It’s About Time: How to Be Nicer to Future You
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One of the most amazing things about the human mind is its ability to imagine events that haven’t happened yet. To make a decision about something new – trying a new dish, picking a show to watch, and choosing a career – you have to mentally construct the experience and then predict how pleasant or unpleasant it will be.
But this simulation, say psychologists, is often distorted. Our predictions tend to exaggerate how happy or sad we’ll feel, and for how long.
“No doubt good things make us happy and bad things make us sad,” says Tim Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia. “But as a rule, not as long as we think they will.”
In the final episode of the Monitor’s six-part series “It’s About Time,” hosts Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll explore how thinking about our future selves can help us make better decisions in the present.
“We are always making trade-offs about things happening now versus later,” says Dorsa Amir, an evolutionary anthropologist at Boston College.
What Georgia voting law actually says – and why stakes seem so high
One of the most common ways that our present selves trip up our future selves is by procrastinating. But there are many ways for us to overcome the tendency to put things off, says Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield in England. Among them: compassion. So the next time you notice yourself about to procrastinate, remind yourself that it’s OK to struggle. We’re not perfect. But we’re good enough.
This is the final episode of a six-part series that’s part of the Monitor’s “Rethinking the News” podcast. To listen to the other episodes on our site or on your favorite podcast player, please visit the “It’s About Time” series page.
This audio story was designed to be heard. We strongly encourage you to experience it with your ears, but we understand that is not an option for everybody. You can find the audio player above. For those who are unable to listen, we have provided a transcript of the story below.
Jessica Mendoza: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Jessica Mendoza, one of the producers. Today, we’re releasing the final episode of our science series “It’s About Time,” hosted by Rebecca Asoulin and Eoin O’Carroll. If you haven’t listened to the rest of the series, we encourage you to go do that now. Here’s our series finale.
Rebecca Asoulin: You have a superpower.
Tim Wilson: I mean, human beings are the only species, as far as we know, that has the ability to project ourselves into the future.
Eoin O’Carroll: That’s social psychologist Tim Wilson. He says that it’s incredible that we can imagine things that we’ve never experienced before.
Tim Wilson: What will a new job be like? What will a new president be like? A new food? What have you.
Rebecca: This mental time travel really helps us make decisions.
Eoin: But when we imagine ourselves in the future, we often have a funny way of distorting things.
Rebecca: And that distortion can lead us to make bad choices. This episode is about why we make those mistakes and how to get better at making decisions.
Rebecca: This is “It’s About Time.” A series all about …
Eoin: Time. I’m Eoin O’Carroll.
Rebecca: And I’m Rebecca Asoulin.
Eoin: In this science series, we interview experts on time. They help us unravel its mysteries. Because understanding time more deeply can help us make the most of the time we have.
Rebecca: This is the final episode of our series. If you haven’t already: check out our other five episodes, plus a bonus interview with physicist Alan Lightman.
Dorsa Amir: Because we are moving through space and time, all of our decisions to some degree integrate preferences about time. We are always making tradeoffs about things happening now versus later.
Eoin: This is Dorsa Amir. She’s an evolutionary anthropologist at Boston College. She looks at how our thoughts about tomorrow shape the decisions we make today.
Dorsa Amir: Let’s say I’m kind of living more recklessly and I think tomorrow maybe isn’t guaranteed, then maybe the types of choices that I make will maximize things now.
One way to think about it is: how much is $10 now worth to you, versus $20 next week?
Rebecca: One person might say, “$10 now sounds better.” That person is focused on the present. Someone who says $20 next week sounds better is future-oriented.
Dorsa Amir: So it really has to do with: How clear is the future? How tangible is it? How much are you really thinking about the future and yourself in the future when making decisions today?
Rebecca: “Be in the present.” “Be in the moment.” “Live in the present.” We hear that kind of thing all of the time.
Eoin: And we are often at our happiest when we’re so in the zone that we are completely immersed in what we’re doing.
Fuschia Sirois: You’re actively engaging in something, and maybe it’s painting a painting or, you know, running a race or what have you playing a piece of music.
Rebecca: This is Fuschia Sirois. She’s a health and social psychologist at the University of Sheffield in the U.K.
