Looking Out for our Future Self

From the Headmaster's Desk, September 18, 2018

This morning, I want you to think about three versions of yourself.

The first version of yourself is the past one.  What were you like 10, 15 years ago?  For teachers, this might be what you were like 20 or 30 years ago.

Perhaps remember a time that this former version of yourself did something silly?  Sometimes we can look back and laugh at ourselves, even if we do not laugh at the time.

I remember things Mr Elzinga did 25 years ago that were quite silly, before I was ever called Mr Elzinga.  Like that time I jumped off the balcony of the loft in my parents’ house and landed on the sofa and broke all the springs.  I didn’t think my parents would notice.  They did.  I was quite naïve and foolish, lucky not to have been seriously hurt, and I was grounded for a long time.

Anyway, that was my past self.  The current Mr Elzinga would never do anything so foolish.  Now I want you to think about your future self.  What will you be like in 5, 10 or 25 years’ time?

Sometimes I worry that I run too much, and the future Mr Elzinga is going to have bad knees.  Like many adults, I also worry I’m not saving enough for my retirement and, in an attempt at a bad joke, I could say, ‘Well, poor Mr Elzinga, he’ll have to worry about his knees and retirement in years ahead, but these are not this Mr Elzinga’s problems’.

Whilst we can look back at our previous self, and look forward to our future self, both of these exercises are quite hard work.  It is hard to imagine yourself in any moment other than the moment that you are actually in.

And this is quite natural.  As human beings, we have what is called ‘present bias’.  This means we naturally tend to concern ourselves with our immediate needs and desires, rather than our long-term needs and desires.

Many studies have shown that this ‘present bias’ is a form of procrastination.  It is part of what makes saving for retirement difficult, why people end up with credit card debt, overweight, addicted to smoking (‘I’ll quit next year’) or why students put off revising or writing that essay until the last minute.  The immediate gratification we desire in the moment often outweighs the rational bit of the brain that tells us we should resist or wait, or plan for the future.

There are even studies that show most people would prefer to have £100 right now, today, instead of waiting for tomorrow for £110.  People habitually choose a smaller-sooner reward over a larger-later reward.  This is natural, in a way.  We want rewards sooner, not later.

But of course, not taking care of our future self is counterproductive behaviour.  We are damaging our future self and we act like we don’t care.  Why?

Well, some studies suggest we are able to do this because we perceive our future selves as total strangers.  We brush off our responsibilities because our brain unconsciously believes that the future problems are not ours, but those of an actual stranger.

So how do we get better at taking care of our future self?  Apparently it can be quite simple – it only requires imagining what a ‘future happy you’ looks like.  Rather than the unhappy cousin – the ‘future unhappy you’.

Studies have found that when we show people a digitally altered image of themselves at retirement age, they are more likely to save for retirement.  When people were shown a future image of themselves looking healthy and exercising, they were more likely to exercise to be like this.  When you show smokers an image of their future self with lung disease or heart disease, it makes them more likely to quit smoking.

Of course, this is applicable for students in school as well.  Many of you are already working towards mocks or end of year exams, be they internal exams or public exams.  The research shows that if you revise a little every day, especially what you just studied earlier in the day, then you are more likely to remember it.  It is much better to do a little revision every day than to wait until the end of the year and try to cram it all in at the last minute – your brain does not work as well using this technique.  It is also important to sleep enough – when you sleep, your brain processes what you learned that day and then you remember more.  If you don’t sleep enough you won’t remember this much.

So maybe this week, even if you don’t have homework, go home and re-read what you went over in the lesson that day.  Spend a few minutes with your notes or textbook.   And be sure to sleep well.

And, as per the exercise we already did this morning, imagine what you want to look or feel like on results day.  What does that future you look like – perhaps work a little harder today or this week just to make that future you a little bit better off than they would be otherwise.  You might just find that you look back and thank yourself.

I hope that your present self has a great week, and keep looking after your future self as well.







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