One of the most powerful concepts I've ever come across in my years of studying and thinking about personal finance issues is the concept of the "future self". "Future self" is pretty much exactly what you think it is: It's you at some point in the future. It's not an optimistic version of your future or a pessimistic version of where you're headed, but instead it's as realistic as you can possibly make it.
This post originally appeared on The Simple Dollar.
A Real Look at My Future Self
Right now, I'm in my late 30s. I have a wife and three school-aged children. We're in pretty good financial shape, but we could be better. I'm a little overweight. I have a flexible job that I like, but one that probably won't last forever.
What does my future self look like?
In 10 years, I'll only have one child at home, and he'll be gearing up to leave the nest the following year. I assume I'll still be married, as our marriage seems pretty good.
Unless I change some things, though, I'll likely still be overweight, and that will have some health impacts by then. If I keep on my current pace, I'll be in better financial shape than I am right now, but I still won't be where I want to be. I'll still have a limited social circle and fairly limited standing in my community.
Furthermore, I'll be 10 years older. I'll have 10 fewer years of my life left to live. I'll have 10 fewer years with which to build up my finances and my relationships. I won't have quite as much energy or vigour as I have right now.
Ideally, I'll still largely have my health, but that isn't a guarantee. Ideally, I'll still have a good job, but that isn't a guarantee, either.
One might look at this vision of the future as pessimistic, but the truth is that it's realistic. If I keep doing things, day in and day out, the way I'm doing them, that is the life I'm going to have in 10 years.
The Connection Between Today and My Future Self
The choices I make today shape the life of my future self.
My financial choices today determine the financial options my future self will have. If I spend money foolishly right now, it might be fun in the moment, but I'll forget it in short order. On the other hand, if I'm selective about the nonessentials I spend my money on right now, I'm going to have a life later on that has an abundance of options.
My time choices today determine the life options my future self will have. If I spend a lot of time with my children, then we'll have a strong relationship moving forward. If I don't spend a lot of time with them and instead to do other things, like working or engaging in hobbies or even just messing around on my mobile phone, my relationship with them will be weaker in their teen years and adult years.
My professional choices today determine the professional options my future self will have. If I choose to waste time instead of doing productive things, or even if I do nothing more than just completing my work tasks and never step beyond those immediate tasks, I'll never build the skills and reputation I need to move my career to a good place. I'll always be stuck right where I am right now.
My social and community choices today help determine my social and community opportunities tomorrow. If I want to build a stronger social network, then I can't afford to stand in the corner by myself at social events (or, even worse, avoid them entirely). I need to socialise and build relationships. Friends don't fall out of the sky. If I want to be a pillar of the community, I need to not talk myself out of going to community events and I need to not avoid volunteer tasks.
My health choices today help determine my overall health and energy tomorrow. What I put in my mouth today is the biggest factor, of course, but so does my level of exercise and moving around. The better I eat today and the more I exercise today, the healthier I'll be and the better I'll look down the road.
I could go on and on like this, but all of those examples are centred around a few key principles.
The Key Principles of 'Future Self' Thinking
If something you do today doesn't have a long-term benefit, then it's probably not worthwhile to do it. If you can't easily articulate how this action benefits you in the future — and by future, I mean months and years down the road — then it's probably not an action worth taking.
When I sit down for a meal, my short-term brain is telling me to eat lots of whatever the most delicious thing is, but from a long-term perspective, that's a terrible thing to do. That approach is not a good choice in terms of long-term benefit; in fact, it's a long-term disaster. The better approach is to eat a variety of foods, but only eat until I'm not hungry any more and then stop. I can sure sample some of the tasty stuff, but there's no reason to eat too much of it. Most of the pleasure comes from the first few bites, anyway, and when that feeling of hunger goes away, there's no reason not to sit down the fork.
When I go into a bookstore, my short-term brain is telling me to buy several books — I'm an avid reader, after all, and books are wonderful things! From a long-term perspective, though, that's not a very good choice. While I do gain long-term access to that book, I'm spending money for it and I'm also going to have to consider how to store it. Thus, it makes far more sense to instead choose to buy only books that I'll read many times over or refer to regularly. How do I know whether I'll read a book many times over or refer to it regularly? I check it out at the library first. That way, I don't have to spend money on a book that isn't necessarily near and dear to my heart.