Fuschia Sirois: So when you’re in those moments, time just seems to stop. It feels like both eternity and just a moment, all in once. It’s a really different type of experience of time than what we normally have.
Rebecca: But we can also get absorbed in something in unhealthy ways. When I was in high school, I was really into watching TV. I worked hard with school, flute, soccer, my high school paper, my local paper, a bajillion other things. And whenever I had free time –
Eoin: How on Earth did you have free time?
Rebecca: I really didn’t sleep and I really didn’t party. But I’d just watch hours and hours of TV. And the first hour was usually great. But by the eighth, I was pretty miserable.
I was kind of stuck in it. I was trying to escape time.
Fuschia Sirois: So being absorbed in binge watching on Netflix or a video game or gambling, or other addictive behaviors, those types of behaviors also take you out of time, but not in a way that’s beneficial, in a way that’s more harmful.
Rebecca: We do this when we procrastinate. One in 5 of us deal with chronic procrastination. And most of us procrastinate sometimes.
Eoin: Most of us toggle between different time orientations. But when we procrastinate, that toggle switch gets stuck in the present, and we end up making decisions that hurt our future selves.
Procrastination is actually a pretty painful experience. You know that you have a thing that you have to do, you know what the steps are to do it, and you know that if you don’t do it, your future self will be worse off. But it’s almost like you can’t find the button on your mental control panel to actually do the thing.
Rebecca: So instead, you turn to something you think will be enjoyable, like watching TV. Sometimes it’s actually things we would normally consider productive – like organizing all of your spices. (And I have a lot of spices.) When we procrastinate, we want to escape time.
Eoin: And sage. And parsley.
Rebecca: When we procrastinate, we also get totally disconnected from this superpower of imagining the future.
Eoin: You can’t, or don’t want to, imagine your future self.
Fuschia Sirois: So the definition of procrastination is unnecessarily and voluntarily delaying the start or completion of an important and necessary task, despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so. Future you is going to suffer from you not doing this thing now.
Rebecca: Why we procrastinate has a lot to do with this concept called “self-continuity.”
Eoin: That’s the idea that who we are persists over time.
Fuschia Sirois: We look at our memories of the past and who we are in the past. We look at who we are now and we look at who we would like to be in the future. And we have that sense of sameness of self. We’re not going to wake up and be a different person tomorrow.
We need that sense of connection. That there’s something about me that I enjoyed in my childhood that I still enjoy doing today, and which I hope I’ll still enjoy doing, you know, in my retirement years. And so we need that – that thread to tie it through.
Rebecca: There’s something that makes me a little sad to think that maybe we don’t change as much as we think we change?
Fuschia Sirois: There’s a tension, right, because we want change, right? I mean, that’s human nature. At the same time, we can’t be so different. Right, because then we lose that sense of self continuity, then it’s not us anymore. We do tend to want to see ourselves on a bit of an upward trajectory. That is, you know, it’s a healthy emotional response.
Rebecca: I had a healthy emotional response. I feel very proud of myself.
Eoin: Continuity and change are not mutually exclusive. In order to be a person who changes, you need to have a sense of personal identity that persists over time. And that’s what allows us to learn from the past, plan for the future, and think through the consequences of our actions.
Fuschia Sirois: So that hopefully we’re able to reach our hopes and dreams and goals and wishes of the future.
Rebecca: A procrastinator, though, has a hard time with that continuity. They don’t really think about or identify with their future selves.
Eoin: I have so many plans for the future that involve me waking up tomorrow morning with a degree of self-discipline that I haven’t displayed once in my entire life.
Rebecca: Procrastinators often idealize their future selves, just like Eoin did. They think:
Fuschia Sirois: “I can put this off today because future me will be a better writer.” Or, “Future me will have more energy, more ideas, more time than what I do right now to finish this task.” Basically saying: “Future me isn’t going to be anything like who I am today.”
Eoin: So it’s almost a kind of optimism.
Rebecca: I also try to make my procrastination seem like a good thing. But Dr. Sirois says it’s not really optimism. When we’re coming up with reasons to procrastinate, that can come with these apparently optimistic thoughts –
Fuschia Sirois: – that you’ll be better able to do it later. Because you don’t have that strong connection to the future, and the future is very abstract, it’s easy to construct these future selves that will somehow be superhuman versions of yourself that can do all the things you can’t do now.
