in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: July 27, 2023

Podcast #914: Set Your Future Self Up for Success

As you move through time, you exist as a present self who makes decisions, an in-between self who should carry out those decisions, and a future self who will benefit from those decisions. Yet as we all know, in-between self often fails to follow through on what present self resolves, leaving future self pretty bummed out.

The solution to this dilemma, my guest says, is for your present self to become much better friends with your future self.

His name is Hal Hershfield, and he’s a professor of marketing, behavioral decision making, and psychology, and the author of Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today. Hal and I spend the first part of our conversation taking a really interesting philosophical dive into what the self even is. We talk about why our future self can feel like a stranger, why it’s hard to know what he’ll be like, and what this dilemma has to do with becoming a vampire. We then discuss how building a stronger connection with your future self makes your present self more willing to help him, and how you can become closer to your future self by engaging in mental time traveling. Hal shares a couple techniques that can facilitate this mental time travel, three mistakes people make in taking this cognitive trip, and how to start making tomorrow better today.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. As you move through time, you exist as a present self who makes decisions, and in between self, who should carry out those decisions and a future self who will benefit from those decisions. And as we all know, in-between self, often fails to follow through on what present self-resolve leaving future self pretty bummed out. The solution to this dilemma my guest says, is for your present self to become much better friends with your future self. His name is Hal Hershfield, and he’s professor of Marketing, Behavioral decision-making in Psychology, and the author of Your Future Self.

Hal and I spend the first part of our conversation taking a really interesting philosophical dive into what the self even is. We talk about why your future self can feel like a stranger, why it’s hard to know what he’ll be like, and what this dilemma has to do with becoming a vampire. We then discuss how building a stronger connection with your future self makes your present self more willing to help them, and how you can become closer to your future self by engaging in mental time traveling. Hal shares a couple techniques that can facilitate this mental time travel, three mistakes people make in taking this cognitive trip. How to start making tomorrow better today. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at self.

All right, Hal Hershfield, welcome to the show.

Hal Hershfield: Hey, thanks so much, Brett. I’m happy to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a professor of Marketing and Behavioral decision making, and you spent your career studying how we think about our future selves, and this idea of mental time travel, what led you down this research path?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I know a lot of that sounds like a lot of words thrown together there, but my PhD’s in Psychology, in Experimental Psychology. And what that means is I like to study how people think about their world, how they make decisions. And honestly, while I was in grad schools around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, and I started to get really interested in why are people having a hard time making the same decisions that they say that they wanna make. And that led me to start thinking about, maybe it’s not necessarily elements of the decision itself, but elements of the way that people think about themselves sort of unfolding through time. And it was really that seed that got planted that led me to study these things. And I’m at a business school in a way because that lets me focus on sort of applied questions.

Brett McKay: Okay. So you’re interested in looking at why we might say something like, “Hey, I want to do this to lose weight” or “Hey, I want to make this investing decision, so I’ll be better off in the future” But then, we don’t do that.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, exactly. It’s… I don’t start with the assumption that more people should be doing X, Y, and Z thing. More people should save more or eat healthier or whatever, that may be true, but it’s the place where I start is, if someone says, “Man, I really wanna be exercising more and I just can’t seem to do it, I really wanna be saving more and I just can’t seem to do it” Or whatever that thing is, off my phone. That gap between intentions and behavior, that’s where I really get interested and that’s where I like to study behavior.

Brett McKay: And this is where this idea of mental time travel comes from when we are making goals, we are having to think about ourselves as present self and future self.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, exactly. When we are sort of thinking ahead and thinking about what some ideal outcome is, we are really thinking about ourselves right now and we’re thinking about that eventual version of us, like who will be sort of the almost ideal version if you will, that exists at some later point in time.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So before we dig into your research about mental time travel and our future selves, I think we have to get philosophical first and talk about what a self even is. And I think most of us think we know what a self is, our selves feel continuous and permanent and singular, but you make the case that the self might not be as continuous as it seems. So what is the self?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. I think you’re right. I think there’s a lot of us that probably would say, yeah, I am me, like I’ve kind of been me and sure some things have changed over time, but I am essentially the same person. But then you start thinking about it and it becomes really complicated, right? It’s like your name might have changed, the way you look might change, your friends might change, your interests might change, even your personality might change a little bit. And then when you start sort of stepping back and figuring out who am I over time, it becomes really hard to say like, I am one person. And so the sort of philosophical notion that I really subscribe to is that maybe a better way to describe it is that we’re sort of a collection of separate selves now.

You asked this great question, which is like, well, what is the self even? And I think of the self, and I think psychologists think of the self as a kind of a bundle of things. It’s different attributes. It’s my preferences and emotions and feelings and my connections and my “identity.” All of those things and kind of a swirl. But all those things change over time. And so it really does seem like a more apt description to say that we’re sort of a series of almost separate selves.

