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The elegant secret to self-discipline

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Despite my lofty ethical and financial aspirations, I developed a tragic ice cream habit during the summer. There are all kinds of long- and short-term problems with this: it’s bad for my health, morally dubious to say the least, and totally anti-frugal — a big no-no for my new career as a tightfisted writer.

My justification was always pretty lame. I would explain to myself that I’m about to stop doing this, therefore it doesn’t matter if I do it right now. The Devil on my shoulder would only have to say, “But it’s just for now. Enjoy!” and I would already be on an unstoppable march to Safeway.

If I had given the angel on the other shoulder a chance to rebut, she would have explained the foolish tradeoff I was making. I gain twenty minutes or so of low-brow pleasure. All the benefit of this choice is gone after that. I lose, in a more lasting way, some of my money, my dignity, my sense of self-control, and my health.

Only a fool would choose the first option, but when faced with certain frozen desserts, or other present-moment incentives I often become a fool, and maybe you do too. The hallmark of the fool is that he borrows fleeting pleasures, at interest, from himself.

Self-discipline is time travel

I have a beautiful banana sitting beside my laptop right now. No black spots, no green tinge. It’s truly the perfect banana and I know it will fulfill my expectations when I do eat it.

It’s sitting about six inches from the edge of my desk and a foot from the front. I could move it to the other side of the desk, to the back of the desk or the front, and it would be the same promising banana. I could also move it in a third dimension by putting it on top of my bookcase, or move it across all three dimensions by walking it back to the fruit bowl at the center of my dining room table, and nothing of value will be lost.

I really want to eat this banana, and that desire distracts me from realizing that I could move my banana in a fourth dimension, by eating it in an hour, or four hours, and it would still provide pretty much the same levels of pleasure and dietary potassium. I forget that if I eat it now, Future David will have no banana to eat at all. So I am rewarding Right Now David at the expense of Future David.

Depending on the circumstances, Future David might even benefit more from that banana than Right Now David would. If it wasn’t quite ripe right now, there would be more enjoyment to be gained from it tomorrow.

Still, Right Now David has a considerable preference for himself, and in fact he is already eating the banana. As I mature, I notice Right Now David getting better at sharing with his Future-based colleague, and I hope one day he is able to treat all other Davids as he treats himself. 

A Right Now banana and a Near-future banana will usually have about the same value, so it’s not exactly a pivotal life decision. However, there are some circumstances in which I serve Right Now David in a way that’s small and fleeting, that simultaneously denies Future David something much more significant. Once upon a time, I would occasionally spend more than my paycheck in a given pay period, garnishing poor Future David’s wages for the next period, when obviously even a full paycheck didn’t always feel like enough.

Other times, Right Now David would be drunk and would decide that he would have a few more unmemorable drinks, which added very little to his pleasure level, yet invariably sentenced Tomorrow David to severe physical suffering. At around age 30, Future David caught on to this injustice and would tap Right Now David on the shoulder when he was about to do something mean like that. Progress.

I still quite often sell out Future David though, leaving him with less so that Right Now David can indulge some Right-Now urge. The reality, I am somehow still gradually learning, is that Future David will actually be Right Now David at some real point in time, and not in an abstract way. At any given present moment, whether I realize it or not, I am the Future David that Past Davids have sold out in all sorts of ways. Right Now David would have a lot more money, as one example, if Past Davids had not indulged their momentary desires for ice cream and booze — or to dredge up some really old baggage — for candy, basketball cards and Super Nintendo Games.

Right Now David would be smart to understand how Past Davids have sold him out (and, less often, helped him) as he contemplates what to do with his day, for many Future Davids live at the mercy of Right Now David’s wisdom and discipline, or his shortage thereof. Future David is praying that Right Now David realizes that his future self is just as much a human being with needs and desires as his current self. If he can’t treat other people quite as highly as he treats himself, at least he can treat himself as highly as he treats himself, even if it’s the self he will be later.

