The following TED Talk by Daniel Goldstein on “The battle between your present and future self” offers an excellent perspective as we begin to think about resolutions for the New Year:
About this talk: “Every day, we make decisions that have good or bad consequences for our future selves. (Can I skip flossing just this one time?) Daniel Goldstein makes tools that help us imagine ourselves over time, so that we make smart choices for Future Us.”
Watching this talk today reminded me of a simple question that I’ve written about before, one that gives me a fighting chance of winning the battle for my future self: How do I want to feel tomorrow? Or next week? Or next month? Or whenever I would truly enjoy the completion of a task I am putting off today?
Asking this question can change our attitude toward work that our present self tries to convince us isn’t that important. It’s a technique I’ve used often with college freshmen, especially on the day when their first paper is due in the fall. They usually arrive late and harried to class, one hand holding a cup of coffee and the other a hot-off-the-press essay. A few inevitably arrive empty-handed, pleading printer problems or asking if they can email the essay, regardless of the “hard copy only” guideline in the syllabus.
After they have a chance to catch their breath, I give them time for last-minute proofreading and ask how many stayed up most of the night to finish the paper. We all take a look at the sea of raised hands. Then I assign the next essay, and I ask them to close their eyes and indulge me in a visualization exercise.
Even those who find the request silly usually comply, if for no other reason than it gives them a chance to shut their eyes for awhile. I ask them to imagine waking up the morning when the second paper is due. They are well rested. They stretch, yawn, and look to their desk, where their essay is fully revised, proofread, stapled, and ready to hand in.
They inevitably smile.
We then talk a bit about how to work backwards from that date to make the scene—and the feeling—a reality.
The reason I think this question is so powerful is that it becomes a way of taking care of ourselves rather than ticking off yet another to-do list item as a way to please others. We make a choice to do something today in order to feel good (or at least not so bad) later. This removes the temptation to procrastinate as a way to get back at some authority—real or imagined—or to claim some small measure of control in an otherwise crazy-busy life. Rather, we take back control by determining how we feel, a powerful skill.
Goldstein reminds us that commitment devices we often use to force our present selves to make good choices, such as giving away money if we don’t meet a writing goal, don’t work in part because they are “a constant reminder that you have no self-control. You’re just telling yourself, Without you, commitment device, I am nothing… I have no self-discipline… [Commitment devices] take the power away from you.”
The “How do I want to feel?” question works in a different way, by reminding ourselves of our own potential. By simply taking the time to ask ourselves the question (really taking the time to think about it rather than a mental flash), we also redirect our thinking from now to the future, which, as Jonah Lehrer reminds us, may “make the future seem more tangible and real,” thus making us “better able to shrug off the visceral emotional pull of immediate rewards.”
How do you want to feel about your writing life in 2012?
Related post: Why I’m No Longer a Procrastinator