Brett McKay: Yeah. This goes back all the way to ancient Greece. There’s that idea of the ship of Theseus.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly. Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s like this famous ship and then they sort of made it like a memorial, but over the years they had to keep replacing the parts because it was wearing down. And at some point the philosophers were asking, “Well, is it still the ship of Theseus? And people were like, “Well, yeah it is.” And it’s like, “Well, it’s completely just new parts” And psychologists and philosophers have applied this to humans. Human beings, we’re constantly creating new selves. Our selves are being replaced. So even say, well is ourself the body? Because if that’s the case, then our body’s changed, so maybe we’re not the same. And they’re like, well, if it’s not the body, then they’d said, well, maybe it’s our memories. But that gets tricky too, ’cause we’ve had podcast guests talking about how our memories can change based on experiences we have in the present. So we might experience something now that change how we think about the past. And it’s like, well, maybe it’s not our memories.

Hal Hershfield: Right. And the memory explanation by the way is, it’s really interesting because I think it’s on the surface intriguing. You say, “Well maybe this self is this sort of collection of what I remember.” And then, you stop for a second and you say, “Do you remember what you had for lunch two days ago?” Like, no. Well, is that not you [laughter] And as you said, memory is it’s fallible and it’s constructed and it changes. So that doesn’t really seem quite right.

Brett McKay: And then, so, my wife, I think of myself as myself and it hasn’t, I mean, I know I’ve changed, but I still think of like I’m Brett I’ve existed since I was… Since 1982. But I’m thinking about my wife. My wife fell in love and married 22 year old Brett. And I think she still thinks she’s married to the same Brett. So what is it about me when she interacts with me and I… But she knows that I’ve changed over the years, what makes her think I’m the same even though I’ve changed over the years?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. I love this question because it really becomes almost existential on some level. We want permanence to some degree, right? We want to see our partners and our best friends and to some extent even our parents as occupying these sort of, stable conceptions of a person. But I think when push comes to shove, I’m sure your wife could point to many things about you that have changed. Now, my way of sort of reading this really has been influenced by psychologist Nina Strominger, and she has this fascinating research that suggests that when we look at other people the way that we think of them as being “stable over time” what what we think about really is what she and her collaborators call the essential moral self or essential moral traits. The idea here is that, I don’t know Brett, maybe you’re like a little bit sarcastic, but ultimately kind. Whatever sort of blend of those kind of core aspects of your personality are, if the surface level things change, but those remain relatively constant that allows somebody to say, “Okay, you are still Brett. ” That’s the essence of Brett, right?

And I… My bet not [laughter] knowing your wife, but my bet would be that she could point to those things and say that’s the same now as it was when he was 22.

Brett McKay: Okay. So yeah. Or there’s some moral quality. So kindness, compassion, whether you’re polite, yeah, and that research about that maybe laugh out loud, Nina, she asked this guy, “What are some of the ways your wife could change?” And you would say, She’s no longer the person I married.” And then the guy responded quickly, “I guess she became a bitch.”

Hal Hershfield: Exactly. It’s kind of funny because part of that conversation she asked, “What about you?” What would change in you to make your wife say that you are no longer the person she married and the person Nina was talking to is an artist who said, “Well, I guess if I suddenly became bad at art.” And it’s funny because there’s this little asymmetry there when we think about ourselves, we think I don’t know, it must be these sort of things I do. But when we think about others, it’s not what they do, it’s who they are really deep inside that sort of core. And if you were kind all your life and then suddenly became this monster, I’d be like, “That’s not the same person.”

Brett McKay: Okay. So the takeaway from all this thing, like what is a self? It helps us understand, there is something there that helps us think of ourselves as a continuous permanent self and allows others to think of us as continuous and permanent. However, there are things about ourselves that means that we have multiple selves. There’s a past self. We might even be different selves in different situations. I think people might have experienced that when… I know I’ve experienced that when I connect with old high school friends. I immediately fall into, 1999, 2000 Brett and I’m making jokes that my wife, like, what’s going on? I don’t understand, like you’re kind of, I don’t… I’ve never seen this Brett before. It’s because I have this groove with those friends. So the self can be situational too.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, absolutely. And I totally relate to that particular experience. I remember going back from my 20th high school reunion, with my wife and we’re sitting around and it’s like instantly like 1997 Hal showed up and [laughter] there’s elements there that sort of crossover. But there’s also elements where you say, “I’m not really that same bundle, now that I was then.”

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about this mental time travel component. So thanks to our memories, maybe keeping a journal or looking back on old social media posts, we can have a pretty good idea of what our past self was like. Again, our present self can modify that. We might… We do this thing where we, I know I’ve done this too and I’ve seen in other people where we try to explain the past in a way that helps us make sense of the present even though you’re kind of doing some mental gymnastics to make that make sense. But we can have an idea of what our past self was like because we have documentation or maybe just memory, but you argue that it’s really hard to know what our future self will be like. Why is that?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. So part of the issue here is that our future selves are sort of inherently uncertain and our future selves change as we go through changes and in ways that we can’t fully anticipate.