That’s the elegant secret to discipline: valuing your future self as highly as you value your current self, at least long enough to get your Right Now Self to do the right thing. That moment of choice is where the ants go one way and grasshoppers the other.

I’m reminded of the now well-known Marshmallow Experiment, conducted at Stanford in the late 1960s. Researchers sat young children in front of a marshmallow on a plate, told them if they wait fifteen minutes before eating the marshmallow they would get a second one, and then left them alone.

A third of the kids waited the full fifteen minutes — an eon to a five-year-old — and earned their second marshmallow. The experiment has been reproduced many times since and the footage is hilarious. When scientists followed up fifteen years later, the kids who waited for the second marshmallow had all become doctors and presidents, or were at least on their way.

There is often much more at stake than bananas and marshmallows. This year I made a living experiment out of seeing whether I wouldn’t be just as happy living on half of what I lived on last year. It turns out that This Year David has had a consistently higher quality of life than the comparatively foolish Last Year David, and as a direct result, Right Now David is currently writing at his sunny home office desk on a weekday morning in his pyjamas instead of being told what to do by The Man.

Like any other insight, it’s one thing to nod your head while you think about it and something else to turn it into a real advantage in your life. There are two tricks that I can see to doing it in real-time:

1) Recognize that right now already is the future. You are currently experiencing the future of all your Past Selves. Their choices have come to fruition. If you would like better fruits, make your Right Now Self into someone who, as a habit, rolls out the red carpet for Future Self. Imagine if someone had already done that for you. Highly disciplined people are always experiencing advantages inherited from their wise and caring Past Selves.

2) Recognize the moments when you’re about to sell out your Future Self. These moments often happen when you are in retail establishments. They often involve televisions or other gratifying electronic devices, including the snooze button of your alarm clock. They also frequently involve high-fructose corn syrup and disposable packaging.

Future Self is totally, absolutely You as much as you’re You right now. It will be living real moments with real advantages and disadvantages, determined mostly by Right Now Self’s behavior.

In its confounding ignorance, Right Now Self often blames Past Self for having squandered its opportunities and resources, while simultaneously failing to fulfill its responsibilities to helpless Future Self. When will it see that it already is Future Self?

Later, I suppose.


PHOTO BY Andrés Nieto Porras

Vilx- October 21, 2013 at 2:16 am

Nice article, but I still have one question. :)

You nicely described one end of the stick – getting all the gratification now, instead of postponing it and getting it later (possibly, at a larger amount).

But the stick also has another end – postponing all gratification and never getting any. It’s the case where you put off the banana until tomorrow and again until tomorrow, until it spoils and you have to throw it out. It’s the case where you amass as much money as you can by never spending more than you absolutely must, and then die a millionaire, never having tasted the fruits of your labor.

Obviously, neither end of the stick is where you want to be (as usually). The best life lies somewhere in the middle, and it tends to shift forth and back every now and then.

So, what could be a good criteria when to actually DO indulge in some gratification? When DO you eat the banana, or spend some of that money that you’ve saved?

It’s nice to have a rule that lets us avoid one end of the stick. “Don’t do X, if by postponing it you can get more pleasure later.” Or more precisely – “Do X, even if it is unpleasant, if so you can get more pleasure later.” That’s a good rule.

But one also needs a rule for the other end of the stick. “Do X, even if otherwise you could get more pleasure later, if [???]”. What’s in the [???]?

