How to look ahead happily

Planning for our future may seem tedious in the face of an ever-growing to do list, but planning ahead can deliver some tangible benefits.

Now versus later

Building a future-focused mindset is no simple task.

A recent study by Assistant Professor Hal E Hershfield of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management reveals our brains often perceive our past and future selves as very different people. And through a phenomenon known as “temporal discounting”, most people simply care less about future outcomes than those in the present.

The study shows how hard it can be to do what’s right, based on a clear understanding of the needs of our future selves, especially if it means compromising our present enjoyment of life.

Building a better picture of our future

The need to plan for a longer life is becoming increasingly important as life expectancy is on the rise in many populations around the world.

Hershfield’s research shows that if we can more vividly and realistically visualise our future selves, we are more likely to make choices that benefit our longer term needs.

In his work, he used digital tools to create aged versions of study participants. He found that people who were shown such images were more likely to dedicate extra money to a retirement fund.

Similar digital tools are available to all of us: the FaceApp social media trend allows us to “age” ourselves in photos, so we can easily create images of our future selves to gain psychological – and practical – benefits.

Hershfield’s research also explored writing letters to our future selves, finding some similar effects, but none as strong as our visually aged images. When asked by Harvard Business Review whether we should hang pictures of our aged selves in our homes, Hershfield said it could be helpful.

“As long as you keep noticing the picture and recognising that future person is dependent on the current you and is ultimately the same you – just occupying a slightly different body,” he says.

Goals and milestones

So how do we ensure we are driving success for our future selves? We need to set goals and measure outcomes to get there.

There’s the classic SMART goal-setting technique, ensuring any target is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Professor Joel Pearson, director of the Future Minds Lab at the University of NSW, says the most important factor is simply the act of measurement itself.

“If you’re not measuring it, you’ll tend to take it and go, ‘oh yeah, I think it’s getting better’. You won’t really know and you’ll just talk yourself into believing it’s better,” Person says. “If you want to change it, you need to measure it.”

If, for example, you’re looking to develop a future self that is wealthier than your current self, getting there is a matter of visualising the position you want to be in and adjusting or re-engineering certain behaviours so you can attain that goal.

Use savings calculators, fitness apps or work with an adviser. Making use of the many tools out there to set the right targets and check in regularly can make a big difference to feeling more confident about the future.

Living the right life

With all this planning, we also need to ensure that while we are making choices we won’t later regret, we also want to live a life we’ll enjoy looking back on.

“I’m hesitant to treat ourselves as a project, something we’re working on,” says Matthew Beard, philosopher and fellow at the Ethics Centre, a not-for-profit centre that aims to bring ethics to the heart of professional and personal lives.“

Beard believes that as long as we are making decisions based on our values, we can reduce our focus on immediacy and still live a fulfilled life.

30 July 2019