Brett McKay: And then you have this mental exercise that a philosopher came up with about thinking about becoming a vampire.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah.

Brett McKay: What can thinking about becoming a vampire teaches about how hard it is to know our future selves?

Hal Hershfield: So yeah, this is L. A. Paul, and she had this great analogy which was essentially, imagine you have this opportunity to become a vampire and she says, “All your friends are doing it and they tell you it’s great, you’re gonna love it. Like they think they know you.” They say, “You like staying up late at night and trying exotic foods and that’s what it’s like to become a vampire” But there’s this catch, which is that once you become a vampire, you can’t undo it. You’re sort of always a vampire and you can’t really know what it’s like to become a vampire until you become a vampire. Now, I mean it sounds a little bit sort of ludicrous and almost sci-fi in a cheesy way. But when I first heard her talk about this, for what it’s worth, I was at a little small conference and we had found out my wife was pregnant like only days before.

And I’m sitting there listening to her L. A. Paul talk about this vampire problem. And I started instantly going down this sort of anxiety spiral of, “Oh my god, this is kind of the same thing as becoming a parent.” My friends are telling me it’s meaningful and I’ll like it, but I can’t know what it’s until I’m actually doing it. And as I’m having this sort of spiral of anxiety, the professor L. A. Paul says, of course this is just a thinly veiled analogy to becoming a parent [laughter] And I was like, “Ah, yes, this makes sense.” But I thought it was so interesting because it really highlights the sort of, inherent unknowability of our future selves that, we go through these changes in our lives, we become parents, we move, we change careers, we get married or divorced or any of these things. And those things change us in ways that we can’t anticipate. And once we do them, we’re sort of now a slightly new and different version of ourselves.

Brett McKay: Right. Becoming a parent not only changes, I mean it changes how you think about other parts of yourself, how you think about your career, how you think about your hobbies, how you think about vacation. And so it is hard. You can talk to people about what it’s like to be a parent and as you said, you can kinda get an idea but you don’t really know how it’s gonna change you and also change other decisions that you’ll make until you actually do it. I’ve noticed that with my own life.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s so true.

Brett McKay: Okay. So we have these different selves, we have a past self that we can have a rough idea of what we were like. We have a present self, then we have our future self, which we… It’s hard to know what our future self will like or want or need. So what you’ve done with your research is you’ve actually, you’ve stuck people in MRI machines to see what happens in their brains when they think about their future selves. So when you stick someone in MRI and you ask them, “Hey, think about what you’ll be like when you’re 70.” What happens? What’s going on in our brains? How do we perceive our future selves.

Hal Hershfield: Right. So one of the things we know from what’s called social neuroscience is that the brain can essentially distinguish between me and somebody else. There’s a certain pattern of activity that you see in what’s called the cortical midline structures when I think about me and you see less of that activity when I think of a stranger, somebody else. And so, we put people in the scanner and we had them think about themselves now and themselves in the future and another person now and another person in the future. And what we find is if you look within those same regions, the regions that can kind of distinguish between me and somebody else, what you see is a similar pattern for when we think about our future selves. If I can put it more simply, the brain activity that comes about when we think of our future selves, it looks more like the brain activity that comes about when we think about other people in general, which is really fascinating ’cause it suggested in some ways our future selves look like other people.

Brett McKay: Well and something you found too, and you’ve talked about is, okay, when we think about other people, depending on how close they are to us, there’s an activity that’s different. So we think about someone like a stranger differently than we think about our kids or our spouse.

Hal Hershfield: That’s right. Other work has found that those self other differences in the brain, they’re like exacerbated when I think about someone I don’t know, but they’re muted. The differences are a lot smaller when I think about say my spouse or my kid or my parent, somebody who I’m really close to. And so it suggests that not only is the brain coding for what’s me and what’s not me, it’s also coding for sort of closeness and similarity and connection as well.

Brett McKay: So when someone’s close to us, like a spouse or a kid, we actually, and in a way we incorporate them into ourself like they’re part of us, our identity.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. Researchers have called this the… Psychologists always have higher level terms for things than we need to, but they call it the inclusion of the other in the self [laughter] basically saying, the people we love become a part of us.