(As a side note: obviously, if doing a pleasurable X now doesn’t prevent more pleasure later, then there’s no reason to skip X. There’s no trade-off, therefore this doesn’t even lie on our stick)

Miss Growing Green October 21, 2013 at 10:32 am

Good points. I have a grandfather and (had) a grandmother that definitely fell towards the side of “delay gratification forever and never indulge”, in an extreme way. They grew up during The Depression and though they are multi-millionaires, they skimped in every possible way- even in providing fresh, healthy food for themselves. Extremes of any kind are usually a bad thing, but for the typical American, I don’t think there are too many that risk falling to the side my grandparents did.
And for those that do lean towards the side of eternal delayed gratification (myself included), I find that they actually gain MORE enjoyment out of delaying the gratification than they would if they indulged. For example, both myself and my husband don’t eat animal products, but sometimes we buy this fancy dairy-free shredded cheese when it’s on sale. Even at the on-sale price, the price-per-ounce is still pretty high, and I actually get more enjoyment out of NOT putting it on my food than I do if I actually eat it. It sounds kind of twisted, but when I do eat it, I have thoughts of “ugh, this is sooo expensive”, when I don’t I think “yay, this chili is good even without thousand-dollar-cheese!”. As long as we don’t take those thoughts to extremes they can work in our favor… or at least in favor of our future selves.

David Cain October 21, 2013 at 12:04 pm

So, what could be a good criteria when to actually DO indulge in some gratification? When DO you eat the banana, or spend some of that money that you’ve saved?

Well, use your head. What I’m saying here is not “Delay gratification as much as possible,” it’s “Realize that later is just another right now.” The whole point is to think about when it makes the most sense to do things, without disproportionately burdening Later Self, like most people do. If you have the “opposite” problem, the solution is still the same.

marcela April 18, 2014 at 11:03 pm

I’m sure you would find most empowering for your theory the current research of Dan Ariely, if you don’t happen to be familiar with him yet.

Danny February 5, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Like you, I think it’s a great article, but you bring up a good point to ponder as well. My uncle recently passed away a millionaire. Worked his ass off his whole life. Always planned to go back to visit Europe (he was in the U.S. army in the 1950’s and traveled much of it then), but he never did get around to it. After he retired he just kept working. His brother and two sisters split up his estate (as he never married). I tend to believe my uncle “did it wrong”.

Jon October 21, 2013 at 2:17 am

I dig it.

Indulgence and procrastination are healthy in moderation. It’s up to each individual to set their standards of discipline at any given point. Sometimes your future self benefits from debauchery, especially if it involve new experiences.

Caroline Vidican October 21, 2013 at 3:35 am

So thought provoking, something we vaguely think about each day of our lives, but seldom put into such coherent words. Especially where health benefits are concerned, I must put a note from Future Self on my fridge.

Ragnar October 21, 2013 at 3:40 am

Hahaha, “Selling out your future self.” I like that. I frequently realize that I am currently selling out my future self, and it results in feeling bad which results in more selling out… although these last few months I have really started to tackle the issue, it is a work in progress and I am currently relapsing really hard.

I have managed to lay off the TV and exchanged it with more intellectually giving material.. like philosophical debates and speeches and stuff. Although I’m not sure I would call it productive, it makes me feel like I’m doing future me a tiny favor.. as compared to the endless TV watching of course.

Maia October 21, 2013 at 3:56 am

This is good advice. But I have the same question as Vilx. There is a balance obviously. If we deprive ourselves of everything all the time, then there is not fun in life. True, most of the time our problems are indulging in too much excess – buying, eating, drinking, procrastination as opposed to being too self-disciplined. I sometimes find though that when I want to save money, I turn into this scrooge like person, and feel guilty about taking the bus instead of cycling. I don’t like this feeling it makes me feel restricted. There has to be a balance. Although saying that my future self is always happy when it sees the extra money that the past self had left in the bank account :-)

David Cain October 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm

See Cathy’s response below. She put it very well.