But underneath all this is, is the fact that you’re terrified of doing this task right now. It maybe raises feelings of incompetence or stress or insecurity or self-doubt. Or it just may be a really unpleasant task, and you have a hard time dealing with managing that negative mood.
Rebecca: Dr. Sirois has a theory about why procrastinators are so locked in the present and disconnected from their future selves.
Eoin: Her conjecture is built on this one fact about procrastination: it’s really, really stressful.
Fuschia Sirois: So one of the things that happens when you’re stressed is it changes the way you engage with time.
Eoin: Your flight-or-fight response kicks in. That snaps your attention to the present, but not in a way that is particularly mindful.
Rebecca: This is super useful if say, a bear is attacking you, or you’re walking on the edge of a cliff.
Fuschia Sirois: Well, you’re not gonna die from procrastinating, right? But your brain doesn’t know that. So it kicks into the same sort of threat mode.
Rebecca: You’re really stressed. And when you’re stressed, it can be hard to plan, or to think rationally about abstract ideas.
Fuschia Sirois: You need to be able to think in an expansive manner, in an abstract manner to consider the future, because it is a really abstract construct. It only exists really in our mind.
Rebecca: Eoin and I are going to come back to procrastination at the very end of this episode.
Eoin: We’re just putting it off for now.
Rebecca: Again, procrastination involves difficulty in imagining the future.
Eoin: But there are all kinds of other ways we mess up when we try to project ourselves into the future.
Rebecca: And the No. 1 mistake we make –
Tim Wilson: – is the tendency to exaggerate how good or bad something will make us feel in the future and how long we’ll feel that way.
Rebecca: That’s Dr. Wilson again. We heard him at the very start of this episode. He’s a social psychologist who studies happiness. With his collaborator Dan Gilbert, they coined the term “affective forecasting.”
Eoin: That’s the process of predicting what our future emotional states will be.
Tim Wilson: So we tend to think if something really good happens to us, we’ll be happy for a very long time. And if something bad happens to us, we’ll be sad for a very long time. And no doubt good things make us happy and bad things make us sad. But as a rule, not as long as we think they will.
Rebecca: Part of why we do this is we tend to think about only one aspect of our lives at a time.
Tim Wilson: If we get the job of our dreams or a political election, a sports event, whatever it is, we forget that our life will be full of other things that impact our happiness.
Eoin: And we take that one aspect and inflate it, so that it’s bigger than everything else.
Rebecca: For example, college professors can do this with tenure.
Eoin: That’s when a college or university basically guarantees a professor’s job for life. It typically happens 5 or 6 years after being hired. Not surprisingly, getting tenure is really hard.
Tim Wilson: It’s just a major force in your life during those five or six years. People are doing their best to get over this hurdle. And they’re driven by this affective forecast that, you know, my world will crumble and come to an end if I don’t get tenure and have to leave, whereas I’ll be on Easy Street forever if I do.
Rebecca: When Dr. Wilson and Dr. Gilbert started looking into affective forecasting, they had actually just gotten tenure themselves. And they realized —
Tim Wilson: It is nice to get tenure, but it’s not that crucial.
Eoin: So they decided to study it. They asked assistant professors how they would feel if they got tenure. Or if they were denied tenure.
Rebecca: And compared them to people who had or had not gotten tenure. And they found –
Tim Wilson: — that people seem to overestimate the impact of this event on their life.
Rebecca: I felt this way about getting into college. I thought if I got into a really good school, from the day I got my acceptance to literally the day I died, I would be happy. And that wasn’t true. Now a few years out of college, I think back on my high school self and want to hug her! Where you go to college does affect your future. But it’s not everything.
Eoin: It’s not just college. A raise, a new car, a new pair of pants. It’s easy to slip into this thinking where we tell ourselves, “Once I get this…whatever… it’s gonna be smooth sailing.”
Rebecca: But you forget that all the other stuff in your life also keeps happening.
Eoin: Those new pants, they still go on one leg at a time.