Brett McKay: And then how we think of people, other people affects what we’ll do for them. So because we think of our family members, spouse, maybe close friends as part of us, part of ourself, we’re more willing to do things for them because in effect we’re doing something for ourself, but then for strangers, we’re less willing to go out on a limb because they’re not part of our self.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s funny, you don’t have to think too hard about this to really get it, it’s like if you’re kid or your best friend or someone you’re really close to is like, “Hey man, can you help me this weekend? We’re in a bind and I really need somebody to help me like move all this stuff out of my garage so that we can do whatever” You would probably be like a little annoyed ’cause you had plans this weekend, but you would like, I don’t know if they’re really close to you, you’d probably figure out like, yeah, let me see how I can help you. And if somebody on the street stopped you and asked you the same question, it’s like, it’s not that you’re selfish, but of course you’d be like, “I can’t, I’ve got other things going on.” The reason that that is sort of interesting I think is if we think our future selves are kind of like those people that we don’t know, well, now all of a sudden it makes sense why I wouldn’t do things for their benefit. If I’m supposed to eat healthy, for that guy’s cholesterol levels and that guy’s waistline, well, I don’t know, I think I’d kind of rather just do the thing that satisfies me right now [laughter] ’cause who is that guy anyway, I don’t know him.

Brett McKay: Okay. So yeah, this idea of the closeness of a person determines what we’re willing to do for them. We can apply this to how we think about our future selves. So the more distant or disconnected we feel from our future self, the less likely we’ll be willing to do things for our future selves, like exercise or save money or things like that.

Hal Hershfield: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Brett McKay: And I think, doesn’t Jerry Seinfeld have a bit about that?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. Yes, he does, he’s like, man, like he’s always ahead of the curve and like, I think he’s deeply philosophical and he has this whole bit where he says, “I stay up late at night because I’m night guy, what about getting up after five hours of sleep? Like, that’s not my problem. That’s morning guy’s problem.” And he has this great sort of solution. He says like, the only thing morning guy can do is to try to oversleep often enough so that day guy loses his job and then night guy has no money to go out anymore, which is like a perfect [laughter], a perfect solution. But it’s I feel like it’s a really deep joke because it suggests that there can be these real lack of emotional connections between selves and that lack of connection or presence of it can dictate the things that we do. In his case, staying up too late, right? In my case, it might be snacking at night or having like an extra glass of wine when I said I wasn’t going to.

Brett McKay: And what you’ve done with your research is you looked at the distance of how we think about our future selves, and you’re saying, okay, well if we think of our distant future selves as basically strangers, right? And because of that, we’re not willing to do much for them in the future. Your hunch was, “well, are there things we can do to strengthen our connection to our future selves to improve outcomes like in health, money, and psychological wellbeing?” So what has your research found on this? Can you strengthen your connection to your future self? And if so, what are the things that you can do to do that?

Hal Hershfield: Absolutely. So yeah, first off, you’re right, the sort of degree of connection matters for these types of behaviors that you’ve been talking about. And then you have this question of like, can you strengthen that relationship? And the short answer is yes. The long answer is that there’s a lot of different ways to do it, and they work with sort of like varying degrees of success. One that works nicely is to write a letter to, and then from your future self, that’s a newer technique that Yuta Chishima and Anne Wilson came up with. And I think it’s a really sort of clever exercise because it forces you to step into the shoes of your future self. Again, there it’s not that I’m just writing a letter to my future self, but then I’m turning around and then writing back to me right now.

Brett McKay: So I guess what you’re trying to do with that is you’re trying to kind of guess what it’s gonna be like to be a vampire in a way.

Hal Hershfield: That’s a great way to put it, that’s a great way to put it. And I think I would go a step beyond what the research has done and sort of say like, yeah, I mean, it may be helpful to recognize that we can’t know. Like I just don’t know what it’s like to be a vampire until I become one. And that I think that’s okay if we can sort of get past that, then the exercise of stepping into future me shoes will ultimately be helpful to sort of strengthen that connection between selves.

Brett McKay: And then another tactic, I think maybe people listening to this podcast have heard about, there’s maybe you even experienced this. You’ve had people with virtual reality see what they would look like when they’re old and how that affects decisions they’ll make for their future self. What’s going on there?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I mean, so essentially the idea here is we can use these age progression apps to show you what you’ll look like or a version of what you’ll look like, we’ve used these sorts of programs and had people sort of interact with their future selves. We’ve done this in virtual reality, we’ve done this online, we’ve done this through emails, essentially, campaigns like that. And what we find is sort of across the board there are these effects where the people who are exposed to these images are a little bit more likely to save or to act ethically, the most recent version of this, we’ve… Did a study with about 50,000 customers with a Mexican bank, and half of them got these opportunities to see their future selves and half of them didn’t. And the people who did were a little more likely to make a contribution to their long-term savings accounts, their retirement accounts.

Now, there’s a lot of this sort of thing available now, like you can go on FaceApp or Snapchat or AgingBooth. I think there’s a lot of them. Just because I’ve seen an image of my future self doesn’t mean I’m all of a sudden gonna live my life differently, right? But in the right context, if that future self image is something I look at and think about and sort of converse with while I’m then also in the mindset of making some sort of decision, whether it’s signing up for a nutritionist or thinking about my long-term savings or whatever it might be, that’s when I think these sorts of vivid examples and exposures can make a difference.

