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Today’s To Do List for a Healthier, Wealthier Tomorrow

The trick to living in the present with an eye toward your Future Self

Conceptual illustration of a hosue door made of money being peeled back to reveal a smiling face
Paul Spella

One of my favorite ways to torment my son Laszlo is to catch him when he’s eating a second dessert or watching TV to avoid homework , and warn him that the future version of him is going to be so pissed off that he dropped the ball.

I always assumed I was being a jerk, but as it turns out, it might be the one parenting thing I got right.

Hal Hershfield, a psychologist and a professor at UCLA’s business school, wants us all to pay more attention to the person we’re going to be in 10, 20 or 30 years. The future us who wishes we’d exercise, eat vegetables, save money, and trim our nose hairs.

I met Hershfield in his office at UCLA, where he was wearing corduroy pants and a Mexican Baja hoodie that I have no doubt was purchased by his Past Self. He’s warm and smiley, and makes a convincing case that anyone can find the balance between enjoying today and preparing for the future. It comes down to four simple rules:

1. Identify your distractions, then distract yourself from them.

Future Me is at a disadvantage, since the present always gets the upper hand in decision-making. We do it when we scroll through our phone instead of reading a book, stare at our phone in bed instead of talking to our spouse, or steal glances at our phone instead of paying attention to that boring game our kids wanted to play. 

“The present is so powerful on your phone,” Hershfield says. “Everything that is happening in the now seems so important.”

You need to put all those dopamine-hit machines out of reach. He suggests investing in a time locking container — it’s like a safe that keeps stuff out of grasp for a set amount of time — and filling it (temporarily) with all the things that bogart your attention: phones, TV remotes, video game controllers, beepers, what have you.

2. Use a filter.

To give Future Me a handicap in this rigged game, Hershfield gets people to time travel. He’s used virtual reality to put students in a room where they see an aged version of themselves, 40 years into the future, in a mirror. After taking off their goggles, they vow to save 30 percent more than those who were shown that virtual mirror. 

I created an octogenarian version of myself and stared at him. The first thing I realized is that I need to go shopping, since my current wardrobe looks better on Old Me than current me.

The author's photo next to a photo of the author looking much older

But it also made me realize that when I picture myself now, I actually see Past Me. I think I’m 30. I think about the things I used to do easily, like putting on my socks and standing up. That makes me feel like giving up. But picturing Old Me makes me realize I need to stay in shape so he can at least walk around. It keeps me, oddly, focused on the present.

In fact, as an exercise, Hershfield gets people to talk — out loud — to their Future Mes. He made me do it. In front of him. 

I probably should’ve asked Future Me what he wished I’d paid more attention to — investing in my 401(k), not eating like a starving raccoon, being more present with friends and family. Instead, I asked which teams I should bet on in future Super Bowls.

“In 2024, Jacksonville Jaguars; 2025, Jacksonville Jaguars; 2026, newly relocated Orlando Jaguars,” he told me.

If I were one of his students, Hershfield would not have given me a passing grade.

3. Break the future into manageable pieces.

Losing 30 pounds? Having $1 million in your IRA? These seem so overwhelming you’re unlikely to do them. When Hershfield ran a study asking different groups of people if they’d save $150 a month, $35 a week or $5 a day, the $5 group got four times as many people to sign up for the plan — even though that actually meant they’d be saving more money each month.

The point is, Present You sucks at math.

4. Don’t make decisions at night.

As Chris Rock once asked, “Have you ever taken out $300 at 4 o'clock in the morning for something positive?” The answer, of course, is no. Future You suffers when you make a decision in a hot state. So don’t go to the supermarket hungry. If you’re going online to stalk an ex, do it at 11 a.m. Decide what movie to watch before you turn on the TV. 

I’ve tried all these things. And I’m waiting for a thank-you letter from Future Me. Which I’m writing right now. I’m putting a $50 check in it, as if I’m my own grandfather.

Follow Article Topics: Money-&-Career