Rebecca: Correcting this bias has a lot to do with knowing about it. So congratulations! Now you know about it. When you are predicting how you’ll feel in the future, remember to think not just about if one event will go well or badly. But also:
Tim Wilson: What will your daily life be like in the days and weeks following? What will your responsibilities be? What will be your little joys and pleasures? And that reminder does help some, to clue people into the fact that life does go on. And big events recede into the past.
Rebecca: In the same way we think a good event will totally change our lives for the better, we think bad events will totally ruin them. But that’s not necessarily true.
Eoin: After a negative event, we typically recover more quickly than we think we will. Especially if we can find meaning in that event.
Tim Wilson: If someone loses a loved one or gets fired from their job, I mean, these are terrible things to to experience. And we don’t mean to minimize that at all.
Eoin: For most of us, our minds actually stop us from experiencing extremely negative emotions. It’s like we have an internal braking system that keeps us from spiraling down. At least most people do. When bad things happen, we usually find a way to get through it. We’re often stronger than we think.
Rebecca: A good example of this is a romantic breakup.
Tim Wilson: You know, most of us feel that, “My gosh, if my partner ever left me, I’d just be awful. I’d never recover. I can’t even think about that happening.” But it does happen to us occasionally. And, you know, we feel terrible.
But we find ourselves thinking after a little while that, you know, they really had these annoying habits. “I hated the way they never shut cabinet doors.” And, you know, “Now I think about it, we really weren’t all that suited for each other.” Your mind begins to repair itself and in ways that allow us to move on.
Noelle Swan: Hi everyone. I’m Noelle Swan – an editor for “It’s About Time.” Like a lot of people, I have always had a somewhat adversarial relationship with time. It seems like I’m always in some kind of race against it. But this podcast has helped me to think outside the clock. We’re able to produce this series thanks to your financial support. If you’d like to listen to more podcasts from us, consider subscribing to the Monitor at csmonitor.com/subscribe.
Rebecca: When we – as individuals – get better at predicting how we will feel in the future, we get better at making decisions.
Eoin: We’ve talked a lot about the individual, but the environment also influences what time orientation we have and what decisions we make. Again: Our time orientation is how much we think about and value our past, our present, and our future.
Rebecca: A big caveat to this entire discussion is that psychologists normally use subjects from W – E – I – R – D populations. Yes, that acronym does spell “weird.”
Dorsa Amir: These are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic populations. There’s a lot of variation and diversity that you’re missing by just thinking that, you know, the standard American undergraduate student is a stand-in for the average person in the world.
Eoin: Anthropologists try to study people across all cultures, not just the WEIRD ones. Dr. Amir looks at how our cultural environments shape our time orientations.
Rebecca: She tries not to label any time orientation as good or bad. People tend to do that.
Dorsa Amir: We might say, patience is a virtue. So the more you’re able to kind of hold out for rewards in the future, the better your moral character is. And in that same vein, when people are impatient or more present oriented, I think there is a tendency to view those people, as a little less moral, a little less good.
Rebecca: Dr. Amir says that it’s important to put our choices in context. For example, valuing the present could be helpful –
Dorsa Amir: – and in fact, it might be the right strategy if you’re living in a world that’s, let’s say, more uncertain.
I don’t want to be a full on moral relativist and say that everything is equally good. So I think most people probably would prefer to live in a world that’s more stable and is resource rich. And I think those are positive environments that we can try to promote.
Eoin: But focusing just on the individual decision maker misses a lot of the reasons why people behave the way they do.
Dorsa Amir: They say, “Practice abstinence,” or, “Don’t do drugs,” or, “Save money.” I really think that’s reflected in quite a lot in our policies and the way that we think about the world where the system is setup to kind of push you towards some decisions over others. And then we blame people for making those decisions, even though those make a lot of sense and the environments that they’re in.
You know, there’s a tweet I often think of which is: “Oh, you’re facing a systemic problem? Have you tried making better individual choices?”
Eoin: So back to what affects our time orientation more broadly. People with fewer material resources are understandably more oriented toward the present.
Dorsa Amir: So if tomorrow is not guaranteed, I would argue the appropriate strategy is to kind of focus on what’s going on at the moment, because that’s more safe and more guaranteed. And many people, I think, don’t necessarily have the luxury of living in a world that’s really certain and stable.