Brett McKay: Okay. So what you’re doing with these techniques, whether it’s writing a letter to your future self and having your future self write a letter to present you or looking at a aged picture of yourself, what you’re trying to do is close the gap between your present self and your future self. And then by doing that, we are more likely to follow through on good decisions for ourselves, whether that’s exercise, saving more, not procrastinating, being just a good person because we feel our future self is us.

Hal Hershfield: That is exactly right. I think that’s a… Well actually, hold on, let me just make a little modification there. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily because it’s that we feel our future self is us, but rather because we now feel closer.

Brett McKay: Feel closer, yeah.

Hal Hershfield: To our future self, and we can like better envision them. Right? So I do actually think, it’s like some of this, I don’t wanna like split hairs here, but it’s useful to know like why these things happen. I think there’s some debate still about is it because it just simply makes that future self more vivid and therefore more emotional? Is it also because it’s making that future self sort of feel closer to us? I think at the end of the day, it’s still always gonna be another person, just like at the end of the day, your wife is always gonna be another person, but what can vary is how close you feel to her, right? And the closer you are, the more likely you’ll probably do things that are gonna help her.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. We do this mental time travel stuff all the time, but there’s things that we do when we do this mental time travel that can make it less effective. And you talk about there’s three ways we can mess up our mental time travel. And the first one is you miss the flight in the first place. So how do we miss our flight?

Hal Hershfield: So I mean, like to back up the mental time travel is really, like you said, it’s just what happens when we step into the future or back to the past in our minds. And by the way, we’re really good at this. We can do this in super sophisticated ways. I can step to the future and think back to now and step into the past. And I can do all of this in the span of seconds back and forth, back and forth. But even though we have this sort of machinery to do this, we often aren’t great at, we make these mistakes. And so yeah, in the book I sort of organize them into different categories. The first one, I call it missing our flight, this is just how I think I think about things and analogies.

Sometimes I think, maybe it’s easier just describe it straightforward, but this one works for me, which is like, I feel like everyone’s had this experience of you get to the airport and you’re like, “oh, I’ve got a little time before my flight. Let me go get a drink at the bar. Or sit in the corner and read a book or whatever it is.” Now I’ve never had it happen, but I’ve had it almost happen where you get so engrossed in the thing you’re doing that beer at the bar, you look up and you realize, “oh my god, they’ve been calling my name and I’ve missed my flight” [laughter] And the reason that I bring this up in the space of sort of mental time travel is it’s sort of like being so focused on the present that I look up and realize that I’ve completely missed thinking about the future in any deep way. And we do this sort of thing all the time when we act in ways that deeply prioritize the future over the present. It’s not as if we don’t know the future won’t come, when we go to the airport, it’s not as if I’ve just completely forgotten about the flight. It’s just that it occupies such a minor place in the back of my mind. Then I get so engrossed in what’s happening right in front of me that I act as if I’ve missed it entirely.

Brett McKay: And we do that for various reasons. One is when we experience the present, the emotions that we experience or the feelings are more intense ’cause we’re actually experiencing them. And then when we think about the emotions we might feel in the future, well, it’s hard to do, right? It’s hard to think about what you’ll feel like when you’re a vampire. And so you’re thinking, well, I’m enjoying this late night show. This is great right now, I’m enjoying it. I’m gonna keep doing this. And you don’t think about, well, how is tomorrow Brett gonna feel about this? It’s not, I’m not gonna… I can’t feel that, so I’m just not gonna do anything about it.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly. And it’s like you said it, there’s the uncertainty of the future and there’s also just like the feelings right now, feel more intense than the things worth anticipate feeling in the book. And I like quoting her a lot. Liz Dunn, one of my collaborators, she has this great line in one of her papers. The papers aren’t even about this concept, but she just has this line in there and it really stuck with me, which is, “The present acts as a magnifying glass for our emotions” And I think it’s such a smart way to think about how powerful the present is when we’re talking about our feelings.

Brett McKay: Okay. So the first way we can mess up mental time traveling is we miss the flight by thinking too much about the present.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Thinking too much about what we’re experiencing now and not thinking about what future self will want. Another way we can mess up our mental time traveling is what you call poor trip planning. So how do we plan our mental time travel trips poorly?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I mean, so this would be, I’m gonna like, just like kind of lean into the airport plane travel metaphors, but essentially this is the I’ve planned my trip, like I know I’m going to Chicago next week and then I realize that I haven’t done really anything other than book the flight and maybe the hotel. And then I get there and I’m like, well now what am I gonna do? And this is the version of of mental time travel where we think a little bit about the future, but we do so in such a surface level way that by the time we get to the future, it’s looks maybe different than the one that we had envisioned. So as an example, I think procrastination fits perfectly into this bucket. It’s like, I’m thinking ahead, I’d say to myself, next week is gonna be the week that I finally take care of like putting in this paperwork that I’ve gotta put in for work and blah, blah blah. But I’m not really thinking deeply about the future because if I was, I’d realize that if I don’t wanna do that thing now, future me isn’t gonna want to do it either. So it might make sense to not compound the problem and just take care of it right now. But the gist is that I’m not really deeply thinking ahead to the future. And even though I know it exists, it’s not planned for in a more than surface level way.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. So you’re thinking about your future self, but you’re not doing it in a very deep or profound way. And as a consequence, you might make decisions that you think I’m doing something for my future self, but really it’s not helping ’em that much.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly, exactly.