When I'm thinking about how to spend my evening, my short-term brain is telling me to veg out and do some web surfing or check out social media. From a long term perspective, though, that's going to have almost no benefit at all. I'm far better off spending that time with my wife and my children to build family relationships, or spending it going to a community event where I can build social relationships and community standing, or spending it taking an online class where I might learn something, or spending it reading a challenging book to stretch my mind, or spending it exercising and improving my long term health outcomes and physical appearance, or spending it doing household chores that will spare me time later on when I don't have an evening to spare.
The second principle is similarly simple: Doing something with an eye toward the long term does not mean being miserable today. It does mean, however, that you might have to dig a little deep and try things in a different fashion.
For example, making a shift in your spending choices might feel miserable at first, but the key is to just try lots of different strategies for spending less money and seeing what actually works for you. Does store brand hand soap work well for you? Do you actually even notice the difference? What about making cold brew coffee in your refrigerator and then heating it up in the morning instead of stopping at a coffee shop? There are lots of little things you can do. Some will work and some won't. However, simply trying some of them has a nice long term benefit, because if you discover a more cost effective way of doing things or discover that you weren't actually getting much value out of an expensive way of doing things, you're winning in terms of the long term financial race.
Making a shift in terms of what you eat might seem miserable to some, but the true key to sustainably improving your eating is to try lots of different foods that are good for you and see what things you really like and really don't like while still enjoying many of the foods you currently like. More than anything, it means slowing down and paying attention to your body, and putting the fork down when your body is no longer signalling "I'M HUNGRY!"
Making a shift in terms of how you use your free time might seem miserable to some, but, again, the key is to find things that you enjoy and leave you fulfilled, whether it's fulfilment in the moment or a true sense that you're building something great for the future. If you do something in your spare time and you're not fulfilled... what value does it have? Find something that leaves you feeling fulfilled and makes you feel like you're building something bigger than the moment, especially when you can also find joy in that moment. You'll almost never go wrong.
The third principle is also invaluable: Constantly evaluate your choices and don't be afraid to criticise yourself as long as it points you toward improvement. Absolutely no one on Earth is perfect at this kind of thinking. We're all wired to be short term creatures, dating back to our savanna days when we were under constant threat of attack from animals and rivals and the threat of starvation. We thought short term because we had to, and those that were wired for it were the ones that survived.
Today, we don't have to think in those short term ways (in fact, we probably shouldn't), but we default to them anyway because that's how we're wired. Sometimes we simply slip up and follow that short-term route.
The difference between success and failure isn't that you always put your future self first, but that you step back and think about your moves, ask why you're making them and try to think of ways to make them better.
There are a number of strategies that work well for this.
One great strategy is to think about your day-to-day choices while commuting or doing other things that might not require all of your concentration. Just run through things you do all the time or have done recently and evaluate their impact on your future self. If you don't like that impact or you can't see any positive impact, then ask yourself whether there was a better way to use your time or energy or focus or money.
Another great strategy is to journal. Simply put aside several minutes each day to actually go through your day, think about your best moves as well as your worst mistakes, and then evaluate them a little bit. How can you make that "best move" into a pattern? How can you do better in terms of your "worst mistake" so that you don't repeat it? The act of writing things down on actual paper is a great way to stir thought.
I find that any technique that can help improve your focus is a good thing. Mobile phones are a constant focus destroyer, so I often turn my mobile phone off completely and don't carry it with me all the time. When I'm working on a task at my computer, I turn off as many potential distractions as possible. I also put aside time each day for mindful meditation, which is basically what I consider to be a "bicep curl" for my ability to focus on the moment and the task at hand.
Define Your 'Future Self'
So, what does your future self look like?
This is actually a hard task to take on because many people have a naturally optimistic view of the future. People tend to think that things will turn out well overall. They tend to think that the good things in their life will continue and that at least some of the bad things will improve.
Taking a realistic look at your future self can be painful, and people generally don't like to do so. No one wants to see a future for themselves that isn't bright.
The goal of this isn't to envision an apocalyptic scenario for yourself. The goal is to envision what exactly will happen to you if you continue with your current choices and routines.
Is your net worth building from year to year? How much did it grow or shrink last year? If you forecast that change forward for 10 years, what does that look like? Don't try to make "exceptions" for something "special" this year, because most years will have something "special". This type of exercise is much more of a reflection on your day to day money choices.
