Try this thought experiment. Picture yourself in 5 years. Imagine your life and this older version of you. Is future you a healthier person, roughly the same, or has their health declined based on your current lifestyle habits? If the answer is decline, how does this make you feel?
Picture Yourself In 5 Years, Has Your Health Improved Or Declined?
Humans are horrid at making decisions to delay gratification for a better future. We are wired to live in the now. We’re motivated to avoid immediate pain but not as adept at prioritizing distant future needs, or the choices geared toward those needs. We smoke, drink, eat the extra helping and the cake, and spend beyond our means. Logic would expect us to make wise decisions, shaping our best long term outcomes. Logics suggests we would save more of our pay checks, exercise, and eat in moderation. Logic suggests we would avoid drugs, heavy drinking, smoking, and gambling. Humans aren’t always logical creatures.
Read Daniel Kahneman’s classic, Thinking Fast and Slow and explore our 2 basic systems of thinking. Explore our slow but logical higher order decision making system and our fast, automatic pleasure and survival driven system. Chip and Dan Heath describe ‘the elephant’ and ‘the rider’ in their behaviour change classic, Switch. The automatic instinctive limbic system, the elephant, is also called our lizard brain. This ancestral system craves immediate reward. It wants the sugar rush from chocolate, the buzz from alcohol, the high from drugs, and the excitement from random gambling outcomes. This system lives for today without much regard for the long term consequences of our actions.
We are wired to prioritize the now. Our ancestors didn’t always know where the next meal was coming from so they gorged themselves on today’s food. They were unconcerned with pension plans or traveling after retirement. They had shorter life expectancy and survival was an ever present concern. You made sure you and your family were fed. You shared with your immediate community so in times of need they would help feed, protect, and care for you and your young. People rarely lived long enough to worry about heart disease or diabetes, and didn’t have the abundance of high calorie food to become obese at modern rates. The modern abundance of hyper palatable(super tasty) food paired with convenience of lifestyle has existed for less than 100 years, a tiny fraction of the time humans have walked the earth. Even pictures as recent as the 1970’s highlight the scarcity of obesity among crowds of people.
How do we change our decision making, delay gratification, and care for our future selves? We can start by seeing this future self as a real person with needs, fears, and insecurities, instead of a distant abstract concept. We are far more likely to care for and act to help a person in our immediate view. Consider Joseph Stalin’s famous quote “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”. Set aside the horrifying implications of this message and Stalin’s own monstrous legacy and see underlying truth. Why do organizations like World Vision show you images of starving children in their commercials rather than focusing on the statistics of starving children in the world? Because those images are far more likely to conjure the horrors of this problem and stir strong emotions. We see a child in need and are more likely to act, more likely to donate. The same applies when we humanize a future self. We’re far more likely to change behaviour to be kind to this real person in our view.
We are psychologically wired to tune out the vast horrors of the world. We couldn’t live or cope with being immersed in the vast number of people who experience suffering and hardship across the world. Our psyche is shielded from the onslaught of just how much bad exists in the world. We are immune to numbers and statistics, but empathetic to a crying child or a person we know suffering. Even these emotional reactions can be fleeting. Seeing one commercial isn’t enough. We need to not only take immediate action, but we need to put into place structures to sustain our behaviour. Easier said than done but we have a few important things to consider going forward.
1) Practice Your Habits
With entire books written about habits, one paragraph fails to dent the topic. Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg are just two of many great resources to learn better habits. An important part of establishing any habit is focusing on the craving of a positive feeling associated with the habit you want to form. Think about a smoker’s craving for cigarettes. We know the dangers of smoking but we understand the immense power of this craving. Have you ever noticed how we crave tingling sensation of clean teeth after brushing? Recall the positive feeling during or after completing a workout. Fixate on this feeling. Remember it. Learn to crave it.
Despite all the available literature, we aren’t proficient at starting new positive habits. This gives us a starting point and further resources to build upon.
2) Develop Your Identity
People often find their effort to eat better and exercise consistently is derailed by lack of willpower. What if I told you, you could bypass willpower? Have you ever noticed it isn’t difficult to do tasks and engage in behaviours you see as core parts of your identity? For those reading who have a firmly entrenched fitness habit, have you ever noticed you automatically drive to the gym? Notice how it doesn’t take much thought or emotional effort to workout most days? You usually look forward to it. When we get to this point we don’t so much rely on willpower. We more easily and readily do things we see as inseparable from our core identity.
What if you don’t have a strong current identity as a fit active person? Have you been active in the past? Maybe you were an athlete or had a consistent fitness routine that slipped away as life interfered. If so, get in touch with this past identity. If you don’t have something from your past to tap into, focus on an aspirational identity. Begin with an image of a stronger, fitter(however you imagine and define fit) version of your current self. Forge this image into something you can align your behaviour with. Discard the limitations you’ve lived within and aspire to more.
Seeing active lifestyle behaviours as a core part of the person you aspire to become can help you make these efforts easier as you’re establishing critical habits. In time your identity will shift. Being active will ever more become an inseparable part of who you are. In a way it’s “fake it until you make it”.
3) Find A Purpose Greater Than Yourself
In Viktor E. Frankel’s classic masterpiece, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankel explores how people can endure unimaginable hardship if they have a purpose greater than themselves. Craft a strong image of your future self, see this person as a distinct person you care about, and you may foster stronger motives to make life changes to create a better outcome.
Your future self is entirely at your mercy. The decisions you make today shape your future self’s existence. If you choose to inject heroin, smoke 2 packs a day, or eat everything in the baked goods aisle, your future self will suffer for your choices. Your future self will be unable to go back in time and undo the decisions or harm. Consider the choices you made 2, 5, or 10 years ago that forever set you on a path toward your current career, relationships, and health. Maybe it was a choice to start working out, maybe it was moving away, maybe changing careers. I’ll bet there’s at least one memorable choice that forever set you on a path to better. Perhaps some choices led to poor outcomes and you wish to do them over. Look at everyone in your world who’s struggled to make better lifestyle choices. They’re now walking the paths and dealing with the consequences of long ago decisions.
What would you choose for this vulnerable future you? Do you choose health and wellness, strength and stamina, energy and confidence? Or would you choose greater risk of health issues, weight gain, and decline of confidence and emotional well being? This is nowhere near as simple as a casual decision. This means relentless commitment to a new direction and the accumulation of the benefits of your lifestyle choices, benefits so gradual you may not feel or see them from one day to the next. But if you commit and stay the course your future self will be forever grateful for your resolve.
18 years ago I got serious about working out after a bad flu knocked my athletic 6’2 frame from 180 down to 170 pounds(I’ve walked around between 250 and 260 for the last few years for comparison). 14 years ago I moved across the country, my belongings contained in 2 suitcases, and completely started my life over. 10 years ago I began a new career, as a personal trainer. 4 year ago I left my long time commercial gym position to start my own business. 3 and a half years ago I started a podcast. 3 year ago I had a website built and began to write articles. I am forever grateful for my past self making these difficult decisions and taking big chances. I am forever grateful for my past self having the determination and faith to commit to these choices. With time my workouts and my career became so inseparable from who I am as a person that those workouts were automatic daily rituals. Along the way I returned to reading more. I read a lot growing up. I now crave books more than television and read voraciously. These plus writing are fundamental to my identity. They rarely require willpower to pursue, leaving these behaviours more automatic. My future self will be grateful.