Brett McKay: The one that you talked about there that really resonated with me is the Yes… Damn effect. I think everyone’s experienced that, and this is what it’s called, like the psychologist, they call it the Yes… Damn effect.

Hal Hershfield: That’s right.

Brett McKay: So what is the Yes… Damn effect and how does that constitute poor trip planning?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, it’s when you get asked to do something and it’s not gonna occur for another two months, three months, four months, whatever it is, you look ahead at your calendar and you say, “eh, it’s wide open. Yeah, sure, I’ll do it.” And then, the time goes by and you get there and it’s the week of, and you realize I have agreed to do this presentation at work. I’ve agreed to whatever the flavor of event is. Like I’m sure we can all conjure up our own idiosyncratic ones. And you say, damn it I really don’t feel like doing this [laughter] And so they psychologists call it the Yes… Damn effect. And the issue with this is what I’m doing is I am thinking ahead to the future. I’m saying, yeah, future me will do that thing. And then I get there and realize that’s not really something I’d wanna do.

Now there are cases that, there’s nuance here, right? Because sometimes the only way to get us to sign up for something is to put it distant enough out in the future. And then some, there’s versions of these things that we do, whether it’s like agreeing to coach our kids team, like maybe I don’t really wanna do that this week, it’s a lot of work, but next year, sure, I’ll do it. And like ultimately that could be a really good experience and I wouldn’t have signed up for it if it was occurring next week. But there’s many other cases where I unfairly sign my future self up to do the very things that I don’t wanna do now.

Brett McKay: ‘Cause you don’t think about future self having issues, right? So your calendar might look open, you think future self man, the sky’s the limit for future self. He’s got so much free time. But then once future self arrives, all the problems of the present are there. So you’ve got school that you’re dropping your kids off, you’ve got fires to put out at work, you’ve got other responsibilities that your present self wasn’t thinking about when you committed future self to make that decision, that’s where the Yes… Damn effect. You’re like, yeah, it sounds great.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly.

Brett McKay: But then when future self that you thought about finally becomes present self, you’re like, “Oh damn this, why did I do this, this stinks.”

Hal Hershfield: Exactly. I think that’s exactly right.

Brett McKay: And I think one way you can counter that, one thing that I’ve done is if you’re being asked to commit to something way in the future, like months or maybe a year, one way you can counter the Yes… Damn effect is ask yourself, “if this thing was gonna be tomorrow, would I still do it?” And if the answer is no, then well maybe I don’t commit to that. I mean, it’s, again, there’s nuance you might not do that in all situations, but it’s a good way to figure out if you actually wanna do the thing.

Hal Hershfield: I think that’s exactly right. And it’s I think the beauty of that is that it’s so hard to step into the shoes of our future selves, but it’s easier to live in the shoes of our present self. And if present self [laughter] doesn’t wanna do it, it’s a good indicator of the future me might not wanna do it either.

Brett McKay: Right. So you’re closing that gap between present and future self.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly.

Brett McKay: By doing that. Okay. So we can mess up mental time traveling by just poor planning. Another one is, once we’re on the trip, we pack the wrong clothes. What do you mean by packing the wrong clothes for our mental time travel trip?

Hal Hershfield: Right. So this is like a little bit different. So I mean, we’ve probably all had this experience. Imagine, it’s like the winter time. I’m living in a cold weather place, I’m in Chicago, we’re gonna go to, I dunno, Miami or something like this. And I’m thinking ahead, I’m packing my bag and I’m packing my clothes and I say, I know it’s gonna be warm there, but it’s really hard to shake the feeling that I’m freezing right now. I should probably throw some sweaters in just in case. And is it a mistake? Well, if I get there and I don’t have enough of the warm weather clothes and I’ve got all this other stuff in my suitcase that is taking up room that I’m not gonna use, well, there’s a little bit of a mistake there.

But when you think about time travel, that gist here is that I convince myself that I’m planning ahead for the future, but in doing so, what I’m really, really doing is using my present day emotions and projecting them almost unfairly on my future self. And the reason why I say that this is really a problem and really pernicious is because I’ve convinced myself that I’m doing something good for my future self. When in reality I may actually not be appreciating the way that he will differ from me, the way that he’ll change. If you want another sort of example or sort of analogy, it’s like getting gifts for your spouse, nobody wants to get the gift that the gift giver wanted. It’s like if I would say to myself, what my wife really wants is that new Nintendo Switch, [laughter] It’s like, no, that’s what I want, it’s not really fair to her. In the same way as if I use my present day feelings and emotions and project them onto my future self it’s not really fair to him.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So what you’re doing, you’re thinking about your future self, you’re trying to do some mental time traveling, but you’re thinking, going back to that vampire analogy, you’re thinking that being a vampire is gonna be like what it’s like being you now, but that’s not actually what’s gonna happen.

