investing in our future self

How to close the gap between our current and future selves

KnowHow founder Bushy Martin talks about how we can move from “good intentions” and invest in the future we want for ourselves and our families.

When the alarm goes off, do you slam your hand on the snooze button? More than once?

I’m sure all of us have had times when we want to get up early but we fail to do so.

How often have you been determined to start eating less unhealthy food and take away?  And how often have you succeeded in doing it for more than a few weeks or couple of months?

We all want to live healthier lives but many of us fail to do so. We have great intentions but day to day temptations keep getting in the way.

So, we want to get up early, and we want to live healthier lives, but somehow, we don’t.

How about your retirement?

Are you saving and investing enough now to live comfortably when you stop work? Or do you plan to look into this in the future because you’ve got no time now and you feel like you’ve got plenty of time to think about it? 

Chances are that later may be much later and then it may even be too late.

Imagine if you don’t save and invest enough. Your lifestyle will drop off the cliff or you’ll be forced to keep working till you drop. 

You may be forced to sell your home and move to a smaller property. You may have to cut back or give up on your interests exactly when you get more time to enjoy your home and your hobbies. 

If you’re like the current average retiree over the age of 65, you’ll struggle to make ends meet.

Why is this the case?

What we plan to do vs what we actually do

From getting out of bed, to eating better to living more comfortably long term, it’s obvious there’s a gap that we all suffer from: the gap between what we plan to do and what we actually do.

We plan to do the one thing and end up doing something else.

We plan to look into savings and investment in the near future, but we keep procrastinating and we never quite get around to it.

Why do we have this gap, and wouldn’t it be great if we could close it? Well, you might think that closing the gap is not that difficult. We simply just have to care more about the future don’t we?

It’s not that simple. We do care about the future. We have ambitious plans for the future, we just fail to carry them out.

So, I want to return to the question that keeps plaguing me and frustrating me. Why don’t more of us plan long term and take action now that will significantly improve our lives in the future? 

How do we shift our thinking from short term to long term?

How do we develop the patience and persistence to make decisions and take actions now that focus on our future self not our present self – to shift from the immediate to the infinite?

I’m fearful for a lot of hard working professionals and families who are not investing in their future lifestyles, whether it be in the self development, health development or wealth development, because we need all three if we are going to sustain a long and fruitful lifestyle. 

I’m on a mission to wake up as many people as possible to take the small amount of time it takes now to invest in themselves so they have a much healthier and wealthier lifestyle in the future, because it just isn’t that hard. We just need to do what we know we need to do but don’t make the time to do.

In my constant search for answers, my research has uncovered a number of other reasons for this.

Short-termism

The first is that our instant everything world has become totally dominated by short-termism.

At its simplest, short-termism is being locked into a cycle where the here and now eclipses our ability to think or plan for the long term.

This is now endemic, in our always on, digital first culture that we’re living in where it feels like digital technology has pushed the fast forward button on society generally and it prestiges and elevates things that are now, next, fast and instant over all else. And the flip-side of this is that later, slow and the future is denigrated and has no value. 

We can pick up our phones now and spend hundreds of dollars instantly or check the likes on our social media posts and every time we do it we get that little dopamine hit and that feeling of ‘that was nice, I feel better now’, because I was feeling a bit crappy before and now I’m feeling good again.

This is a growing problem because what we’re doing then is getting short-term satisfaction but not thinking long-term, which starts to affect our relationships, finances, and permeates every aspect of our entire lifestyles.

The Behavioural Scientist Ivo Vlaev defines short-termism in psychology as our tendency to overvalue immediate rewards and undervalue long term intentions. We tend to focus on our immediate financial needs and we forget our long term plans.

Retirement, for example, just looks so far ahead in the future so we tend to discount it, ignore it and put off doing anything about investing in the future for a later date – a date that rarely if ever happens.

Today a click really is instant – not like our parents version of instant where you sent away for something or you had to make it yourself, or go out to a shop as everything we need is right here right now – everything has become very compressed. 

Now don’t get me wrong, digital culture has bought us incredible things – the ability to see all things at all times and we’ve become kind of omnipresent, but the flip-side of that is that we are never really present in the moment.

