I first heard this idea on an episode of Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast. It sounded a little goofy at the time, and I didn’t think I’d ever apply the concept. But lately, it has been working for me.
The idea is that you do something now (that you would prefer to skip doing) because it will make life easier for you in the future. You’re giving a gift to your future self.
For example, I really didn’t want to stop for gas this morning when coming home from the gym. It was raining. I was tired and hungry and just wanted coffee and a shower. But later this week, I have appointments and errands to run, and I will need to fill up on gas to get to all of these. And I also know that I will be feeling stressed about getting to the appointments on time and worrying that my medical issues will require even more follow-up appointments. So it was a gift to my future self to stop this morning so that I didn’t have to deal with it later when I would be feeling more rushed and anxious.
And it struck me that I would do these things for someone I care about without thinking twice. I wouldn’t hesitate to stop and put gas in the car if I knew my husband would need the car later and would likely be short on time. But when it comes to myself, I’m usually not so kind.
So I find this technique a helpful baby step in developing self-compassion. When my “future self” becomes my present self, I appreciate that I did something to make “now” a bit easier. And this creates a nice feedback loop that encourages me to look for other ways to make my future self happier.
I think I could apply this technique to other habits I want to change. I can go to bed at 9:30 instead of watching more Netflix because it will make getting up to go to the gym much less painful the next day. I can cook something today so that I have something healthy to eat for lunch tomorrow. This will make me physically and emotionally feel better than eating spoonfuls of peanut butter from the jar, followed by whatever cookies I can find in the back of the cupboard.
There are many things that I resist doing, although I know I should do them. I usually tell myself that I lack discipline and could change my slothful ways if I’m tougher on myself. But this new technique requires no self-shaming. It also requires no superhuman feat of self-discipline. It only requires that I remember to apply it!
Somehow this simple shift in re-framing makes a lot of difference in my ability to follow through on behavior that I know I should do. My instinctive approach to solving problems is to think my way out of the problem. But I’m gradually learning that I’m more than my brain, and those other parts of me can also contribute to problem-solving. Through experimentation, I’ve found it’s key to let myself feel the emotion that my future self will feel. Rather than doing something now because I should do it (i.e., an intellectual exercise), if I stop and actually feel what my future self will be feeling, the mental conflict disappears and I find it easier to do the right thing.
A Closing Prayer
Bless all of us who struggle with self-compassion. Help us give ourselves the caring and consideration we unhesitatingly give to those we love. Let us feel the quiet joy that comes from effectively taking care of ourselves, even though it sometimes feels like one more item at the bottom of our to-do list. Amen.