Instant gratification is the thief of longer-term contentment.
When I look back on my life, I’ve sorted it into chapters that are bundled by multi-year groups. There were periods when relationships or my career weren’t going well. My life scraped along, and I can’t help but look back on those periods as my sort of “dark ages.”
There were other times when I wasn’t being my best self and giving in to laziness or other impulses. It was mostly immaturity.
The best years of my life were the years where I knuckled down and did hard things, ground through towards my goals, and made decisions I knew in my heart were right.
Here are four things you can do to help out future you. First, remember…
1. Your best future self comes from making the right choices now
I’ll give you a very simple example. Ideally, when you exercise, you should avoid blasting heavy music and consuming a bunch of caffeine to get through the workout. Music can be overstimulating and hurt your ability to focus, while caffeine can cause you to crash afterward. After your workout, you end up having a much lower upside than you otherwise would.
I see this every time I exercise. When I just wake up, drink some water, eat something healthy, and grind through my workout (being miserable at first with sleepy eyes), I eventually get a much better runner’s high. The dopamine and serotonin flow through my veins 2x as much as they would if I artificially sourced that energy.
Here’s the problem: not having energy stinks. Waking up and getting going isn’t easy. But forgoing instant gratification creates better results for your future self in the long run.
Even beyond exercise, we’re constantly making tradeoffs in the moment. Energy and good mood now, or energy and good mood later. Alcohol is often described as a high-interest loan on tomorrow’s happiness. It’s the same concept.
You have to consider how your decisions—big and small—can impact your future self.
2. Learn to live in the tension of the good and the bad
Many of the hardest times of my life have been followed by the most plentiful and fortunate.
They invited moments when the sun began to shine, and things started to turn for the better. Everything felt great. Age has taught me to think about life in a more finite sense. There will be good and bad periods, and you can only do your best to mitigate those tough periods while relishing when things are good. It’s better to expect the bad and be prepared for it instead of feeling ambushed or like a victim of fate’s hand of justice.
The tricky thing is when you’ve had a few good years in a row. It starts to get to your head, “Maybe something bad is due.”
You counter that by staying on top of your game while acknowledging that life is inherently tragic and that we will each get our turn being dealt the hand.
There’s a concept called a “virtuous cycle,” where you essentially hijack the natural order of things and stop a system from returning to a so-so equilibrium. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle.
The thing that trips people up is that there is no virtuous circle that self-sustains in the absence of difficulty. It requires the acknowledgment that sacrifice must continue on some level in perpetuity.
3. Challenge yourself by asking good questions (and be honest)
Anytime I’m getting ready to do something, I try to think of my future self a few hours from now. Will he be better off because of what I’m doing at this moment? Or will he still have a ton of stuff to do? Will he be saddled with a big sugar crash because I can’t say no to this delicious, unhealthy meal?
It helps to think small when you’re in these moments. I often try to negotiate with myself into doing the right thing and avoid making mistakes that might slow me down later. I think of it as buying myself a runway at any given moment. I am never, ever happier than when I win these negotiations with myself in the present moment.
Regret is a byproduct of not living for that future self. People stay in a terrible relationship despite knowing it isn’t working and neither person is happy. These same people waste so many years in these situations, only to tumble out and agonize over that decision later on.
The same is true of careers. Some people will stay in unfulfilling jobs just because they’re stable or comfortable. They realize down the road that they probably should have chosen a different path.
Sure, some people believe everything happens for a reason. That doesn’t mean the reason is good.
4. Write yourself a letter
Sometimes, it’s helpful to write a letter to your future self from “you” in the present. You can talk about the difficult things you’re facing at this very moment.
I’ll typically write an email when I’m feeling down, sending words of encouragement to myself. I often end with, “I’m proud of you.”
Sometimes it gets me a little emotional, but it’s exactly what I need to hear, and it helps me get out of a rut.
Today, I wrote to myself about anxiety over a routine blood test. I haven’t had one in a while. I vowed to start getting one every year since I’ve had family members drop dead in their 40s because they didn’t take care of themselves. I’m 39, so in my typical state of neuroticism, I started worrying about my health.
I reassured myself that I was doing the right thing for my future self by taking these steps to ensure my health.
I also talked about my frustrations over my book deal, which has been hamstrung by fickle agents and publishers who keep giving me contradictory feedback.
A few sentences can go a long way. Don’t forget to hit send to formalize it. It helps solidify your mindset of taking action now to help yourself an hour, a month, or years from now.
You can’t write your own future
Yet you sure can work to mold it as you hope to see it.
Think small and in the moment.
Always remember that you’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your future self. They are counting on you to do the right thing. Don’t make their life miserable.