Barb October 21, 2013 at 5:10 am

I love this way of thinking about current choices. I plan to experiment this week and consider how choices I make can potentially affect my future self. It was interesting to consider though how little awareness my past self had when I made what turned out to be terrific choices for my current self. Things like a career path, doing volunteer work that led me to meet my husband, etc. The outcome of choices such as whether or not to eat healthy food, exercise, skip a medication have a much more predictable outcome. The harder challenge is to predict what more ambiguous choices will have on the future. David may (hopefully not) look back at the decision to leave his job and be regretful. I know that I have made choices that my future self deeply regretted and not for a lack of considering my options. Still, this sounds like a very useful way to think about the many choices we make day in and day out. :)

Glynis Jolly October 21, 2013 at 5:11 am

I’ve become quite disciplined as I’ve gotten older. As silly as your examples are, often they are the very things I’m most disciplined about. Yet, as the years pass, I find myself also wondering why I rely so heavily on this control over my desires, needs and actions. Although taking the time to make decisions is still something I recommend, would we be better off relying more on our gut feelings?

David Cain October 21, 2013 at 12:13 pm

In my experience, people will call any sort of feeling a “gut feeling,” and they don’t always lead to smart actions.

I think we can’t really avoid the struggle between our impulses and our best interests, it’s intrinsic to humans. So much of the progress I’ve made has been moving from being driven by impulse to watching my impulses and making conscious decisions over whether to follow them. I think that’s what wisdom is. There may be people with highly developed intuitions who can avoid the step of thinking rationally about the validity their impulses but I am not one of them.

Joe October 21, 2013 at 5:35 am

I do really think that the more you forego now to enjoy more later, you actually find you don’t need all that much to be happy in the now. The more I scrape away from my mental “overhead”, the more peace I tend to find.

David Cain October 21, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Yes, absolutely. The act of consciously refraining or forgoing creates a very powerful feeling in the present moment. It’s like calling the impulsive mind’s bluff, and finding that it was just a passing want and not a need, and that all your actual needs are met.

Aditya Thakur October 21, 2013 at 5:45 am

Very easy to understand explanation of self discipline. When we are kids we have no self discipline. We want what we want and we want it now. Even if it means throwing a tantrum in the middle of the shopping mall and embarrassing our parents. But as we grow up we start learning a little bit of self discipline. But it’s not always based on an understanding of the rewards of self discipline. Like most children do their homework because they don’t want to be embarrassed by the teacher in class or maybe they don’t want their parents to get angry. Very few do it because they understand that it will lead to a better future.
Growing up can be distilled down to just this one skill of self discipline. Mature adults are those who are self disciplined. Rest are all little kids in big bodies.

chris walter October 21, 2013 at 6:49 am

Beautifully written :) witty, fun and convincing. Probably the most fun article I’ve read about how silly it is to steal from our future selves. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your new venture!!

PianoManGidley October 21, 2013 at 7:59 am

Excellent article, as always, David. I would suggest one further step to helping build self-discipline:

Make a plan for times of weakness. Brainstorm scenarios where your willpower will be weaker than normal, where you will be more willing to cast aside the decisions you know to be wiser for the sake of immediate, baser, hedonistic pleasures or when you will be more prone to succumb to self-defeating attitudes. Then write down immediately actionable steps you can take to keep yourself on track and subvert the weaker You that wants to sell out a stronger Future You. Keep this list handy and practice them as much as possible, refining these “saving” actions as needed.

Danny October 21, 2013 at 8:02 am

The ultimate beauty of this article is the internal debate that it initiates,for some of us, anew. We argue within ourselves whether our right-now indulgences can be justified or the sign of a weak, undisciplined life possibly started in the cradle following us to our grave. What I see as valuable in David’s article is a quiet call to, really, live as conscious as possible which will lead to character. With character those indulgences, when they do occur, can be come true pleasures. Enjoy.

John October 21, 2013 at 8:24 am

Very thought provoking, as usual. I can relate to this on my recent decision for the past two weeks to forgo my workout routine. The present me says, “Of course you don’t need to do the workout, your tired, don’t feel like it, etc.” But the future me is ALWAYS more pleased with myself every time I muster up the strength to get my ass up and exercise. It’s also interesting to note that as a blogger, I never tend to write about these things that are a struggle. Nice job on speaking up and discussing what is challenging you, I need to do more of the same.