Rebecca: In one study, Dr. Amir looked at children in different countries.
Eoin: Her study included people from all over the world – India, Argentina, the United States, and a small indigneous population in Ecuador called the Schuar.
Rebecca: The Schuar mainly live in two areas in the Amazon. One region is so remote –
Dorsa Amir: – you have to reach it by canoe. There’s actually no roads and that really limits the number of market goods that make it into those communities.
Rebecca: In the other region —
Dorsa Amir: – there were dirt roads that could take them to market towns if they wanted to go there.
Rebecca: Dr. Amir found differences in time orientations. The Schuar children in more remote areas are more present oriented.
Dorsa Amir: So when you give them a choice between one candy now and three candies tomorrow, on average, they tend to prefer one candy now.
Eoin: She found that the Schuar children who lived closer to the markets were more future oriented. Kids in the US, India, and Argentina tended to be future oriented too.
Dorsa Amir: In these foraging communities, you go out, you hunt your food, you grow your food. And the return is right there.
Rebecca: But in an industrial society like the U.S. —
Dorsa Amir: – it’s different. I go to my job, I sit at my computer. I do this kind of abstract work. Two weeks later, I get paid through this currency that I now have to translate into the thing that I want. There’s some amount of patience that’s actually built into the system.
Rebecca: But we’re not stuck with the way we think about time. When your environment changes, you can change too.
Eoin: For example, adults who grew up with fewer resources but are now financially stable are able to better focus on the future.
Rebecca: So why is our time orientation fluid? Dr. Amir doesn’t know for sure. But it could be because humans are just pretty adaptable.
Eoin: My kids are five and nine. Have I blown it already?
Dorsa Amir: No you haven’t blown it! And I will tell you, you know, I study a lot of child development and kids are very, very resilient. And I’m truly of the mindset that unless you really create negative environments that are actively negative, your kids are most likely going to be fine and end up being, you know, the people that they going to be anyway. You know, they’re very resilient. Very resilient.
Eoin: So that’s it, right? Or is there something we never got around to?
Rebecca: We’re not done with procrastinators! We have some practical advice on how to stop procrastinating and ways to better live and work with procrastinators.
Eoin: We should add here that while working on this episode, we didn’t want to moralize about procrastinating. Procrastination can harm procrastinators. But procrastinators are not bad people. There are understandable reasons for procrastination.
Rebecca: So how do we stop procrastinating, get unstuck from the present, and get connected to our future selves?
Eoin: We need to think about our future selves.
Rebecca: This last study shows us how to do that. The procrastination expert Dr. Sirois asked participants to imagine their future selves. What she found surprised her and her fellow researchers.
Eoin: The participants were all people trying to make lifestyle changes like dieting and exercising.
Fuschia Sirois: Sort of a typical type of change that people want to make, but also find quite difficult to get started with and easy to procrastinate on.
Eoin: One group was asked to imagine their future selves having achieved the goal. Another group was asked to imagine if they had failed. And a third group was not asked about the future. It turns out —
Fuschia Sirois: Just getting them to imagine their future self made them feel closer to that future self. And in both of those conditions, you’d also motivated them to want to move forward and not procrastinate on that task. The fact that they were able to imagine that self, and they felt fearful of that, meant it became real to them. And if it becomes real, you feel close to it.
Eoin: All of this is hitting painfully close to home, I have to admit.
Rebecca: I feel like I’m more of a reformed procrastinator.
Eoin: Well, what was your secret? How did you stop procrastinating?
Rebecca: I think my procrastination, and I wonder if this sounds right to you, is that it was about not feeling like I could do anything perfectly and then putting it off rather than doing it. I think the more I live and the more I have compassion for other people, the more compassion I have for myself, the more I realize that perfectly is not going to exist. And that’s OK.
Eoin: This self-compassion is one way to combat procrastination. Which is the opposite of the way society treats procrastinators.
Fuschia Sirois: People who see other people procrastinate, they want to get on them. You want to crack the whip, you go, “Come on, get going. What’s the matter with you? This is so late.” Like, you know, “Just get on with it.” Right? And all that does is just feed that negativity, it feeds those negative emotions that the procrastinator is trying to avoid.
