Using sharp focus to picture your future

3 min read

Whether it’s your health, your finances or even your education, it can be hard to get on track and make plans for the better you of the future. 

But before you feel guilty about your lack of self-control, it may not be your fault, it might just be that visualising your future self is more difficult than we think.

Understanding the future

As much as we like to think of ourselves as imaginative and creative beings, the truth is, we’re probably not imaginative enough to really predict our future selves. Remember being a small child and thinking someone in their 20s was ancient? You may even laugh thinking about it but perhaps you haven’t changed as much as you think. It can be hard to picture yourself in 10 years, 20 years or even 50 years, which makes it harder for you to plan for the alien future being who will hold your name.

According to a number of studies, the less able you are at picturing and relating to your future self, the less likely you are to plan for it or even sacrifice your present needs and desires for it1. There is even a name for it, temporal discounting, which means if you think your motives and values are likely to be similar in the future to now, you are more likely to do something that will benefit you in the future.

Problems for future me

If it’s hard to connect yourself to the future, why would you save money? Or try to invest wisely? Studies in 2009 and 2012 even noted the better you can picture your future and feel connected to your future self, the better your capacity to save assets2.  That is, you care about your future self so you actively try to make life better for the future.

Whether you connect to the future or not isn’t a static thing though. Life circumstances can intervene and whether you feel like you have power or control will then impact on your view of the future. For example, one study found people who may have some degree of power or control at work tend to feel more connected to the future3. The study suggested that the ability to control even an aspect of your environment may make you feel like the future is more certain – and in turn, you feel more connected to the future.

Mind over matter

Even someone who feels really connected to their future self can make decisions that only benefit them in the here and now. In this situation, biology has a hand.

If your primal needs, like hunger, are managed, you are more likely to spread your focus beyond the present time4. This might explain those impulse purchases at the supermarket when your stomach is rumbling but you were trying to save money (or help your waistline with healthy buys).

Retraining your brain

Deep down, you probably know you should do something about the future. Maybe you want to sort out your superannuation. Or plan for a big overseas trip. So how do you force yourself to do it?

There are a few things you can use to ‘trick’ yourself into feeling more connected to your future.

1) Picture your future self
Whether you talk through with someone else what you could be doing and how you could be living, use an aging app like Aging Booth or write a letter to your future self, you can help connect yourself5.

2) Think similar not different
Instead of thinking differences between you today and you in the future, think of similarities and you’ll be more likely to be planning for it6.

3) Reframe time
If you describe the future in days rather than years, it makes it feel closer and helps you take action7. For example, say you are in your 40s. Does retirement feel closer when you say it is around 9,100 days away or 25 years away? It’s the old 99 cents v $1.00 trick.

4) Manage your body’s needs
Don’t go hungry to an important meeting about your finances. If you want to manage your health by going to the gym, go to bed earlier so you don’t feel too tired to go the next day.

While you’re trying to focus on your future, don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes it’s ok to be a bit more focused on the present. After all, life is a journey, not a destination so make sure you take time to enjoy it too.

1. Derek Parfit 1984; Hershfield, Cohen & Thompson 2012
2. Ersner-Hershfield, Garton, Ballard, Samanex-Larkin and Knutson 2009; Hershfield, Cohen and Thompson 2012.
3. Joshi and Fast 2013
4. Atance and Meltzoff 2005
5. D’Argembeau and Mathy 2013
6. Bartels and Urminsky 2011
7. Lewis and Oyserman 2015

- Atance, C and Meltzoff, A (2005) My future self: Young children’s ability to anticipate and explain future states, Cognitive Development 20 341-361.
- Bartels, D. M., & Urminsky, O. (2011). On intertemporal selfishness: How the perceived instability of identity underlies impatient consumption. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 182-198.
- D'Argembeau, A., & Mathy, A. (2013). Tracking the construction of episodic future thoughts. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140, 258-271. doi: 10.1037/a0022581.
- Ersner-Hershfield, H., Garton, M. T., Ballard, K., Samanez-Larkin, G. R., & Knutson, B. (2009). Don't stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving. Judgment and Decision Making, 4, 280-286. 
-Joshi, P. D., & Fast, N. J. (2013). Power and reduced temporal discounting. Psychological Science, 24, 432-438.
- Lewis, N. A., & Oyserman, D. (2015). When does the future begin? Time metrics matter, connecting present and future selves. Psychological Science. Moss, Simon (2012) Psychological connectedness to the future self, 2012, as sourced 11 April 2017 at:
- Streep, Peg (2014) Four reasons you can’t trust yourself, as sourced 11 April 2017 at:

This information is current as at 14/04/2017.

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