Robb October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

What a great perspective! I love the simplicity of this technique, because it is so darn effective. I was literally just considering a donut that I know is downstairs, but I also know that Future Robb will not be as pleased about that choice as Present Robb would be.

I also agree with Vilx-, that there is a balance there to find. But even as a kid I’d eat all my yellow and green skittles first because they were the worst, saving the blue and finally the red for Future Robb. (That Now-Past Robb would have gotten no pleasure in avoiding the candy altogether, like my current Future Robb’s do.)

Trixie October 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

I love this column. I can self-discipline in some areas, while in other areas I’m at a total loss.

I need a version of this writing aimed at a 12-year-old boy. My son is quite impulsive and always has been. Despite our attempting to show him the end result of making one decision over another, the immediate gratification always wins out.

However his 8-year-old sister shows more restraint than I ever did at her age (and probably more than I show now). For example, her Halloween candy, Valentine’s candy from school, etc., usually gets tossed out a few months later because she doesn’t sit down and eat it. For homework, she’ll often do the hard parts first. She seems to know how to make good choices for her future self. I hope she never loses that ability.

Tomek October 21, 2013 at 10:31 am

All that work not eating the banana, and you end up turning it into a civil engineer? oi!

Cathy October 21, 2013 at 10:34 am

Great article. I’d like to point out that moving the banana doesn’t deprive you of the banana. Some people seem concerned that denying present pleasure means denying it altogether. But it’s not about austerity! It’s about conscious choices, taking that moment to think about what you’re “buying” with your time and money. At some point, it is entirely appropriate to eat that banana.
Just so with spending choices or exercise choices…it’s about the thoughtful process of WHAT you’re “buying” with your time or money, and the benefit of it at that point in time. To everything there is a time and season, right? I love cultivating the delayed gratification/self discipline. Maybe someday I’ll be a grown up!
Thanks for the great post.

David Cain October 21, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Yes, exactly. Well put Cathy. I’m surprised how many people worry about over-favoring future self… I guess I’ve never had that problem. The point is to respect yourself across the entire dimension of time.

Vilx- October 23, 2013 at 2:18 am

Moving the banana doesn’t deprive me of it. Moving it infinitely does. The question is – how to determine *when* to say “OK, I’ve moved this banana enough. It’s time to eat it.”

Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s not. The problem is, I cannot even define a good “rule of thumb”.

Like with the banana (suppose it’s a superbanana that doesn’t spoil). I can postpone eating it until tomorrow. Fine. But when tomorrow arrives, it becomes today, and I’m back at square one. I can postpone it again, or I can eat it now.

Any decision that “I’m going to eat it now” will have to be made by the Present Me. It won’t be made by my Past Me, and it certainly won’t be made by my Future Me. At some point, the Present Me will have to decide – “OK, that’s enough. I indulge myself NOW.”

This isn’t about worrying about over-favoring my Future Me. This is about figuring out whether or not THIS is the right time to indulge myself NOW in the thing that my Past Me has been postponing so long.

OK, in the case of The Banana (a real banana this time, not superbanana) I suppose the “right time” would be when it’s perfectly ripe. That’s the time when I’m going to get most enjoyment out of it. Assuming, of course, that I have the time to actually sit down and mindfully enjoy it. Eating the banana absentmindedly will provide very little enjoyment.

OK, I suppose I’ve already answered my own question – I should postpone X if I expect that there will be more enjoymenet of it later; and I should NOT postpone X, if I expect that later won’t bring more enjoyment than right now.

I just wish I could estimate both current and future “enjoyment” with more accuracy. :P

Darky October 23, 2013 at 6:36 am

I think about the perfect timing and perfect balance a lot.
There are two things I have learned:

1. You will rarely get it perfectly right.
2. The only Chance to come close is to try and try a lot.

To stretch the Banana Example: How do you know it is good? You look at the Banana, memories its appearance and eat it. After you have tried a few times you will find the point you like it best.
Same with everything else for that matter, for delaying: try now, tomorrow, next week, next Month.
After that you have a pretty good measure.

