Lately, when contemplating the things I ought to do but don’t want to do, my thoughts turn to a little old lady. She has white hair and glasses, and her big, old-fashioned (non-Apple WATCH) watch ticks very loudly. I think about her for a minute, and imagine her being disappointed in me. And then I sigh and I floss, or take my vitamins, or do another round of hip-flexor stretches, or whatever else was on my list that I was tempted — just for a moment — to shirk.
The little old lady isn’t my mom, or my grandma, or a teacher, or anyone real at all. She’s my future self, and I’m trying to be kinder to her.
I never really thought about my future self as a concrete person until last fall, and then I saw Hank Green give a rousing talk at XOXO — go watch the whole thing, it’s hanktastic. In it he said two things that gave me pause. “You have no obligation to your former self.” (Just because your eight-year-old self wanted to be an oceanographer, Hank said, you don't have to follow through.) Why don't you have an obligation to your former self, according to Hank? “He is dumber than you and also doesn’t exist!”
In fact, Hank sounded a little pissed off at his former self. (He sounded like he maybe wanted to go punch that guy. Note: please do not give Hank Green a time machine.) And then I thought: "I don’t want my future self to be that pissed off at me." (Because having a time machine is actually on my wish list.)
If I can’t be smarter than my future self, the only option is to be less dumb, or, failing that, kinder. (Kindness is a great stupidity offset. If you can’t help being dumb, at least don’t be mean.) And although I don’t have any obligation to my past self, I think I do have one to my future self.
After all, the one thing I do know for sure about my future self is that she’ll be older than me, and, entropy being what it is, will have a harder time doing the things I now take for granted. Given that I know her life will be harder than mine, and that probably some part of that will be my fault, wouldn’t it be kind to do what I can now?
So I leave her little notes (especially comments that will let her know where I left off in a project, or why a test is failing in the code, or a calendar reminder that says, “hey, when you go to the Oakland White Elephant sale next year, don’t forget to take an antihistamine because of all the dust”). I clean up after projects so that she doesn’t have to look for the good ruler or the seam ripper. I throw in that extra load of laundry tonight so that she has a better Saturday. I Evernote everything boring or complicated, even if I think I will certainly never, ever forget that eight-step process to mail-merge Adobe Illustrator files with XML.
This may seem a bit strange. I mean, people do floss and take their vitamins and pay into retirement funds every day, without conjuring up some hypothetical person who will benefit. But in the same way that even a drawing of a pair of eyes keeps people honest, thinking about a specific person — me! — whose future life will be better if I get up and do my dozen pushups in the morning instead of sleeping five more minutes makes me far more likely to actually get up and do them. Personifying what was previously an abstract duty just works better for me.
And in addition to doing things for my future self, I’m also trying to be kind by not doing things for my future self. That is, I'm trying not to do things that will unduly obligate my future self. For instance, I used to have a terrible habit of buying things in bulk and then deciding I didn't like them any more (e.g., buying the Costco-size jar of peperoncini and then having a 98%-full Costco-size jar of peperoncini in my refrigerator for a year). There’s a great TED talk by Dan Gilbert where he discusses research that shows that we vastly underestimate how we much will change over time — we tend to think that the person we are now is the person we will always be, and that's not the case. So I try not to lock my future self into my current preferences. I'll let her make her own choices, thank you, and not be constrained by whatever dumbass thing I’ve decided is awesome this week. (Especially since the endowment effect shows we value things that we own more highly than things we don't, which makes whatever you get now harder for your future self to get rid of.)
I’m sure it would be easy to go overboard with this idea — anything can be taken to extremes — but so far I haven’t seen any worrying signs, such as encasing the furniture in plastic covers or Scrooge McDuck-style hoarding of gold coins. And not all the benefits are stored up only for some far-off future: getting more exercise and being more organized have had pretty immediate payoffs for my current self.
If by some chance I do manage to acquire a time machine someday, I am hoping any meeting with my future self turns out more like a Dr. Who reunion show and less like Looper. (A few inside jokes and some eyerolling, but no heroic sacrifices or shootouts.) In the meantime, I’ll keep flossing.
- For some reason I think this idea of ‘futurekindness’ needs a better name, something hefty and German, so that people will take it seriously. Does Zukunftliebenswürdigkeit work?