The second ironic thing, according to Kirsten Rohde, is that the first step towards closing the gap between what we plan to do and what we actually do is to become aware that we can’t escape from it.

And to better understand the gap, Rohde suggests that it helps to think of ourselves in the future as a different person to the one than we are today. Not only will our circumstances change, but our preferences change over time as well; from day to day, from minute to minute. It’s as if we are a different self at every point in time, we see our current self is planning, while our future self is doing.

The gap between planning and doing is essentially the result of a disagreement between our current self and our future self.

So, the self who sets the alarm wants to get up early, and the self who wakes up from the alarm wants to stay in that nice, warm, and comfortable bed.

And Rohde believes there are at least three reasons for a disagreement between our current and our future selves.

First of all, circumstances change. So, imagine that in the near future, there’ll be a great technological breakthrough that will enable us all to live ten years longer. Well, then my future self will decide to save more for retirement than my current self plans to do.

This disagreement between my current and my future self is caused by this unexpected change in circumstances.

So none of these selves is to blame for making a wrong decision, they simply have different information on which to base their decisions.

But when I set the alarm in the evening, and wake up the next morning, circumstances haven’t changed that much. It’s me, my preferences, that have changed. I simply want to stay in bed. So, changing circumstances are only part of the story.

Our preferences change as well. Why?

Well, most of the plans we make have consequences for several of our future selves.So when we make plans, we have to trade off the wellbeing of different future selves, so we have to determine how important we find one self relative to the others, we have to determine how much priority we give to our different selves.

How do we do this?

In general, we care less about the future than about the present. So, the further in the future a self gets, the less priority it gets. But what causes the gap between planning and doing is the fact that the priorities that we give to these different selves may change over time.

The closer we get to our future selves, the larger the priority we give to the sooner relative to the later selves.

How does this apply to my alarm clock?

When I set the alarm in the evening, I have to trade off the wellbeing of at least two of my future selves: the self who wakes up from the alarm and wants to stay in bed, and the self – the later self – who doesn’t want to miss exercising before I start work.

When I set the alarm, I may decide to give equal priority to both of these selves. I may decide that the discomfort of getting out of bed early is less painful than the discomfort of not exercising.

So I’ll decide to set the alarm relatively early.

But once the alarm rings in the morning, I’ll give more priority to the self who wakes up, and I’ll decide to stay in bed.

So, it is as if my self who wakes up puts too much priority on myself.

In that sense, we could say that the self who wakes up is responsible for the gap between planning and doing. But maybe the self who sets the alarm fails to correctly anticipate how much discomfort I will feel when waking up from the alarm. So maybe, it is the self who sets the alarm that makes a mistake. Maybe it’s that self that’s responsible for the gap between planning and doing.

And this brings Rohde to a third reason for a disagreement between our current and our future selves. When we make decisions with future consequences, we have to project ourselves to the future. We have to imagine how much our future selves will like what our current self decides today.

Research has shown that it is really difficult for us to do this. We tend to overestimate how similar our future selves are to our current selves.

It’s called projection bias. It’s as if we don’t have sufficient empathy for our future selves.

So, imagine your buying the weekly groceries. When you go to the supermarket, you buy food that will be consumed by your future self.

So, what you buy should depend on what you think your future self would like to eat, and it shouldn’t depend on your current appetite.

But if you have ever bought groceries on an empty stomach, you know what happens. We tend to buy more unhealthy food on an empty stomach than a full stomach.

When we prefer a muffin to an apple right now, we tend to think that we’ll also prefer the muffin to the apple in the future.

But in the future, we may well prefer the apple: a disagreement between our current and our future selves.

Here we can say that the current self fails to correctly foresee what the future self will need. In this example the current self is responsible for the gap between planning and doing.

In summary, Rohde sees three reasons why we make plans that we fail to stick to:

  • circumstances may change,
  • the priorities we give to our different selves may change,
  • and it is really hard for us to guess what our future selves will need and like.

We can’t say that the gap between planning and doing shows that we fail to do the right things. No, maybe we just fail to make the right plans.