Mary Jo October 21, 2013 at 10:43 am

I’m going to mull over this one today and watch myself. It didn’t land for me as a “one end of the stick” and not the other (as hoarding money that never gets spent.) It landed for me as viewpoint that would make my FutureSelf wildly happy. Ex: If I get myself to the studio and make art instead of dinging around, Tomorrow’s Self would feel exceedingly accomplished.
I also know that occasional splurges make my FutureSelf very happy with the memories (the walk on the beach instead of the time in the studio makes me more creative than ever; the super decadent dessert that does nothing to weight gain because its only once this week.)
The balance thing.

Duff October 21, 2013 at 11:49 am

I grew up feeling like I didn’t deserve anything and have struggled my whole life trying to balance things. Sometimes I cut the banana in half, and I try not to eat that half gallon of ice cream in one or two sittings! And…I try to make them rewards commensurate with an achievement.

Steph in Berkeley October 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm

good stuff man…Good. for. thought.

Nancy October 21, 2013 at 1:03 pm

Thanks for a great post David. For me health is the biggest concern for my future Nancy and present Nancy knows very well that eating fatty foods could cause heart problems so I am going to be more mindful of my future self when that next ice cream urge hits me too. Thanks for putting it so eloquently.

MBZ October 21, 2013 at 2:15 pm

I think the struggle between Now Self and Future Self is also the result of an ingrained theme in our culture of lack of time and lack of freedom. My Now Self is overwhelmed so I want some small escape, so I eat the ice cream. 20 minutes of indulgence that *feels* free but that is actually stealing from Future Self. When we have more control over our time and more freedom to contemplate, we get out of dualistic thinking (Now or Future) and can reflect on *why* we want to behave in a way that is detrimental to our Future Self — which is, really, our Now Self. It’s all Self. I’ve found I have more “self-discipline” (which, for me, is actually just freedom) when I don’t view life as a zero-sum game or with a deprivation mentality, but I DO view life through those negative lens when I’m beholden to institutions that dictate how I spend my time and tell me what to think/how to behave.

Aubrey October 21, 2013 at 2:16 pm

This is a major paradigm shift for me which I need this day, this minute. Past and present self agree, and I know when I talk to future self they will agree too on what you write about here.
My friend and I have used your articles as discussion points in our goal of self actualization. It occurred to me that I never really trusted future self to be a real idea. As a therapist, I help people to trust change is available and authenticity is possible but this is golden!

P.s.You seem to have a deeper understanding of humanity or intellectual musings that I LOVE in your writing and clutch onto myself. What a ride, eh, this life business?

Alice October 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm

I kept thinking that perfect banana needed to be on the top of a bowl of ice cream…. and not in your future either because bananas just don’t last that long:-)

Hamlet October 21, 2013 at 4:19 pm

Thanks for another wonderfully, freshingly written blogpost. Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate (or shameless J. Krishnamurti clone, to be more exact). Why hold up self-discipline as an ideal? Self-discipline (like non-violence, which was the specific topic of the JK essay I was reading last night) is just a word, a concept, a theory, and not a fact. The actual fact is that one’s self is an insatiable glutton. It’s another example of the timebound conflict between WHAT IS and WHAT SHOULD BE. Whenever there is a conflict between What Is and What Should Be, there is a tremendous amount of energy wastage. When there is conflict, you don’t have enough energy to change. Thus, while pursuing self-discipline, you are actually sowing the seeds of insatiable gluttony. If you can discard PastDavid and FutureDavid, if you can remain in the NOW with PresentDavid and truly experience (and not merely know intellectually) that What Is is that you are an insatiable glutton (as we all are), and to experience this What Is without any judgmental thoughts, you can miraculously and paradoxically change into the self-disciplined. It’s a tricky and subtle intelligence, just like seeing oneself as violent is one able to be non-violent.

Have you found such a non-timebound approach helpful to you personally?

