Don’t Be Selfish: Treat Your Future Self Better (It Pays Off)

You Choose

Which type of person do you prefer to be?

Pays monthly interest on credit card debt.Earns monthly dividends from their investments.
Feels like crap after eating a tub of ice cream.Feels like a million bucks after plunging into a cold tub.
Wonders where all the time went.Others look at in wonder for having accomplished so much in so little time.

I’ll take B in all examples (but with the odd scoop of ice cream). And I’ve come to realize that improving one all-important relationship can make it happen:

The relationship between my current self and my future self.

Because if you choose to treat Future You as an equal to Current You who’s reading this right now, you’re set. You’ll spend your time, energy, and money fairly amongst yourselves and reap the rewards.

But do we treat our current and future selves equally? Probably not.

Here’s why. And here’s what to do about it to be less selfish and set your future self up for success.

Why We’re Inherently Current Selfish

Why do current selfish broke fatsos with boring jobs way outnumber future self-loving superstars with six-packs with sizable savings accounts? 3 reasons.

Magnifying Glasses

We all are inherently current selfish because, as psychologist Elizabeth Dunn puts it, “The present acts as a magnifying glass for our emotions.” And we stare through those damn things as intently as Sherlock Holmes finding a fingerprint.

It’s hard not to. Especially because the present’s hard to miss, it’s so exciting, and, as we’ll see next, we suck at visualizing the future.

Me visualizing my future self having a family dinner
The way you visualize your future self is all wrong.

Bad Imaginations

Try this quick exercise to test if you and your future self are working together:

Imagine you’re like Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come transports you to a family dinner twenty years from now that Future You is hosting. Close your eyes and picture the scene. Don’t be lazy. Do it for three seconds.

What do you see?

I bet you my magnifying glass that you were watching your future self eat and chat, kind of like in a Sims video game.

If so, you failed the test.

Because when you watch your future self from the outside, your thoughts go through the part of your brain that registers Future You as a different person1Medial Prefrontal Cortex Predicts Intertemporal Choice, Jason P. Mitchell, Jessica Schirmer, Daniel L. Ames, and Daniel T. Gilbert. A stranger2Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice, Hal Hershfield.

You sometimes don’t even smile at strangers, let alone make sacrifices for them.

Future self and current self diagram
Shoot for 3, 4, or 5 to keep a realistic but optimistic outlook for Future You in the medium term. (Source)

Unrealistic Dreams

How much do you think your beliefs, preferences, priorities, and values will change over the next decade?

Most of us think we’re close to finished products, so we won’t change much. (See video below.)

Others, the dreamers among us, naively believe we’ll get our act together or that some Fairy Godmother or Morpheus will come along to transform us into nearly unrecognizable upgraded versions of ourselves.

Both are unlikely.

The reality that few of us dream of, but we should for our own well-being3The more people predicted they’d stay the same, the more satisfied they were with their lives 10 years later according to Identity Over Time: Perceived Similarity Between Selves Predicts Well-Being 10 Years Later, by Joseph S. Reiff, Hal E. Hershfield, and Jordi Quoidbach, is somewhere in between. Think of how much you’ve changed in the past ten years. Realistically, that’s about how much you can expect to change in the next ten.

But maybe you can do better. That depends on if you can learn to treat your future self better.

Let’s look at how to do that now.

How to Be a Better Friend to Your Future Self

The somewhat unnatural-feeling and counterintuitive exercises to try and habits to get into that are proven to make you less current selfish and more future self friendly.

Photo of future self as wallpaper of cell phone.
Using a picture of my future self as wallpaper of my phone to remind myself to look out for the old guy.

Get Intimate With Future You

Try the Scrooge exercise from before, but this time imagine it from Future You’s eyes, not Current You’s. Then pump up the empathy by adding in detail:

  • What will Future You worry about when trying to fall asleep?
  • How is your less-youthful future self feeling physically?
  • What activities and people bring joy to Future You?

Adding vividness to your future self visualizations will make you more willing to sacrifice the present for future gains4Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice, Hal E. Hershfield. And the more you do it, the more real your future self becomes in your mind, and the more likely you will act in their interest5Future Work Selves: How Salient Hoped-For Identities Motivate Proactive Career Behaviors, Strauss, K., Griffin, M. A., & Parker, S. K..

To take it to a creepy but fun level, use a free app to create a realistic photo of your older self, print it off, and put it on your fridge beside the photo of the kid in Africa you send to school. It works6You Make Better Decisions If You “See” Your Senior Self, Hal Hershfield, HBR.

I’m neglecting to ask, “WWFMD?”


Do you remember back in the 90s when everyone wore WWJD bracelets? (WWJD = What would Jesus do?)

It was all the rage among the cool kids at my elementary school in Vancouver. Even Rahim, my Hindu classmate, wore one.

Well, it’s time to bring those bracelets back with a secular twist. Instead of WWJD, put WWFMD on them:

What would future me desire?7You don’t actually need a bracelet. You can tattoo it on both your arms if you prefer.

When you’re faced with a decision that affects Current You and Future You, remember to ask, WWFMD.