So, it’s not clear which self is to blame for the gap between planning and doing: Us as the planner or the doer?

How can we close the gap between our current and future selves?

By deciding to commit ourselves to our plans, as long as we are taking the time to make them.

So, when I set the alarm, I could decide to put it across the other side of the room so that the only way to press the snooze button is to get out of bed.

And if I use this strategy of commitment, then I essentially shift some decision power from my future to my current self, because then my future self has to adjust to whatever my current self decides today.

And of course, this strategy only works if I’m aware of the possible disagreement between my current and my future selves.

So, the gap between planning and doing is the result of an ongoing struggle between our different selves, and it’s not clear which self is right. But if we are aware of the gap, then we can commit ourselves to our plans.

All in all, awareness is the first step towards closing the gap. It will make us suffer less from the tension between what we want today and what we want tomorrow.

So, one of the secrets to doing what we plan to do is to find commitment devices that help us stick to healthier and wealthier lifestyles.

But there is much more to it than that, as I discovered when I came across cognitive psychologist Amanda Crowell’s work. Amanda offers 3 additional reasons we aren’t doing what we say we’ll do.

“Defensive failure”

To illustrate this point let me start with a personal story. 

When I was growing up in late primary school and early high school, I rarely exercised. I was a chronic asthmatic that left me bed ridden and physically undeveloped. I just didn’t have the breathing ability for any active hobbies.

I really struggled to play any sports. The few times I tried to play footy I would get belted and left for dead – I was slow and weak and left huffing and puffing after the smallest of runs.

This went on for a number of years and I was constantly being made fun of and ostracised for being a little punk chested runt.  Something needed to change.

Now, the only option to get fitter and stronger is to exercise. But it just wasn’t who I was. I didn’t believe I was capable of any strenuous exercise because I couldn’t breathe and it scared the hell out of me.

And we’ve all had something like this, haven’t we?

Something that we know if we’re going to become the person we want to be, this thing has to change. But even though we think about it all the time, we never make any progress.

This phenomenon is what Amanda Crowell calls “defensive failure,” and it goes a little something like this: It’s Sunday. You say to your partner, “This week, I’m going to go to the gym at least three times.”

Then all of a sudden Friday comes around, and you haven’t been to the gym at all.

It’s so mysterious, right? You’re like, “I meant to go to the gym. I intended to go to the gym. Why am I not going to the gym?”

Cromwell’s research on this uncovered that much of the reason you’re not doing what you say you want to do is in your mind – the identity stories that you’ve convinced yourself of.

Cromwell found that there are three powerful mindset blocks that are keeping you locked in a cycle of defensive failure.

And if any one of these is in play, your brain defends you against real failure – which is where you do something but you do it really badly – by redirecting you and distracting you, and you never make any progress.

So let’s talk about each one.

The first reason that you may be locked in a cycle of defensive failure is that you think, somewhere in your heart, that you can’t do it. You think that some people have the talent or the genetics to do this thing and, specifically, you don’t.

Let’s return to my early experience with exercise. I was determined to do something about my punk chested runt demeanour so my good mother decided to get me into swimming lessons to build up my chest, breathing and general fitness. 

At first I was petrified and scared of the water – as an asthmatic who really struggled to breath at the best of times, the mere thought of trying to hold my breath under water scared the living crap out of me.

I rocked up to the pool in my baggy oversized togs as they were called and after I refused to get in the water in front of all of the other school kids,the swimming instructor picked me up and threw me in to the middle of the pool.

I thought I was going to drown. Thrashing helplessly in the water and swallowing mouthfuls of chlorine I somehow managed to drag myself kicking and gasping
to the edge of the pool. And after hanging on to dear life as I slowly regained my breath, as I dragged myself up out of the pool my swimmers fell down around my ankles. Everyone burst out laughing at me.

I was embarrassed beyond belief. This, was my worst living nightmare. 

And this, in my mind, was exactly the kind of failure I desperately wanted to avoid. I tried to do something for the first time, and I did it wrong. Right?

Cromwell suggests that what happens in this moment is at the heart of this mindset block.

