Making choices that benefit our current selves but not our future selves is a very human thing to do. But the capacity to imagine the future does give us a psychological tool for making better choices in the here and now. I explore this idea in this post, having encountered this concept multiple times recently. Reading time ~ 8 minutes.
Apologies for the somewhat obscure title. There are just days where I like to make my posts unnecessarily wanky.
But there is a self-development concept that has popped up a few times on my radar recently that I wanted to write about. And that concept involves considering the future as a means of obtaining guidance for behaviour in the present.
I have, for a decent chunk of my adult life been familiar with the concept of reverse engineering. Essentially, you take a finished object and in the process of dismantling it, gain some insights into how it was built. Essentially you work backwards from a desired end point to provide you the roadmap for how to then move forwards. However, not being an engineer or particularly good with building things, I don’t believe I’ve ever reverse engineered anything in my life (I have taken things apart, but I rarely was able to put them back together again 🤦🏼♂️).
But recently, across multiple contexts, I’ve come across some psychological versions of the concept recently that I think are worth discussing. In the psychological version, we imagine a desired future and then work backwards from that to identify the steps we’d need to take to get there.
The first time I encountered this concept was part of delivering the Be Well Plan. In the final session of the 5 x 2hr program, we get participants to engage in a thought experiment where they fast-forward into the future and imagine their ideal self and ideal life. From that vision, we then get them to think about what they might need to put in place (psychologically, behaviourally) to move them from where they are now to something more closely approximating that desired future. Put simply, imagine their ideal future and then create a plan to get there.
The second time I came across the concept was in a Huberman Lab podcast with longevity doctor Peter Attia (whose own podcast is definitely worth a listen). Attia used the term ‘back-casting’ to describe a part of his assessment process for clients. He’d ask them what kind of old-age they wanted with a focus on level and type of different activities, and would use that information to determine what kinds of lifestyle changes, exercise programs, nutrition etc they should focus on in the here and now to increase the likelihood of that happening. Again, a similar idea. Conceptualise the future you want and then work backwards to determine what the implications are for your choices in the present.
The third time it popped up, and which was the catalyst for me writing this blog post, was a presentation I did with Grace from SLSS on the topic of procrastination. Grace talked about starting the academic year or semester by putting all important due dates into a calendar, and then working backwards from those due dates to put reminders and deadlines into the calendar to ensure steady and controlled progress towards those final products. Rather than planning forward (how am I going to allocate my time this semester?), you actually plan backward (what needs to be achieved by when, in order to meet these assignment/exam deadlines?). I thought it was a really neat and elegant way to conceptualise a semester of study.
What all these methods have in common is that we can sometimes gain clarity about what we need to be doing today, based on a consideration of what outcomes we want for our future selves. What do I want to happen and then how I am going to make that happen?
In addition to providing clarity about present choices, I think the capacity to imagine a future version of ourselves is also a helpful way of countering a tendency we have to make choices that benefit us in the short-term, but have longer term negative consequences (e.g. enjoying a few too many alcoholic drinks). For example, I know that future me is likely going to be a lot happier if current me makes decent choices in terms of nutrition, exercise, sleep, workload, time spent with others etc. Just even being aware that I may need to consider future me means potentially wiser choices.
To be clear, you don’t have to imagine a perfect or ideal future, just one in which you exist and will likely want to be as happy and connected and productive as you can be.
As I sit with the idea/concept, I imagine building it into some of my other programs/presentations. For example, in Studyology (a program that tackles procrastination), I get students to think back and remember what made them decide to study in the first place. I return to these original motivations to help provide students some motivation in the present. Based on what I’ve discussed in this post, I could actually get students to imagine their future self – looking for jobs and opportunities and taking the next big step in life – and realise that their future self would hope to have a degree under their belt. Bringing that self to mind, might provide some additional motivation to stay connected to the task in front of them, especially during times when they’d be happy to be distracted from it.
You can start activating this concept in your life straight away. Just take a moment to think about your life 1, 2, 5, 10 or more years in the future. What do you want that life to look like? And then ask yourself, are you making choices in the here and now that are likely to deliver you that life or get in the way? Don’t be discouraged if you discover that you present behaviour isn’t well aligned with your future goals. That is a normal part of the human experience. But the capacity to imagine the future is a psychological tool we have available to us that can assist us in making better choices today.