The foundation of self-control is understanding the idea that what you want in the short term doesn’t necessarily reflect what you want in the long term.
You want fatty foods now, but you want to be thin later.
You don’t want to go back to school now, but you want a better job later.
Crucially, we don’t always connect the idea that the person who will experience those desires in the long term is the VERY SAME PERSON as the one who is experiences that other set of desires now.
This is the gap you need to close.
I don’t waste a lot of time, so here’s what you need to know:
*Different brain regions are activated when thinking of our present and future selves. You’re literally thinking about two different people, and your actions and preferences will reflect this reality. But instead of lamenting reality as it is, we can actively fight back.
*People care about themselves way more than other people, so your preference for your present self is not such a big surprise. Before you all moralistic and say that we should care about everyone equally, you just have to think that as we were evolving a species, those who took care of their own needs first, survived.
*The part of your brain that seeks immediate gratification at the expense of your future self isn’t “bad” or “wrong”, but simply another part of you. This is how the brain works, and working with it rather than struggling against it is the path to victory.
*We are perfectly rational when everything is in theory. As soon as it comes time to practice, we trip ourselves up. Prepare yourself for this eventuality and commit to sticking to your plan.
*We often expect that we will make better choices in the future. You can’t rely on this, and yet this trips people up all the time. You think you’ll have more time in the future? Have more money? Be less stressed? Have more energy? Don’t count on it. Work towards it…but don’t count on it.
*When we’re stressed, our brains often mis-predict what will make us happy. It’s called Affective Forecasting, and human beings are AWFUL at it. Basically, we have no idea what will make us happy in the future, what exactly our moods will be, or anything about how we will feel. You should just know this from the start.
*You don’t have to act on your thoughts and feelings. This is probably going to be the topic for a whole other article, but for right now, I’ll just say that your temptations will pass. They always do, regardless of whether you give in or not. This knowledge should give us all strength.
*Your future self will appreciate the effort. The time will pass, as it always does, and you shall remain.
What you’ve just read is what you should know. And now, here’s what will help:
*Vividly imagine your future self. When I’m in the gym, I don’t think about myself as I am. In fact, I avoid all the mirrors. That’s for bodybuilder jerks and creepy guys checking out the girls on the other side of the room. Me, I see in that mirror the person I want to BECOME. Not the person working out next to me, or anything else.
*When you’re faced with the challenge of delaying gratification, learn to ask yourself what you REALLY want, long term. This will help connect your two selves. They’re not two different people with different desires; they’re one person whose previous actions affects the future self in measurable ways.
*Breathe very slowly. This will slow you down and help you apply what you’ve learned. Otherwise, you just get swept up by the urges and lose your self control.
*Commit far in advance. It’s the idea of giving yourself the OPTION that leads to rumination and then poor choices. Leave yourself no OUT. You’ve committed already…and what you say is what will goddamn happen.
*Remove morality from your choices. This is to say that one of your selves isn’t “bad” and the other “good:”, but instead that you’re simply facing options as a human being, making his or her way through the world. You can’t beat yourself up over perceived moral indiscretions. It’s not worth it, and Godlike Discipline means clear perception as well as an iron will.
*Forgive yourself for any willpower lapses. This is a powerful idea that often gets forgotten. Negative self talk will KILL your motivation and your general life satisfaction. Work hard, improve, but don’t think for an instant that you’re somehow less of a valuable person just because you gave in to a temptation. And that’s not just ‘self-help industry’ garbage, but it’s the absolute truth.
*And finally…ask yourself: “Do I really want to face the consequences of always putting this off?” Imagining your rewards as close at hand is important, but imagining the possible negative consequences of your actions is vital as well. You WILL face these negative consequences if you don’t take active measures to resist temptation and pursue your vision. Do you really want to live with that version of your future self? You must know that it’s a real possibility.
So what are you going to do with this information? Are you going to click another link to some internet charlatan selling another quick fix? Or are you going to take some notes, and get to work. The choice is yours, and the only easy day was yesterday.
We’ve never met before, but I have total faith in you. Each moment, we have a choice about who we want to become in the next moment. The existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte observed that we are “condemned to be free”. Meaning, we are doomed to make choices. These choices matter, and who you are now isn’t far removed from who you will eventually become.
And guess what? YOU get to choose what that looks like.
Of both selves, we are the one who wants the best for us. Always.
The main idea here is that our brain can’t always see how our actions today impact our future. That’s just how we’re wired. But, as self-aware organisms, we can transcend this internal wiring and change our lives. Change our future history.
The way to do this is to visualize your future self as a real person, learn to ask what you really, really want, breathe very slowly, commit far in advance, remove morality from your choices, and forgive yourself for any lapses. On top of that, asking yourself if you can live with the consequences of your actions is a powerful reminder to stick to your plan.
Special thanks to professor Kelly McGonigal and her phenomenal book, “The Willpower Instinct” for some of the insights highlighted in this post. If you’re fortunate enough to track down a copy of the book (not that hard!), then you’ll find much, much more contained within those invaluable pages.
Email me with your questions! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I usually respond within 48-72 hours. I am also a mentor, and 100% of my fees go to support the non-profit Doctors Without Borders. I raise money for causes by helping people to change their lives. Pretty cool, eh?