If you believe that at the core of success is talent and genetics, then this rookie mistake matters a lot. It’s the proof you needed that you didn’t have what it takes, right?

But if you can, instead, develop what Carol Dweck would refer to as a “growth mindset” about it, then these beginner mistakes lose their significance. They are no longer proof that you never should have tried, they’re opportunities to learn.

Because you know that at the heart of success is not talent, it’s effort.

It’s effort, repeated over time, that produces accomplishment; it’s effort that creates innovation.

And if you’re able to shift your mindset from this belief that some people have it and you don’t, and into one where you recognise that your rookie mistakes are just signposts on the pathway to success, then you’ll be able to walk away from this cycle of defensive failure.

Now, that’s the first reason you’re locked in this cycle of defensive failure.

The second reason that Crowell suggests you may be locked in this cycle of defensive failure is that you think people like you don’t do things like this.

And this one comes down to your identity. And most of us care a lot about our identities, don’t we?

And part of the reason you care so much about your identity is because it’s been hard-won. So let’s talk about how you form your identity, which generally solidifies in adolescence.

You had an identity before adolescence, but you basically absorbed it from the people around you.

Like, “Mum would say you’re artistic” or “Dad would say you were studious.” Yeah, okay. That sounded right and you start believing this story.

But that switches in adolescence.

You begin to start asking really hard questions about who you are, and you do it socially.

So you ask yourself, “Am I like this person? Am I like that person?  Am I like you?” And you take on a little piece of their identity, and you see how it feels.

For me it was like trying very badly to be like the cool kids and smoking behind the shelter shed, and shutting my bedroom door and playing KISS music loudly and repeatedly. 

You take on bits and pieces of the people around you, and in so doing, you do what Erik Erikson refers to as “identity fracturing.”

It’s really uncomfortable. It creates a lot of friction in your mind because you don’t know who you really are.

But the good news is that eventually – sometime in your late high school years – you begin to release the pieces of your identity that aren’t serving you.

Maybe you stop hanging out with the cool kid smokers. Maybe you decide “footy is just not my thing” and you stop hanging out with the footy crew and take up another sport – in my case it was field hockey – because it was better suited to my diminutive size at the time.

Each piece of that identity that you let go of comes at a loss to you. Those friends you were hanging out with, they may have mattered a lot to you – you might feel like a real traitor.

The footy team that you stopped hanging out with – that might lose credibility and popularity for you at your school.

And this process of what Erik Erikson refers to as “identity cohesion” is very difficult.

Now, I hear some of you saying, “This is all very interesting Bushy, but whats it got to do with following through on my future goals?”

Well, let me give you another example. When I first became a finance broker, I struggled to get clients because I consider myself to be a professional guide and an advisor not a salesman. And promoting myself and selling my services felt really salesy, fake & pushy.  

I just didn’t see myself that way. Would I do something that feels salesy, fake and pushy? Hell no!

And that’s how you get locked in a cycle of defensive failure.

You say, “I’m going to go to a networking event – one each week this month.”

Then the day comes for the networking event, and your brain’s like, “Yeah, no. We’re not going do that. That threatens our identity. And anyway, Bushy, you’re too tired. You’ve been so busy. You should take some time out.”

And before you know it, the networking event is happening somewhere, but you’re nowhere to be seen. You’re at home on the couch in your tracky dacks and ugg boots binging on Netflix.

I’m sure some of you have been there.

But it does explain why you’re not making any progress. So if this sounds like you, if this might be a mindset block that you’re struggling with, what Amanda Crowell suggests you do is to find people like you doing things like this, and then share your concerns with them.

For me, I had to find another down to earth genuine finance broker who was great at promoting their business and learn from them on how I could bring these things in line.

And if you can find a way to bring what you want to do in line with your identity, you’ll find going to the networking event much, much easier.

And that’s the second reason you’re locked in a cycle of defensive failure.

The third reason that you’re locked in a cycle of defensive failure is that secretly you just don’t want to do it. You just think you should do it. And If you catch yourself using the word should instead of want then this is a big red flag.

Basically, you value it for the wrong reasons.