For instance:

  • When you’re drooling over an all-you-can-eat buffet, instead of thinking, “What do I want to eat?” ask, “What do I want to have eaten?” WWFMD?
  • When you’re debating yourself about whether to go outside and work out or take a seventh consecutive rest day, bring in an arbiter: WWFMD?
  • When you’re not sure what next steps to take to grow your business or career, bring in a second opinion: WWFMD?
  • When you have half an hour to kill before dinner, before looking at your phone for entertainment, look to the future and ask, WWFMD?

Future You is a wise mentor and coach. You’ll make better decisions when you ask for their input.

I’m not just pulling these claims out of the air, either. A future self focus has been found to make you healthier8Future self-continuity is associated with improved health and increases exercise behavior, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, wealthier9Saving for the future self: neural measures of future self-continuity predict temporal discounting, Ersner-Hershfield H, Wimmer GE, Knutson B., better behaved10You Make Better Decisions If You “See” Your Senior Self, Hal Hershfield, Harvard Business Review, more productive11Pathways To Success Through Identity-based Motivation, more patient12Do Yourself a Favor: We Help Our Future Selves for the Same Reasons We Help Others (PDF), Harvard Library, and have stronger career prospects.13Future Work Selves: How Salient Hoped-For Identities Motivate Proactive Career Behaviors, 2011, Journal of Applied Psychology

Do It For Them

When I previously wrote sacrifice the present for your future self, I really meant it.

Rather than treat your future self well out of self-interest, consider it your social responsibility. You’re acting selflessly on behalf of your future self and the people who depend upon Future You’s well-being.

This social responsibility framing has is more motivating than a self-interested one14You owe it to yourself: Boosting retirement saving with a responsibility-based appeal, Christopher J. Bryan and Hal E. Hershfield. And it’s straightforward. You have friends and family members who love you because you’re a caring person. Just treat your future self the same way.

Be Pen Pals

To get better acquainted with your future self, open up a line of written communication between the two of you.

I fell into doing so indirectly with my lifelogging practice. Other people claim it helps to write actual letters15How My Life Changed After 30 Days of ‘Future-Self’ Journaling, by Sarah Aboulhosn on Medium16Why you should write a letter to your future self, by Kathleen Davis on Fast Company.

If you choose the latter, try writing from Future You to Current You. It’ll put you more in the WWFMD mindset and bring you closer to your future self17Conversation with a future self: A letter-exchange exercise enhances student self-continuity, career planning, and academic thinking, Yuta Chishima & Anne E. Wilson, Self and Identity. Write what Future You is up to, what they’ve accomplished, and the steps they took to get there.

Also write about the things Current You has that Future You might not—e.g., the freedom of youth, full health, healthy parents, fewer responsibilities, time—to feel more grateful for today.

Current self cursing past self for not buying me more ice cream

When All Else Fails, Stick It to Your Future Self

Maybe you think these future self befriending tips are nonsense and are mad at your 3-minute-ago self hadn’t for wasting your time to read them. Or maybe you’re too lazy or current selfish to try any of it.

Fine. Sorry I couldn’t convince you.

At the very least, I hope you agree with me that you could be wealthier, healthier, and happier overall by being less current selfish. If so, consider this:

Make it harder for your future self to screw over their future self.

Here are some ways to do so:18For related ideas, listen to The Real Reason You Procrastinate episode from Adam Grant’s podcast, WorkLife.

  • Book a non-refundable holiday.
  • Put down a big deposit for personal training.
  • Set up automatic deposits to your retirement fund.
  • Install programs that restrict your access to unproductive apps and websites.
  • Give a friend $500 and tell them to donate it to an organization you oppose if you don’t quit smoking.
  • Subscribe to Consider This, our free newsletter that will remind Future You to fight complacency and explore purposefully to make the most of their trip through life.
Working hard for your future self's benefit

From Enemy, to Friend, to Happiness

When a thousand people were asked, “Who is your worst enemy is in the world?” guess what the most common answer was?

You probably nailed it:

Themselves. Half of the respondents said they were their own worst enemy.

So we know we’re current selfish. We just don’t do anything about it and suffer the consequences. But it’s not hopeless, not even that hard, and the rewards are huge.

“The three components of happiness,” according to author and psychiatrist Gordon Livingston19I found this quote in 5 Crucial Questions To Get What You Really Want, by Benjamin Hardy, a fellow future self philosophy fanatic., “are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.”

Befriending your future self scores you the trifecta:

  1. Someone to love. (Your future self.)
  2. Something to do. (Get off your ass to make a better future.)
  3. Something to look forward to. (The better future you’re creating.)

If that doesn’t convince you to be less current selfish and ask WWFMD more often, I give up. My future self is telling me I have better things to do.

More About Your Future Self

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Chris and Kim

Kim and Chris started The Unconventional Route in 2018 to share their adventures fighting complacency to win at life. Today, over 150,000 people a month visit the site and thousands more explore a dose of uncomplacent ideas with them every 10 days in their free newsletter, Consider This.

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