It’s 20 years from now and Lauren still has that pile on her desk

Many new nutrition clients come in ready to make changes. In our initial meeting, I ask a series of questions in order to get a sense of their current habits. Then, I’ll devise an eating an exercise plan. With exercise, for example, if someone isn’t exercising I may suggest they find two 30-minute intervals to work out. Most clients balk at this allotment, I’ll hear comments such as “don’t I need to do more than that?” Or (you know I love a food expression) something to the effect of  “piece of cake” even though, prior to the meeting, there was zero exercise. My next step is to help clients schedule these new exercise sessions. If we’re meeting on a Monday, I’ll ask on which days the workouts will happen. Nobody says Tuesday, In fact Friday or Saturday would likely be the most common responses. We like to think we want to make changes but when pressed we’ll postpone or put the onus on ourselves later.
The New York Times reviewed a book entitled “The Willpower Instinct” explaining what’s at work in my example above.  Much of this comes down to something referred to as “our future self.” I know this sounds new-agey, stay with me. People differ in how connected they are to their future selves and this impacts decision-making. Less connection with this future self can manifest in less saving, flossing or eating well. With brain scans it’s shown that different parts of the brain are utilized when we think about ourselves than about others. For those disconnected from their future selves the brain activates as though it is thinking about another person. In my example, the client would expect someone else to be able to exercise more than 60 minutes a week.
The article explains ways our future self concept can be adjusted. Showing research subjects age-enhanced images of themselves changed responses to questions about spending and saving. Those who saw the older versions of themselves said they would allocate twice as much toward retirement. I think this is the same principle at work with diagnoses. When you receive a diagnosis, or even the threat of a diagnosis, it makes decisions feel more urgent and impactful. Before that, for some, health can be a vague, faraway concept.
So we can ignore our future self but we can also have unrealistic expectations. I can envision Lauren in the future with neat handwriting, no piles of papers and patience. This future Lauren will never be rushed because “next week things will calm down.” As the article said “I’ve been putting off eating better for some future time when somehow I’ll want to eat bulgur wheat rather than chocolate cake.” This is similar to the client who isn’t working out who wants to work out a ton “later in the week.” In one study, students were asked to donate time to a good cause. When they were told they had to do it in the current semester they signed up for 27 minutes. When they were given the option of next semester their volunteering increased to 85 min. Next semester they’ll be more altruistic, right.
So what to do? If you’re disconnected from your future self, there are times when you will feel yourself relegating things to the future.  Whether it’s “next week” or “when I have a new job” under the assumption things will be different. When you feel that pull, do something in the instant.
  • I’m a fan of 15-minute intervals. We can all find 15 minutes to clean out one drawer, walk around the block or pay a few pills. Chip away rather than trying to conquer.
  • In terms of a visual there are websites to see older images of yourself such as in20years. To me this is a scare tactic. I’d suggest really think about the health issues your parents or grandparents face. Learn one new thing to minimize your risk.
  • Instead of assuming you’ll love exercise, saving money and doing charitable work in the future, try to sort out why you’re not doing what you think you should now…. chances are the future will be similar.

Are you someone who thinks about your future or not? What type of beneficial behavior do you postpone? What do you think you’ll be doing in 20 years?

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