Alex October 21, 2013 at 4:30 pm

David, it would be nice to see you open up your own Youtube channel. Ever though about it?

Patricia October 21, 2013 at 7:13 pm

David, I love this! I’m going to try to use your references a “Right Now Pat and Future Pat”, and see if it helps me make better choices. Sounds like fun.

JB October 21, 2013 at 8:35 pm

This is a great post, David. I was reading it yesterday at work procrastinating AND eating a chocolate bar. I did finish the chocolate bar and the rest of the posts in my feed but I’ve been asking myself with every decision since – what is this doing to my future self. Its been a productive morning, let me tell you.

JB October 21, 2013 at 8:36 pm

This is a great post, David. I was reading it yesterday at work procrastinating AND eating a chocolate bar. I did finish the chocolate bar and the rest of the posts in my feed but I’ve been asking myself with every decision since – what is this doing to my future self. Its been a productive morning, let me tell you.

Jim Magary October 21, 2013 at 9:42 pm

This reminds me of a Seinfeld bit where he talks about Morning Guy vs Night Guy.

Jerry Simpson October 21, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Good article – thanks. Someone once told me to “Don’t buy things – buy experiences.” This has helped in many ways, from the kind of car to the type of vacation, the kind of book to the type of shoes I buy. Gratification is achieved, but usually greater after a bit of deliberation. An adjunct to this is the idea of the seventh-generation decision process; the idea of considering the distant future consequences of a decision made now. Again, this can be applied to retail purchases and cultural experiences, whether taking a vacation or hearing a symphony. Keeping these in mind has tempered many Now-Self decisions and, over time, sharpened my ability to make more, if you will, prescient decisions. As you write “Recognize that right now already is the future”. Einstein said there really is no time and that our construct of past, present and future are just that – constructs. All of this plays out in our Past Self, Now Self, and Future Self. What you suggest in a sort of subtext, is the evolution toward the bigger vision, the bigger paradigm, bigger self. And that evolution is forever ongoing. Nicely done.

Susan October 22, 2013 at 7:39 am

Well said, David. This is a simple but very effective way to look at the need to pause for a moment and consider the ramifications of our actions. It’s something we know we should do, but it’s so hard! I’m going to test this technique. I’ve written a short letter from Future Susan to Right Now Susan, reminding her of some of the things Past Susan has done that make her life more difficult and less pleasurable, and asking her to give Future Susan a thought before she spends that money or eats that cookie. I’ve made it my screen saver so I’ll see it many times during the day. We’ll see how it goes! Thanks so much for your insightful posts.

Edward October 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Well put! But, as the marshmallow study points out, the majority of people cannot properly imagine their future selves. …At all, apparently. They see the future self as a totally different person and can adopt a “Why should I help that guy?,” attitude.

As per Gail Vaz-Oxlade’s article on the subject: “…people who see their current self and future self as more alike have more money stashed away, even accounting for things like education and age. ”

Nick Hilden October 24, 2013 at 9:52 am

This is a great post. Coincidentally I used a similar now-self vs future-self in a recent post I wrote on health. Feel free to check it out! http://lifedonewrite.com/2013/10/24/the-importance-of-reigning-in-control-over-your-body-through-diet-and-exercise/

Anya October 25, 2013 at 8:17 am

An excellent post indeed. Especially with the artsy banana. Thanks always, David!

Sebastian October 25, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Exactly. The way I see it like this: everything I do today, the habits I build, both good and bad, will impact what I become in the future.

I can’t afford to be lazy today. Or to be scared of life. I need to give it my all today or I’ll be a loser in the future.

Zac October 28, 2013 at 9:33 am

Seinfeld, similar theory shorter timelines:

Trenholm M October 29, 2013 at 6:28 pm

The picture you posted with this made me read this article. Great info; thanks for sharing! :)

Susan October 31, 2013 at 7:59 am

Ah, so appropriate for today. It is pouring rain here in Baytown, TX, which means that about one third of my students will hit their snooze buttons and happily fall back asleep. Their “Right Now Student” will be pleased to stay in bed on a nasty morning, but their “Tuesday Morning Student” who faces the college algebra exam will not be at all happy with their choice.

