We can’t change our future selves.
But we can change our mental and physical environment.
“Tomorrow I’ll go for a run”
“This is my last sweet snack, next week starts a week of cleaning eating and no sugar”
“I’ll just look at youtube/reddit for 10mins, and then I’ll do some work…”
It’s so easy for us to reassure ourselves with these sorts of statements in the present, as they cost us nothing to do so. We loan ourselves the mental reward from this future projection and the fantasy that tomorrow we’ll be our best selves helps absolve us of any past bad decisions. But how assured is this rose tinted future? How often does it not quite work out that way?
Right now after a huge meal I might say, “tomorrow I want to fast until dinner” — it’s both easy to say and to imagine doing that. But then when tomorrow comes and I become hungry before it gets to midday, what do I do then? My yesterday promise no longer means anything to me, the person who made it isn’t real, that person has vanished and is no longer there to hold me accountable.
The person they have changed into is ready to absolve any infractions of these outdated agreements because they much more readily understand and emphasise with the problems and desires of the right here and now.
On average, when we project into these perfect scenarios of our future self — our self who upholds our best intentions — we do so without connecting them to the same impulsive desires we suffer from in the present.
We neglect to consider that they may too be tired, hungry, unenthusiastic or subject to any of the other hardships of human experience, they are our most optimistic, best versions of ourselves, of course they won’t be bound by these mortal desires!
Perhaps then we would do better to not imagine ourselves with this god-like ability to resist detrimental impulses and this soldier like commitment to uphold our past promises without question. That person will rarely exist and often disappoint.
So if we can’t plan for ourselves in the future like this, what can we do right now to save ourselves from our misdirected addictions, cravings, bad habits and less than perfect behaviour?
We have to make something more lasting than just a fleeting glance towards our best selves that can be easily excused when the time comes.
The good news is we just have to spend a little more energy in the present to set ourselves up, we don’t need to overcome the hurdle to our best selves all at once right away.
We can change ourselves in the future by changing either our mental or physical environment right now.
Changing our physical environment
We can create an environment that lasts into the future, that is more likely to facilitate the change we want.
E.g. To eat better, we can prepare a bulk meals on sunday to provide easy eating options for the week to come — An hour or two of time and effort, translates into some tangible help for the future.
The same could be said for, laying out our exercise clothes for the morning, or leaving ourselves notes for that article we want to write in plain view.
These things are comparatively easy to do now and will create lasting reminders and nudges towards the behaviour we want to encourage.
Changing our mental environment
We have the potential to greatly influence ourselves by our imagination and what we choose to visualise, if we spend some effort to do so, we can’t just think it once and let it go. We have to let the thoughts sink in, let those neurons fire and fire again and create habitual mental pathways.
E.g. I can start imaging how good a run will feel, start listing all the benefits, feeling the sensation of the wind as I slip through the air, the pleasing outside scenery, the rewarding refresh of breath. The feeling of accomplishment and energy that washes over me afterwards.
Really commit to the visualisation, of getting changed, leaving the house, having loads of energy, winning, pushing through, how good it feels to do all these things, how happy we are with ourselves after.
Or I could start really thinking about how bad sugar is, how detrimental just the smallest spike is to concentration, how the craving for sugar is a misguided impulse anyway — our bodies don’t want it, how much regret it always results in, how much it makes the stomach feel sick after too much — really exaggerate and big it up.
The trick is to let these visualisations really sink in, just as it’s best to do with gratitude, the longer we keep them in mind, the greater the effect, the better we relish them.
We can also give ourselves options of incremental success here, i.e. we can break down the load of cognitive discipline into easier options. You don’t have to not give into that desire forever all at once, just small little steps.
E.g. ‘ when it comes time to exercise I’ll be tired, but I’ll put on my clothes and drive to the gym, and then I’ll make up my mind, If I’m still really tired, I don’t have to exercise if I don’t want to’
‘If I’m at the gym and I’m tired I’ll just do 3 exercises, then I can stop if I want to’
‘If I’m at the gym I can try and do 3 more exercises / reps than yesterday, to see myself progress’
We often surprise ourselves with how far we can push ourselves once we get started.
There are so many options for encouraging successful behavioral change that I’m leaving out here, as when we talk about our mental environment we enter the infinite realm of psychology of behavioural change.
I’ll just not that habit forming (and reforming) is a practice like any other. And these tactics of thought can help us tremendously if we spend the time to really use them.
As with everything in the information age, knowing isn’t progress, practicing is.
Good luck on your practice!