People often tell themselves that they will start their new diet, new exercise regime, or their new life, tomorrow. Either they are too stressed with stuff today, or need one last day to relax before permanently making the change. Then tomorrow comes, and the cycle repeats.
What is happening in cases such as these is referred to in philosophy as a conflict of volitions. Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Princeton University, coined the term to explain how this conflict is possible. Essentially, what you want to do is different from what you want to want to do.
We want to want to care for tomorrow, but we want to live for the moment. Since we naturally tend to focus on today, our longer-term goals lose out to shorter-term desires. Luckily, research in behavioral sciences can help us align what we want with what we want to want.
A conducted by Daniel Bartels of Chicago Booth School of Business and Lance J. Rips of Northwestern University asked why someone would be willing to take less money today, than considerably more money several years in the future. What they discovered is that people who felt more connected to who they would be in the future were more likely to make the wise financial decision of delaying payment. For many people, the idea of who they will be in 5 or 10 years time feels alien to them. Sometimes, people have so little of a vision of who they will be in the future that delaying something is like giving it to someone else.
University students were asked whether they wanted money in a week or twice as much in a year. As a result of the distance they felt from who they would become, most chose to take the considerably less amount of money sooner. This reveals that it is not just long periods of time that lead to impulsive decisions, but any disconnect from the future self. A significant life event, such as graduating from university, makes people feel as if they are a different person before than after.
Decisions about finances almost always are about one’s future self. It does not seem useful to many people to wait 1 year to get $120 if they can get $100 tomorrow, even though that is a 20% interest that no other financial service would offer. Making this kind of decision once or twice may not be bad, but when it is the way you view all financial decisions, it can lead to ruin.
The type of financial freedom most people envision in their future requires a clear understanding of how today’s decisions will affect them later. Not being connected enough with your future self means that you cannot work towards acquiring what is necessary to reach your potential. Everything we aim to become comes with some costs. Failure to understand the current costs of your ideal future is robbing yourself of future freedom.
When people are asked to think about their future selves, they almost always say who they will be tomorrow is better than who they are today. They think they will be richer, happier, more successful, and more productive as life goes on. People rarely think that some terrible life event, or a gradual decline is likely to occur, even if they are not taking steps to improve themselves. This type of thinking, which can be quite damaging for one’s motivation, results from not feeling connected to your future self. If you imagine a future self so much better than what you have accomplished today, it becomes more like a dream than a goal to achieve.
If failing to connect to your future self leads to this conflict of volitions, and makes it harder for you to make prudent decisions, then connecting with your future self is essential to success. This connection starts with a reality check that is not easy, but is vital. It gives you no benefit to imagine that you will get better in the future unless you understand exactly how to get there. This involves having a realistic understanding of who you are today, and the level of effort you are actually willing to commit to achieving your goals.
To keep motivation high, the best way to stick to your goals is to break them up. When you picture your future self in 5 years, work backwards to understand what took you there from year 4 to 5, and from 3 to 4, and from today to 3.
Each step becomes a smaller goal that is easier to picture, as we recommend in our free guide that helps you maximize your freedom with a two-year plan.
These smaller goals become milestones, things that you can achieve faster and still see real change. Without them, your goals seem too far in the future and hard to achieve. With smaller goals, you are constantly accomplishing something, and feel that you are moving closer to becoming the future self you seek to become.
Another useful tool for being realistic with your goals is the failure scenario. When you set a goal, imagine that you fail miserably at achieving it. Then try to think of all the reasons you would have failed. This makes it easier to understand what to avoid, and what challenges you truly need to overcome, in order to achieve.
Taking these steps to connect with who you want to be helps you focus your attention on the bigger picture, and helps you stay motivated in achieving longer-term goals.
While this process involves a lot of imagination, it is not simply daydreaming. Mapping out your path to your future you is the first step in resolving conflicts of volitions.
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