Eoin: If you work or live with habitual procrastinators, pushing and demanding may not be the right approach. Try compassion. Try support. Which we know is easier said than done.
Rebecca: Here are a few other tips courtesy of Dr. Sirois. No. 1: Starting is the most important thing! No. 2: Find something meaningful about the task. No. 3: Make the task social. And finally: Wanting to procrastinate is natural! And some of us are more inclined to do so.
Eoin: So the next time you notice yourself about to procrastinate, try saying to yourself:
Fuschia Sirois: ”Yeah, it may not be perfect,” or, “Yeah, I may be struggling with this.” Or even when you do procrastinate, just going, “Yeah, I’m not the first person to procrastinate, nor will I be the last.”
Eoin: Working on this series actually really helped me with some of my own problems with time management. As a writer, I always had this horrible habit of spinning my wheels right up until the finish line and then rushing to wrap it up in a mad panic.
But last year – as the pandemic made everything a million times more difficult, especially for some of us with kids, I started doing virtual sessions with a counselor who really helped me figure out how to beat it. I’m still working on it, but now, when I have to write something, I just…sit down and write it. Like an actual writer.
One thing that really works well for me is using very detailed checklists for each of my tasks. There’s something about ticking the little boxes on my list that I find really gratifying. It keeps me on track. Whenever I notice that I’m getting off task, I actually name the distraction and write it down on my checklist.
So for instance, I was recently writing this story about war-affected youth in Sierra Leone. As soon as I realized that I had got off track, I went to my checklist and wrote, “got distracted by reading about Sierra Leone’s Hut Tax War of 1898.” It just looked so ridiculous staring back at me on the checklist. And that was enough to get me working on the story again.
Anyway, what about you? Has this series changed anything for you?
Rebecca: So you pitched the kernel of this project back in June of 2019, I want to say?
Eoin: Or 1 B.C., as I like to call it. “Before COVID.”
Rebecca: So this last episode is now out almost two years after that first pitch. It’s taken a while. Especially by Monitor standards. They don’t normally do series that take this long. And there were periods where all of that felt like my fault. I felt tortured by that. But the interviews we did reminded me that it isn’t all on me.
Eoin: We thought this was a series about time. But in the end I think this is also really a series about compassion. Towards others – especially toward people who don’t have the same access to time – but also toward ourselves. It’s about being more comfortable with reality as it is.
Rebecca: In reality, there were a lot of reasons why this project took so long. Like: This is the Monitor’s first science audio series. The first time either of us had ever worked on a podcast. We both were juggling multiple roles at work. And I was trying to manage a huge project for the very first time. And projects that are this ambitious – they take a lot of time. Here’s what also happened during that time:
Both: The pandemic.
Rebecca: Our work went full remote. We haven’t seen each other in-person in a year.
Eoin: My wife and I were working with two young children underfoot. For parents, a lot of social support that we took for granted suddenly evaporated.
Rebecca: And my grandfather, Rachmil Hakman, died of COVID in March of 2020. He was, and is, my father in all the ways that matter. He taught me how to love and what it means to be resilient. His death is the worst thing I’ve ever lived through, and I miss him every day.
All this to say, this series took a while. And that’s not all on me. I have some guesses about why the project took the time it did. But I’ll never know exactly why. Especially during the pandemic, but always, we have to be gentle with ourselves. Things take as long as they need to take. And that’s okay.
Maybe, it’s not all about time.
Eoin: We hoped the series would improve your relationship with time.
Rebecca: Thank you for listening and for giving us that opportunity.
Eoin: And thank you for your time.
Rebecca: And to all of our listeners out there, we love all of you.
Eoin: Especially you, mom.
Rebecca: If you enjoyed listening as much as we enjoyed making this series, share “It’s About Time” with your friends, family, and coworkers! We think its episodes are, well, timeless. You can find us at csmonitor.com/time.
This series was hosted and produced by me, Rebecca Asoulin. My co-host was Eoin O’Carroll. Produced with Jessica Mendoza and edited by Samantha Laine Perfas. Additional editing by Noelle Swan and Clay Collins. Sound design by Noel Flatt, and Morgan Anderson.
This story was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021.
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