A Talk with Your Future Self

looking forward to a new year as I plan for my future self

Hurray for 2021! Most people are so happy to put 2020 in the rear view mirror.

And yet, what’s going to make 2021 better? If you’re like me, you’re hoping circumstances will be different–that the vaccine will help us get a handle on the pandemic, that kids will be back in school, that unemployment will decline, that public venues will open up, that the economy will ramp up again, that the political climate will be less tense, and so on.

Maybe all of this will happen. I’m hopeful much of it will.

But I also recognize that it isn’t enough to wait for circumstances to improve. I want to live my best life now, despite what’s happening around me. Of course, one way I do this is by making new commitments (resolutions) and setting goals. Perhaps you’ve already done this since we’re a few weeks into the new year. If so, how are they working out? If not, have you given up hope that you have the energy and discipline to sustain new goals?

Most People Fail

new years goals

We have a natural tendency, particularly at the beginning of a new year, to reflect upon where we are and then make commitments for the upcoming year. This tendency is evidence of our innate desire to learn, grow, progress, and succeed. We recognize that we are not all of who we want to be or have not accomplished all of what we desire and so our inclination is to make promises to ourselves about what we’re going to do differently.

However, statistically speaking, most people fail to keep their resolutions more than a few weeks or months into the new year. It seems that those who benefit from the exercise are fitness centers and authors of weight loss books. The majority of people simply run out of steam. They don’t have the momentum to sustain their very genuine desire to achieve goals or become better people.

Why it is Hard to Sustain Change

Have you found this true in your life? Have you given up on resolutions or goals or do you get down on yourself and wonder why you can’t sustain your worthy desires? The problem with resolutions and goals is that they too often lack deep roots. They are hard to sustain in the moment because, as I’ve written in the past, willpower is not enough.

The problem is that the primal brain seeks immediate gratification by finding pleasure and avoiding pain. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that can think and reason and see long-term consequences. We make a decision to change from our prefrontal cortex and then fight the urges of the primal brain in our moment by moment decision-making throughout the day.

It becomes almost impossible to ignore the urges of the primal brain when you become upset, hungry, tired, stressed, or bored. Willpower is trying to deny, resist, or ignore these impulses. It is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater—impossible. You can do it just so long, but sooner or later they’re going to surface and overwhelm your ability to resist.

Put Your Prefrontal Cortex in Charge

In order to sustain the changes you desire, you have to put your prefrontal cortex, rather than primal brain, back in charge. There are lots of ways to do this. One is to develop the habit of having conversations with your future self. This self naturally takes the long view. Your future self is less focused on what you’re giving up today and more focused on the long-term benefits of making good choices.

So, let me invite you to take a step back. Before you focus on your goals, think about your life from the point of view of your self some years in the future.  This could be at the end of this year, 5 or 10 years from now, or even when you’re an older person in your 70s or 80s.

Have a Conversation with Your Future Self

Now imagine that you could have a conversation with your future self. What words, wisdom or even praise would you like today’s self to hear from your future self? Any council your future self might give to you today? Most importantly, what thanks might your future self offer for the habits your current self is developing today, which are contributing to his/her life in the future?

There are a number of ways to do this. You might do this in your mind. Better would be to put it on paper. The process is rather simple. Grab a pencil and notebook or laptop and go to a quiet place. Start by thinking about your future self. Where are you? What’s happening in your life? What activities are you engaged in? What lifestyle are you living? How healthy are you? The more you can imagine what it will be like to be this person, the more meaningful this exercise will be.

Once you have taken some time to really ponder your future self, then write a letter from your future self to present-day self. The purpose is to acknowledge your accomplishments (some years in the future) as well as any habits or qualities of being you want to cultivate within yourself today.  There isn’t a right or wrong way to write such a letter. Simply write whatever comes to the heart and mind of your future self.

I recently wrote a rather lengthy letter from my future self to my present self. It inspires me today. Here’s just a bit of that letter that gets at my future self’s gratitude for habits I’m doing my imperfect best to develop today.

Dear Roger,

Thank you for taking good care of your emotional health through these years. You’ve done this by quieting your mind through breathing and meditation. I’m proud that you make time for this even when it isn’t convenient. You have also learned to pause, frequently, throughout each day to simply notice your feelings and thoughts. And I love how you  savor little experiences–walking, viewing a sunset, seeing the beauty of nature, or being fully present with another person.  These practices have made my life rich. The joy I feel today is a result of these habits. Thank you.   

Here is another passage that has to do with my relationships.

I also see how you have lived, these last several years, from the “middle way.” You don’t ignore, withdraw, or shut down in the face of difficult issues. Nor do you react defensively by emoting, fighting or blaming. You work hard to get in touch with your love and compassion for others as well as your personal authority and courage so you can face issues head on and talk them through to a good solution for everyone involved. I admire this in you. 

Visualize Your Future Self

Once you have put thoughts on paper, visualize yourself having lived and accomplished what you describe. Put yourself into this emotional state with all of the images, feelings, and thoughts that accompany it. Don’t hurry on. Savor it. Allow its meaning to take root inside your mind and spirit. Then take time to read your letter, perhaps several times. Imagine reading it as your future self to your present self.

Taking time to connect with your future self, in these ways, shifts your perspective so you understand the long-term consequences of decisions today. It is a way to give the decision-making power of the prefrontal cortex leverage over your primal brain. Furthermore, it’s a way of making your resolutions and goals more real. It allows you to see and feel the long-term rewards in your goals so you can stick with them even when tempted to go off track.

So give connecting with your future self a try. Make this person a mentor and best-friend. And my best to you in your journey to live from your highest self.



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