Kawthar November 10, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Thank you for the great article :-)

Chrissy Tan November 26, 2013 at 7:45 am

When I was young I didn’t care about eating discipline. I would simply finish half of the 2 litre tub of icecream- the neapolitan. I wasn’t satisfied with few scopes of 2 flavours. In my head since there were 3 flavours available I must have all 3. Icecream is an expensive indulgence at Swenson. I rather have it at home in a bigger cocktail glass. Hehe

BigDave December 3, 2013 at 11:28 am

Great article. You reminded me of a good book on this topic: The Principle of the Path: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
by Andy Stanley Link: http://amzn.com/0849920604. Andy’s key phrase is “happy now or happy later.” My wife use this all the time when we’re facing an “opportunity” to indulge. Sometimes we want to be happy now, but at least we’ve thought about it!

Kori December 10, 2013 at 9:25 am

Hit it right on the head :)
Lately I’ve been like holy shit I’m miserable (like the past 3 years)
Maybe it is because my house is generally a mess, I spend a lot of time hungover and am not in the habit of screening any decision by my future self lol.
Thank you for describing it this way, you are actually amazing

Teddy January 27, 2014 at 12:04 pm

Nicely stated. It reminded me of a quote I saw on Goodreads:

“Seek freedom and become captive of your desires. Seek discipline and find your liberty.”
– Frank Herbert, “Chapterhouse: Dune”

Thanks for the perspective.

George February 7, 2014 at 9:56 am

Doing a spot of reading on consciousness and then like, Susan Blackmore has an article which touches on this: The “me today” will not survive until tomorrow; do I care enough about the “me tomorrow” to ensure my actions now make that future, other self’s experience better?


Mrs. Money Mustache February 24, 2014 at 5:27 pm

Excellent. I often go around congratulating my past self. Despite this, I rarely think about my future self (although I suppose my past self was thinking about her… hmmmm…).

David Cain February 25, 2014 at 8:28 am

It sounds silly but I sometimes close my eyes and imagine I’m having coffee with my future self. My 2019 self. He is way cooler than me. Both of us hope my past self doesn’t show up at all. He can be obnoxious.

Mark Kandborg February 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm

I think a lot of the comments questioning the efficacy of this way of filtering choices of action belie an assumption that we’re not wrestling with any particularly nasty demons. Like ice cream addiction. The desk banana is a brilliant but dangerous example, because it sets up the idea that your goal is to never eat a banana again. But what if your goal is to never pick up a syringe filled with heroin again? Or to put off meeting with your buddies until your business proposal is ready to go? This, I believe, is what Davis talking about and this is where the real power of his concept can be harnessed. Go ahead and spend a nice chunk of change from the screenplay that you your future self will sell. But don’t spend it first. And don’t take a break before you’ve got anything. Brilliant piece of writing. Now go eat that ban… Oh. Right. You already did.

Ashish April 21, 2014 at 8:19 am

I was looking for the right mindset in order to quit smoking and i tumbled across this blog piece and it resonates with perfect frequency on so many levels.

Wan April 26, 2014 at 12:54 pm

“Recognize that right now already is the future.”

That’s my greatest takeaway from this post. I’ve never thought of my present that way.

Ellen May 11, 2014 at 6:16 am

Brilliant! You have a way of expressing yourself that makes things ‘click’ for me. Thanks for the very helpful insights. :)

Free To Pursue June 12, 2014 at 10:17 am

I came back to reread this post after reading a newly posted piece titled “Alternative Histories” over at Early Retirement Extreme.

I like both takes on the notion of past, present and future selves and the theme of delayed gratification for a better life over the long term.

Thank you for the food for thought and for reinforcing how self-discipline enhances happiness and quality of life in general.

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