Now, Crowell suggests there are two ways that you can value things. On the one hand, you can value them for what we refer to as internal “intrinsic reasons” – reasons that come from inside of you – interest, curiosity, or you’ve drawn a straight, bright line from the thing you want to do up to your long-term hopes and dreams. 

But you can also value things for reasons that are outside of you.

Extrinsic reasons like “All the cool people do it,” or “My mum would be proud,” or “Boy, I would really like to be admired.”

Now, let’s just say for a second, for the sake of an example, that you’ve said, “I’ve really got to stick to a budget. And you know, the thing I do the most that’s really wasting money is that I buy my lunch every single day at work.”

So you decide, “I’m not doing that anymore, I’m making and taking my lunch.”

So one day, you’re halfway through your commute, and you realise that your lunch is still sitting on the kitchen bench. Now, for me that is a hard day. You’ve got nothing to eat and good food is one of my biggest vices!

What are you going to do? So you’re talking to your work mate, like, “I’m having a hard day.”

And he says, “Don’t even worry about it. We’ll take it as a sign from the universe, we’ll go and have a real lunch. Let’s go to the pub and enjoy a schnitty.”

Your then confronted with two options.

You can go with your friend and have a “real lunch,” spend $30 on a counter meal and a drink, or you can go to the vending machine and get a measly $2 power bar.

What are you going to do? Well, it depends on why you’re trying to stick to a budget.

If you’re trying to stick to a budget because you’ve just got engaged and you’re trying to buy a house and you’ve got dreams of your children sitting next to a crackling fire on Christmas Eve, then you’ll go to the vending machine.

But if you’re trying to save money because wealthy people are admired, and, yeah, it would be cool to be admired – then the reason isn’t going to be enough.

It’s not enough to counterbalance the urge, the desire in the moment, to go to a restaurant with your friend.

And this works for anything that you’re struggling with. If the work you want to do is hard, there’ll be urges in the moment to quit.

And it is this intrinsic interest that keeps you focused on the steps you need to take and not those urges of the moment to go with your friend to the restaurant.

So if this sounds like you, if this sounds like something you might be struggling with, you have to build out your intrinsic interest.

You have to find a way to be interested or curious about what it is you want to do. You have do the reading to improve your knowledge and interest.

And if you can’t, if there is nothing of interest to you – for example, like taxes – then you have to draw the bright line between the thing you want to do and your long-term hopes and dreams.

When the moment comes that you want to get out, give up, you take that piece of paper out of your pocket and read it to yourself so that you ground yourself back into your intrinsic interest.

And that is how Crowell suggests you would break out of the third cycle of defensive failure.

And she believes that if you even have one of these in place, you’ll struggle to make progress on your goal.

If you’ve struggled with something your whole life, it’s likely that all three are at play like it was for me with my early swimming exercise.

But as I was able to accept those rookie mistakes as part of the process of getting better, like a toddler learning to walk who keeps falling over but just relentlessly keeps getting up, and recognise that there were undeveloped asthmatic people like me who also exercise and eventually, after years of swimming three nights a week and carving out kilometres in the pool, I started to see significant physical results and I got really interested in the science of exercise.

I was able, amazingly, to begin to make strong progress.

Productive failure

Now, I’m not suggesting that its as easy as just saying “Get your mindsets in order, and you’ll be a raging overnight success,” because that’s not how it works. But what you do get to do is trade that cycle of defensive failure for action-driven, insight-filled, productive failure.

Failure where you do it wrong, but then you get a little better.

And then you do it better over time until suddenly, you’re doing what you never thought was possible.

For me, what that looked like was over the course of about three years, I taught myself to swim freestyle. I taught myself breast stroke. I taught myself the relay races.

And one school sports day, I strung those three together, and won all three races.

And I was the most surprised because the bed ridden punk chested asthmatic of old would never have believed that was possible.

And I’m not mentioning this because I’m any kind of athlete, because, clearly, that isn’t the case. I’m mentioning this because that school sports day swimming carnival was the most exciting day of my life at the time.

Because it should never have been my story, it should not have been possible.

And what it helped me to realize that day was that I, that you, that all of us – we can be and do anything we want.

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