Hal Hershfield: I really like that. I hadn’t put it quite that way. And I think you’re exactly right. It’s like, if I sort of think like I’m sure he’ll want to sleep at night and wake up early in the morning because I do, and let me arrange things for him so that that happens, it would be a mistake because it turns out once you become a vampire, that’s not what you like.

Brett McKay: And then another thing that causes us to pack the wrong clothes, it’s this idea in psychology called the end-of-history illusion. What is that?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, the end-of-history illusion. This is Jordi Quoidbach is the original author on this work. The idea with this is that I think that I’ve somehow become the sort of fully baked version of myself now, and that moving forward into the future, I’ll change a little bit, but not that much. In other words, the end of history illusion is recognizing that I’ve changed from the past to the present, but then failing to see that I’ll continue to change moving from the present to the future. Now, the reason that that’s problematic is that we do in fact change from the present to the future, probably as much as we’ve changed from the past to the present. And that’s really hard to grapple with because we say, “no, no, no, no that can’t be like I’ve changed so much from then to now. I can’t continue this way.” And the reality is that we will, but we don’t like to see that because it sort of suggests that we’re more malleable than we like to think. It’s also a problem when I make decisions and plans for future self that limit his ability to change his mind, that sort of lock him into something in a way that he might not particularly like.

Brett McKay: What are some examples that you’ve come across where people have done that?

Hal Hershfield: So I think a good example of this is career planning, sometimes we can get locked into something or we say this is what we want, because this is what I want right now, and then later on we say, I should keep doing this because… Past me, planned it, we also see this on a smaller level of some researchers have found taking on projects, I might take on a really big project and be super excited about it in the early days and convince myself that I’ll be able to maintain that level of effort and excitement and passion, if you will, when in reality, those things may wane and change so much so that I won’t be able to see the project through to completion because I no longer have this sort of inclination or energy or will to do it. I suspect this is something that happens in the start-up world quite a bit, ’cause early on, that’s the most exciting period of time, but we may end up biting off more than we can chew because we sort of unfairly think that future versions of us will be able to continue to maintain the same level of sort of drive and effort and work that the early versions of us did.

Brett McKay: Okay, so when we think about our future self, we often think as another person, a distant person, and as a consequence, were less likely to do things for future self because we think, Well, that’s another person, and then you have all these biases that cause us to do that whether it’s being too focused on the present or not thinking about correctly of what our future self will actually be like and things like that, and so there’s things you’ve talked about, you can sort of close the gap between future self and present self… Write letters to your future self and then have future self write letters to your present self or look at an aged picture of yourself, but again, you don’t just look at it, it’s not like you can just fire up TikTok and look at your, what you look like when you’re 80. And you will suddenly start exercising and saving for retirement, maybe you do that when you’re deciding whether to start a retirement account or whether to save money, that might help. Besides those two things, you’ve also researched different commitment devices we can use so that when we think about our future self and we’re like, Yeah, future self wants a robust retirement account, future self wants to be 25 pounds lighter, present self is gonna commit to that.

I’m gonna help future self out ’cause his future self is me. But then you also highlight, there’s commitment devices you can do to ensure that present self continues to do those things to help future self out. I know we’re doing a lot of mental time travel right there when I was describing that, so what are some commitment devices that can help ensure that we do good things for future selves once we can make the commitment to help future self out?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, so the gist here is right, I don’t want to get it too complicated, but it’s like there’s this version of me right now that wants to do something well, I wanna not snack at night. There’s this future version of me that wants to look back and say, Yeah, I did it right, I didn’t snack at night, and then there’s this guy in the middle who messes things up. Right, that’s the like eventual version of me that says, I’m tired, I’m gonna take a snack, I really am hungry right now, no commitment devices are sort of tools that we can put in place to put guard rails on our future behavior so that we can ensure that we don’t sort of fall off and mess things up, so a good example is this website,, it’s with two Ks, and it’s fantastic, because what I can do is say, Hey, I’ve got a goal to act a certain way.

I wanna work out three days a week for 30 minutes, and then I’ll sort of enlist the accountability partner, let’s call it you, Brett, every week you’re gonna call me and say, Did you do it? Did you work out three days a week? I’ll also give my credit card to this site and I’ll give the name of an anti-charity that’s like a called a political organization or group that I don’t wanna donate to, and then if I fail to live up to the goal that I said, Well, you would press a button and suddenly 200 bucks, 500 bucks, 100 bucks, whatever the amount might be, is gonna be taken out of my charge to my credit card and donated to whatever this disliked organization is now through the lens of present and future selves.

