Overcoming Present Bias: Thinking About Tomorrow When Making Decisions Today

future self and decisions

Research suggests that many of us make up to 35,000 decisions each day or 2,000 decisions per hour if we account for sleeping.

We make small micro decisions about things like what to wear and what to eat; we make big decisions about launch dates and budgets and whether or not to accept that job offer. We make decisions that form (or break) habits, decisions that move us toward (or away from) our goals, decisions that build (or sometimes unintentionally harm) connections and relationships with others.

How can we make it easier to make the best decision, especially when there isn’t a clear “best” option? How can we make decisions in the present that move us toward our desired future? And how can we be more intentional about the small, sometimes unconscious, decisions that we make in the moments that have an impact on what will follow?

Research on present bias tells us that we give stronger weight to pay-offs that are closer to the current time. We tend to value immediate gratification over long-term gain.

In other words, we tend to value what our present self wants, over what might be in the best interest of our future self.

We hit snooze because our present self is tired, even though our future self will be stressed out and rushed. We have another glass of wine because our present self wants to, even though our future self will have trouble sleeping. We go to the networking event because our present self feels like we should, even though we know our future self will be looking at the clock, eager to leave.

#YOLO, right?

While #YOLO certainly has a place, the research suggests that if we only value the needs and desires of our present self, we won’t actually form the habits or meet the goals that our future self deeply desires.

One of the tools I use almost daily is a check-in with my future self. I’ve written before about checking in with our future self (5 years, 10 years, 20+ years out) for big decisions related to career or the path of our lives. We can use this tool for small, everyday decisions as well, by checking in with our future self an hour, a few hours, or a day from now.

Here are a few examples of how it’s been helpful for me.

When I was training for Ironman in 2016, I frequently dreaded my swimming workouts. Traipsing to the gym in the middle of the cold, dark, Wisconsin winter to jump into a freezing cold pool, to rinse off in an almost-as-cold shower at one particularly unfortunate local swimming destination, was basically the worst combination of events that I could dream up. Each day, if I had a swim workout on my schedule, I would tell myself, “I’ll do it tonight.” What I quickly learned, though, is that my future self - my evening self who had already showered and gotten ready for the day - never went swimming. My future evening self liked to be home on those cold winter evenings, and my future evening self hated swimming indoors even more than my morning self. If swimming was going to happen, it was going to happen early in the day. (Note: this could also describe why my present self has taken 8 year hiatuses between any triathlon-related activity; she knows how my future self feels about indoor lap swim in the dead of winter).

This week, I stayed up late two nights in a row, eating lingering dinners with girlfriends and talking about life. The second night even involved an impromptu 10:30 walk with the pup - a delightful turn of events for a Wednesday evening, but way past my usual bedtime! When it came time for my optional mastermind meet-up the next morning, I considered skipping it. My current self was tired. But I thought about my future self - and remembered how I felt last time I attended the mastermind. I remembered leaving the meeting, on a beautiful sunny morning, feeling inspired for the rest of the day. I knew that my future self would feel the same this time around - it was even another beautiful sunny morning - and I decided to go. I was so glad that I did.

I know that my future self is always happiest when I bike commute instead of drive, meaning that my present self needs to plan accordingly - both in wardrobe and timing. (Hilariously, this week, my present self totally neglected to check the weather before heading out via bike for a meeting, resulting in my future self stuck in a downpour at the exact time that the meeting ended. #oops. I never said that this framework is flawless!)

My future self is often cold at restaurants - which means that my present self always needs to pack a sweater, even if it’s 90 degrees.

My future self often spends too much money at Whole Foods when running across the street for a snack between client meetings, so my present self tries to keep granola bars stashed at the office.

The list goes on.

The basic idea is this: when making a decision in the present, fast forward to consider the needs, desires, and goals of your future self. This helps us to make better decisions in the present that we can look back on with contentment at the end of the day, the week, the month - and hopefully, at the end of our lives.

A few additional resources to support the cause: