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    Meet Your Future Self


    What are your financial goals? How much do you want to spend in retirement? In my early years as a financial advisor I would ask these standard discovery questions then spend hours creating detailed, step by step roadmaps illustrating how clients could reach their financial goals (e.g. reduce expenses by X% and/or save Y% in retirement accounts per year). Clients would nod, “Yes, that sounds like a sensible plan,” then the plans would collect dust. I wondered, “Is there something wrong with the color-coding on my spreadsheets? I looked into this and learned that a startling 80% of financial planning recommendations aren’t implemented, turning a well-intentioned exercise into a theoretical one, and ironically, wasting time and money. 

    Experts offer an intriguing explanation for this gap between intention and action: We view our future selves as strangers. Seriously. MRI scans show that the way the brain lights up when we think of ourselves in the future is similar to what it does when we think about a person we’ve never met! This is significant because the more that people feel disconnected from their future selves, the more likely they will be to value immediate rewards (spending today) over future ones (saving for tomorrow). So, just as the poets have said that the past is another country, neuroscientists reveal that the future is another country. And that person with our name and savings accounts in that unknown country is a stranger to ourselves.


    We are hard-wired for this state of affairs: biologically, by evolution. Over millions of years, we homo sapiens have been genetically programmed to live short, hard, hungry lives day-by-day, in an eternal present. What we call the “past” and/or the “future” is a thoroughly modern concept. In preliterate millennia, the past and the future were one moving, circular reality. To this day, the Arunta aborigines of Australia refer to what we call the past and the future as simply in, “the dreaming.” In other words, the desire for instant gratification is not a sign of your laziness or selfishness (most of the time), but merely, your humanity.

    Although human culture has evolved, our biology remains essentially unchanged. Today, most people have difficulty imagining and anticipating the things they will want and need 10, 20, or 30 years into the future. It seems distant, blurry, hypothetical. However, without a clear vision of what life will someday look like, the tradeoffs needed today to support that future will be too difficult for most of us to make. Without a compelling counterweight, the gravitational pull of, “I want it now,” beats a more distant “I want to retire early,” or, “I want to travel more.”  

    How can we get around our evolutionary inability to identify with ourselves in the future?

    Make It You

    Scientists have tackled this conundrum the old fashioned way by creating an immersive virtual reality experience where subjects looked into a mirror. One set of subjects saw their current selves, while the other saw a digitally aged avatar of their future selves (think grey hair and wrinkles). When they exited the room, they were asked to make savings and spending decisions. What do you think happened?

    Those who saw the older version of themselves said they would save twice as much as those who saw themselves unaged.

    Don’t have a virtual reality mirror-chamber? No problem.

    Make It Vivid

    Other behavioral scholars have uncovered that just thinking about the future in more specific terms can prompt action. When people spend 3-to-5 minutes imagining and writing down how they would feel in a comfortable and worry-free retirement, they immediately become 25{1cd8e41884a47db8d1ba9858ee640ae032d38e6ad43af2ac78fd7095779c3cb5} more likely to increase their savings.

    Make It Now

    Other findings suggest that the grammatical tense we use to state our intentions influences how likely we are to take action. Linguists divide languages into two camps: Weak and strong “future time reference” (FTR). Languages with strong FTR like English allow speakers to signal that they are referring to the future (e.g.“I am going to save money”), whereas weak FTR languages like Mandarin express the same sentiment without any marker of future time (e.g. “I save money”).

    Preliminary findings suggest tenseless languages make future events seem closer, which has implications for long term saving: Tenseless language speakers are 30{1cd8e41884a47db8d1ba9858ee640ae032d38e6ad43af2ac78fd7095779c3cb5} more likely to save. So, instead of, “These are the things I want one day,” how about “These are the things that are important to me—period.”

    Like our forebears, we rely on creativity to survive. Yet it is less of a physical act (like making fire or spearing an animal); it is an act of imagination. If you can bring your future self to life in a way that feels personal, vivid, and immediate, you can harness your hard-wiring to increase the likelihood that your moment-by-moment actions will create the future you envision, starting now.

    Get Started

    Imagine it’s a Monday morning five years in the future. You’re eating breakfast and thinking through the week ahead. You feel at ease because you’re spending your time exactly as you would like.

    Conjure a clear picture, so clear you can feel it, taste it, smell it, see it. Sketch out, hour-by-hour, what an ideal typical day and week would look like…How is this different from the way you spend your time now? What would it take—whether money, time, or some other resource—to finance this vision? What can you do today to build a bridge to this future?

    This kind of conscious speculation requires an open mind and the maturity to invest in a relationship with your future self. You’re time traveling from the present to your very own future—it’s a more colorful journey and deeper dialogue than one might expect on a routine visit to the financial advisor. But make no mistake—it can be the game-changing difference between a plan that gets implemented and one that remains forever in your dreaming.

    The questions to ask yourself today, this very instant, are, “Am I the kind of person who wants to make the most of what I have and have the life I envision? Am I willing to invest in myself to increase the likelihood that I will use my resources—my time, money and energy to get what I want—the things that are important to me, instead of the things that are not? Am I ready to meet and befriend my future self?” Just say yes. Yes, I am.