How is your career doing? Are you actively moving forward on projects? Are you building skills that will help you get a promotion or a pay increase? Or are you just holding in place because you can? Is there any risk of your job being automated in the next 10 years or 20 years? What are you doing about that? If you don't change what you're doing in terms of building your career, where will you probably be in 10 years?
How are your core relationships doing? Do you have a core set of friends you're happy with? If not, what are you doing to find those friends? If you're not actively doing much, then you're not going to build a social circle for yourself. Do you have a strong marriage? What do you do each day to keep it strong? Do you have children? How is your relationship with them? What do you do each day (or a little less frequently if they're older) to keep that relationship strong?
How is your health doing? Are you gaining weight? Holding steady? Are you at a healthy weight? Do you move around enough? Remember, over the next 10 years, almost all of your health factors are going to move a little bit in a bad direction, and if you're not making positive health choices to counteract it, you will slowly decline.
You can evaluate your spiritual life, your mental health and all other key areas of your life in the exact same way. If things are just holding steady in those areas, are you happy with steady? Is your life in 10 years in a good place if you just hold steady in that area?
Almost always, what you're going to find when you take a realistic look at your future self is that you don't like some of the aspects of that picture. Maybe you're unhappy with your health or with your career or with your relationships. Maybe you're unhappy with a lot of things.
That's good. You should be unhappy with something. That means you want a better life for yourself and that's the surest way to start improving.
Improving Your Future Self
So, how exactly do you do that? How do you take this realistic view of your future self and use it to build something better?
It's easy. You just take those areas that bother you most about your future self and focus on improving those areas by consistently making long-term choices in your daily life in those areas, as described earlier on.
If you're concerned about the health of your future self, start making long term health choices each and every day. Choose to eat a better diet. Exercise a little more. You don't have to make radical changes. Just make some changes that will last. Simply start thinking about your future self when you're being sedentary or when you're about to put food on your plate at dinner. Remember, if you put yourself on pace to lose about half a kilogram a month, which literally means just eating 400kJ less a day, you'll drop quite a bit of weight over the next 10 years, slowly but surely. That's not a radical change at all.
If you're concerned about the finances of your future self, start making spending choices that are more long-term oriented every day. Stop spending money on the most frivolous elements of your spending. Find some smart substitutes for your regular expenses. Look at buying some nonperishable things in bulk. Every time you're about to spend money, give it a consideration with your eye toward the long term.
If you're concerned about your long term career, start making choices at work with an eye toward the long term rather than just getting through the day. Look at what you can improve in terms of your job performance. Whenever you notice yourself sitting around doing nothing or checking out, see if there isn't a way to use that time better to improve your long term job prospects. Consider whether education might not help you out here and then take on the challenge of getting that education.
Whatever area it is — financial, professional, social, physical, mental, spiritual, familial — look at the choices you make today and then ask yourself what the best long-term version of that choice is.
What you'll find is that, once you start doing this, it doesn't really feel "miserable" any more. You start to see how your life is going to get better because of these choices, plus you begin to realise that you're not really losing much in the short term either.
The final point I want to leave you with is this: The perfect is the enemy of the good. The goal of "future self" thinking isn't to switch to some sort of perfect being that's always focused on the optimal life. Not only will that never happen, it's not particularly healthy, either. Sometimes, the short term choice really is the best choice overall.
The idea here is to just keep your future self in mind. Think about him or her regularly. I think about my future self several times each day. I want that future self's life to be great, and that motivates me to make better choices in life. It motivates me to set ambitious goals, and it motivates me to stick with those goals or find out ways to make something similar work if the goal is difficult.
I don't always make the perfect long term choice, but I don't beat myself up about it. Instead, I just think about better choices when I'm driving home from dropping my kids off at soccer practice, or when I'm in the shower, or when I'm going to bed, or when I'm waiting at the doctor. I spend some time journaling a little bit each day and I usually think about my future self then, too. The goal is to make the better long term choice slowly become the normal one, the one I choose by default because it seems like the best choice.
I'll never be perfect at it, but that's not the goal. The goal is to be better at it, and all I have to do is get a little better at it to make a huge impact on the quality of the life of my future self. That's a wonderful goal, indeed.
Taking a Hard Look at Your Future Self [The Simple Dollar]
Image by Vicky Scott via Getty.