Max Antonucci

Journalist turned Full-time Coder, Part-time Ponderer

Never Trust Your Future Self

August 29, 2018

Lately I’ve been thinking about willpower, since I haven’t had enough to write a real post in over a month. I wanted to blog more, but never quite found the time or energy.

But thinking back, that wasn’t the case. I had enough time and energy, I just let too much slip through my fingers.

I’d forgotten a major lesson about self-control. The best way to remind myself is, fortunately enough, writing about it! That lesson’s one I’d read before, about how willpower is and isn’t. It’s not about white-knuckling through temptation and laziness - it’s about preventing the times that’d test my willpower in the first place. In forgetting how important this is, I’d kept losing the energy to write. With this post I hope to get some back.

Assume, and Accept, Your Willpower will Fail

For me, the right mindset is always the first step. That means accepting that willpower a muscle: use it too much and eventually it gives out. I can avoid this by planning how much to use (and not use) it.

I write this because America has a deep and powerful victim-blaming culture. A knee-jerk reaction to failure is often blaming someone for not trying hard enough - the fault lies mostly with their initiative or planning, not their environment or factors outside their control. But the fact humans have limited self-control and mental energy is out of our control. It’s part of our innate programming. We can’t blame anyone for this, least of all ourselves. Accepting this helped me move past fruitless idea of white-knuckling my way through daily temptations.

Make Hard Decisions in Advance

The book “You Are Not So Smart” by David McRaney, in the procrastination chapter, mentioned something that stuck with me. It’s that we have two selves: our present self and our future self. We should never trust our future self’s willpower, and never rely on it for the future.

A popular example is my alarm in the morning. I wake up early for boxing, so there’s always the temptation to hit snooze and skip the workout. Before I assumed I’d have enough willpower to get up anyway. But I could never rely on my drowsy brain , and frequently got up too late.

“The trick is to accept that the now-you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future-you—a person who can’t be trusted.

~ David McRaney

I found a simple trick to avoid this vulnerability: put my alarm across the room.

Regardless of my willpower when waking up, I’m forced to get up to turn off the alarm. After that I’m already up, so my odds of falling asleep again plummet. I haven’t missed a single morning workout since.

Rules like this find future weak moments and tough decisions, and take willpower out of the equation. By placing my alarm across the room, I’m making the decision for my future self. No matter how tired I am or how mentally weak I am, I need to get up to turn it off.

I’ve applied similar rules throughout my life:

  • At night I charge my phone in another room. This way I can’t use the internet or any apps while in bed.
  • I use parental controls to limit time on video games. I could disable them on my phone, so I keep it in another room while playing.
  • I disable YouTube and other distracting sites at night or when working with the SelfControl app.

Each ones is about making the right decisions now so my future self doesn’t mess them up.

Do Short-term Tasks Right Away, and Write Down the Rest

Also important is prioritizing the smaller tasks right. If something pops up that only takes up to two minutes, I drop everything and do it. It can be sending a quick text, putting away odds and ends, or taking out the trash.

Anything that takes longer goes on ToDoist, my to-do list app. It gets a due date, comments with any extra info, and scheduled reminders so I don’t forget. If it’s just important info like a family update I should remember, I scribble in my pocket notebook.

With these tips too, I don’t rely on my future self to remember important tasks or info. I either do it now or get a written reminder or record for later. Letting things float in my mind leaves no guarantee my future self will remember them right, if at all. I assume the worst and prepare for it.

Remember: You Are Not Your Future Self

I don’t follow these rules because of a lack of self-control or hatred of my future self. It’s simply part of being human, and I can’t really blame anyone other than nature or evolution. Neither can be taken to court, so blame is pointless. While I don’t have faith in my future self, I do in my present self to not lose what little control I have over my life.

I recommend taking similar steps for important areas in your life. It’s nice to think you won’t need to because your willpower is stronger. But this feeling always failed me when push came to shove. Take my word for it: it’s nicer to accept and work around these limits, since that’s a more reliable way to beat them.