful to the other authors and to The Financial Times for permission to use the material here.