The gist here is that You’ve gotta pick punishments that are strong enough to deter the unwanted behavior, but not so strong that we don’t sign up all together and just say No, I would never do that to myself.

Brett McKay: So one thing to keep in mind when you implement these commitment devices is you might realize, Okay, so present self makes this decision to, let’s say write a book by the end of the year, and so you start writing and you make a commitment with stickks. If I don’t finish a manuscript by the end of the year, then I gotta pay X amount of dollars to this anti-charity, but then in the course of writing, you discover, you know what, I don’t actually enjoy writing a book, this is not what I wanna do, so you might learn by staying the course for that future self that actually what you thought was your future self isn’t your future self.

Hal Hershfield: Right, right, right, exactly, exactly. And I think that’s okay to some degree, because that’s reality, we can plan. I love the phrase, man plans and God laughs. It’s like we can know that and I think still plan and then be flexible with our plans.

Brett McKay: Right. So, Yeah, I that might apply… You might be able to back out of some things, but not all things. You can’t just be like, I’m gonna back out from being a parent right? And your kid gets to be a teenager, and you’re like, Yeah.

Hal Hershfield: I’m done with this one.

Brett McKay: I don’t like this. I’m done with this one. You can’t do that or you can’t do that with… Some people do with romantic partners, well, five years in, I don’t like this one, get rid of that one, so yeah I think when you make certain types of changes, you gotta be careful about what you do because they might have very dramatic outcomes if you decide to jettison it.

Hal Hershfield: That’s exactly right, that’s exactly right. And I think you can’t just suddenly make all these changes, there’s no consequences, but I think the bigger insight here is that we still have to make decisions moving forward, and also recognize that our future selves are going to change and have different preferences from us, and then idiosyncratically, consider how we deal with that.

Brett McKay: Right? So our selves might change, but there’s still a permanent part of ourself that we have to reckon with not only with ourselves, but with other people, other people are depending on us to be permanent in a way, so we can’t just, We can’t change big things willy-nilly, if some of you become this, just jerk. You know what I’m saying here is, I guess, again, this gets really philosophical, when is it okay to course correct on yourself, and when are there ethical and moral quandaries that arise when you do that?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, yeah, I think this is a really difficult question to grapple with because this is almost a question for the philosophers, but I’m not sure that we’ve fully delineated, what are the spaces where it’s okay to make a shift, what are the other ones where we have almost like a moral or ethical responsibility to stick with the plan that our past selves made, I think also, by the way, this is exactly why big life decisions are so existentially confronting because we do probably on some level, recognize that when we decide to get married or become a parent if we are fortunate enough to sort of decide that or decide to switch careers or something like that, there are implications for those choices, and that’s quite difficult to sort of recognize, and yet at the same time, it’s not that we just sit in a state of paralysis and do nothing, eventually you make the decision and you do it with your best guess in mind. One thing that the research suggests that I think is really important to consider is to not just try to simulate our own future selves, but to talk to others who have made the same decisions as us.

Brett McKay: So you get a better idea of what it’s like to be a vampire, you might not know completely, but you’ll have a better idea.

Hal Hershfield: Exactly, exactly.

Brett McKay: So, we’ve been talking about how if we feel closer to our future self, we’re more willing to do things for our future self that might not benefit us in the present, we’re more willing to give up eating the cake, exercise, going to bed early, saving more instead of spending more, but you make the case that if you really wanna be good time travelers and good to our future selves, sometimes it pays to indulge present self, so how can indulging present self be good for future self?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, absolutely, I think this is a really important question to ask because at the end of the day, the things we do in the present are what create the memories that future self can look back on and have, and if we’re sort of always sacrificing for future me, what sort of present is that? Right? It’s like not, it’s just not… Life isn’t gonna be fun or worth living to some degree, maybe that’s extreme. And so I do think it makes sense to occasionally sort of celebrate the present, to go for it, to do the thing, to pay the upgrade, so that we can both enjoy now and also have experiential memories that future you can look back on with satisfaction and contentment and happiness and whatnot, the issue arises when we always do the upgrade, and then also the issue arises when we never do it, and so to some extent, this is all idiosyncratic, but it’s kind of finding what’s the right back and forth between present and future self, so that both can be satisfied almost to sort of expand the pie for ourselves across time.

Brett McKay: Well, Hal this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, thanks Brett. It’s been so great to talk to you, they can go to how, I’ve got everything there. And the book, Your Future Self, how to make tomorrow better today, it’s available everywhere you can buy books.

Brett McKay: Fantastic well Hal Hershfield, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Hal Hershfield: Awesome, thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Hal Hershfield, he’s the author of the book Your Future Self, it’s available on and book stores everywhere, you can find more information about his work at his website,, also check at our show notes at self where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of The AoM podcast, make sure to check out our website at, where you find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of, and if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review at Apple podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already. Thank you, please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it, as always, thank you for the continued support until next time it’s Brett McKay, listen to AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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