There are two Gretchens.
I have myself at the present moment, and I have my future-self. I’ve found that it’s very, very helpful to keep this future-self in mind.
I stick to tasks and habits that I’d rather avoid in the present, because I’m mindful of how they’ll pay off in the future: “My future-self won’t want dental work, so I’d better floss now.” (As the old saying goes, “You don’t have to take care of all your teeth, just the ones you want to keep.”) “My future-self will be so happy if I take photos every day on this trip, I’ll remember all our adventures.”
In this way, thinking of future-Gretchen makes my life happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.
In terms of my Four Tendencies personality framework, the thinking of the future-self is a tool that’s useful for all four Tendencies:
- you can create accountability for any aim, without needing anyone else’s cooperation—particularly useful for Obligers
- you remind yourself of the good or bad consequences that will follow from your actions or inactions—particularly useful for Rebels
- you remind yourself of the reasons that you’re doing something—particularly useful for Questioners
- you remind yourself of the pain of letting yourself down or the satisfaction of accomplishment—particularly useful for Upholders
When deciding how to spend our time, energy, or money, thinking of our future-selves can help us to avoid feelings of regret and set ourselves up for feelings of satisfaction.
I can reflect on what regrets future-Gretchen may feel. Regret is an unpleasant emotion, but it’s helpful: because it’s so unpleasant, I want to do the things that will mean I won’t suffer it.
- If I don’t exercise now, future-Gretchen will regret it, because she’ll be frail.
- If I don’t get my shingles vaccine now, future-Gretchen could get a terrible case of shingles.
- If I don’t wear my seat belt now, future-Gretchen could get seriously injured in a car accident that otherwise wouldn’t be very serious.
- If I don’t stay in close touch with my high-school friends now, future-Gretchen will feel lonelier.
- If I don’t take the trouble to upgrade my laptop now, future-Gretchen may have to deal with a crash.
- If I don’t make an effort to read widely now, future-Gretchen’s ideas will start to feel stale.
- If I don’t make an effort to give myself recess everyday, future-Gretchen may start to feel drained and overwhelmed.
- If I don’t buy plane tickets early, future-Gretchen will pay more and have fewer choices.
As part of my 23 for 2023 Trifecta, I made a list of 23 things that I want to accomplish in 2023. Future-Gretchen will feel a lot of regret if I don’t get a lot of those things done by December 31; they’re important to me. I need to take action now, for future-Gretchen’s benefit.
Also, if we’re stuck in analysis-paralysis or struggling to do something, regret can help us decide what aims to abandon. We can ask, “Will my future-self care if I do this—or not?” If future-Gretchen won’t feel any regret, probably now-Gretchen doesn’t need to worry about it.
Another strategy for using the regrets of our future-self to make ourselves happier? Conduct a pre-mortem. Imagine yourself in the future: You’ve failed to achieve an important aim. What went wrong? Why did you fail? What will your future-self wish that your now-self had done differently? I’ve done pre-mortems several times, and they’ve always helped me to take action in the present.
The flip-side of regret is satisfaction.
I can also remind myself of how gratified future-Gretchen will feel with what now-Gretchen has done.
It’s easy to focus on the “to-do,” and it can be energizing to remind ourselves instead of the “ta-da”—how great our future-self will feel when we look back on how far we’ve come.
- If I read twenty minutes each day now, future-Gretchen will finish many books by the end of the year, which feeds my creativity.
- If I take the time to clean out my office now, future-Gretchen will feel calmer and spend less time looking for misplaced items.
- If I follow the “Go Outside 23 in ’23” challenge, future-Gretchen will consistently spend time in nature this year, a source of energy and happiness.
- If I make lots of lunch plans now, future-Gretchen will feel more connected to old friends and have new friends.
- If I do a weekly Power Hour, future-Gretchen will feel the relief and satisfaction of crossing dreaded tasks off the list.
- If I keep a running list of gift ideas throughout the year, future-Gretchen will find gift-buying easy and fun at holiday time.
An interesting twist on using a “ta-da” approach to the future self? Write a letter of congratulations to your future-self, in which you praise future-you for all the specific steps successfully done to achieve a difficult aim. Visualizing the satisfaction of the victorious finish line may give you energy to persist—and to identify, with anticipatory hindsight (oxymoron alert!), the steps you took to achieve it.
How do you invoke your future-self to help your present-self to get things done? I’d love to hear more ideas and insights about how to use this concept to make our lives happier.