Now that 2020 finally seems to have left the station – hopefully without dragging any of your leftover plans under its wheels – I want to focus on the faraway future.
As life slowly returns to its factory settings, I’m noticing many people lulling themselves back into the very same old normal they were so keen to escape before COVID-19 parked in front of their driveway.
Thinking About the Future
Indeed, what’s been coming up a lot in client conversations recently is just how difficult people find it to come up with a compelling vision for their long-term future – especially when short-term concerns around security are taking priority.
The best way to look at the future is to invent it. – Alan Kay
My clients are obviously not alone in this. Part of the problem is that most people – me included – prefer to focus more on immediate and short-term gratification than on long-term prospering. Indeed, studies show that nearly fifty percent of you rarely or never think about what the next ten years might look like, and less than 20 percent think about it occasionally. Those figures increase the older you get.
I’ll briefly explain why thinking about the future is so hard on our poor little brains. I’ll also teach you how to become your own personal futurist.
Beware. I’m about to become that annoying dinner date who lectures you about needing to get your shit together and hammers on about his blockchain investments and pension funds. To make it worse, I won’t break eye contact with you, I’ll talk with my mouth full, and I’ll insist on taking your number afterward.
And if thinking further ahead than the next seven minutes causes you hives, then simply scroll to the bottom. I’ll share three easy visualization techniques that will help you to begin imagining your long-term future.
What Is Personal Prospecting?
When it comes to leading rich and meaningful lives, there are three cognitive processes we need to become good at – being able to learn from the past (hindsight), understand the present (insight), and visualise the future (foresight).
As an online life coach, I mainly focus on the latter. Pretty much like a hired-gun futurist, I help others become better at simulating an inspiring vision for the future – or indeed several visions. And if you wonder why anyone needs a coach for that, allow me to ask you when the last time was that you came up with one of those visions.
Are those crickets I’m hearing, or is my tinnitus playing up?
Although foresight is essential when it comes to decision-making, it’s not a uniquely human skill. All animals with neural networks can project themselves into the future. Bees take shelter before it starts to rain, and your cat will go into hiding the moment it sees the travel cage make an appearance – wondering which part of its anatomy it’ll come back home without this time. This is System 1 – or intuitive forecasting – that I talked about a few months back. It usually takes place subconsciously and is entirely led by our emotional responses.
Alongside this type of emotional thinking, humans also have the ability of rational reasoning. This is known as System 2 – thinking or prospecting. It involves slow and deliberate thinking and allows us to consciously argue with ourselves over what we desire to do next.
Identifying precisely what that desire looks like is essential when it comes to forecasting our future.
The Process of Desire – Motivation versus Inspiration
Desire is driven by two opposite forces – a push away from pain and discomfort (motivation) and/or a pull towards the promise of something better (inspiration).
Away from motivation is undirected and inconsistent – a bit like when you find a big fat spider in the bathroom sink. You’ll run pretty much anywhere as long as it’s far away from Tarantula Jolie. But the moment you’re out of the room, you stop running. Your heart rate settles, and your voice drops a few octaves again.
Motivation is like that spider. Once the situation improves – a pay increase, a compliment from the nasty manager, or a WhatsApp message from your avoidant lover – and before you know it, the job wasn’t so bad after all; you spend another Sunday slaving over that project, and you’re already in an Uber getting pumped up for that booty call. And that’s the trouble with motivation – without consistently being reminded of what we wanted to escape, we quickly lose momentum.
Towards motivation or inspiration is more powerful when it comes to taking action.
You create it by dreaming up a detailed image of your future – one that’s compelling enough to pull you forward.
The clearer and more exciting your picture of what a rich and meaningful future looks like – and the more frequently you can bring it up – the more energised you’ll feel to make it happen.
Inspiration is directional and consistent, so even when you get knocked off course, you can correct by pointing at your goals again.
While motivation might give you the initial kick up the backside, the only way to keep your momentum is by imagining an inspiring picture of what lies ahead.
Why Is It So Hard to Visualise the Future?
This question gets to the heart of the problem – deciding what you want that picture of the future to look like.
In his popular Ted Talk, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says:
When it comes to our future self, all of us are walking around in an illusion. An illusion that history, our personal history, has just come to an end.
Also known as the end-of-history illusion, it makes us believe that just this very minute we’ve become the person we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives. As a result, we vastly underestimate how much change we’ll experience over the next ten years.
To make matters worse, studies have shown that when we think about our future selves, the mind does something unexpected and rather unfortunate.
Whenever we imagine the future, we use a region of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) which regulates our sense of self and individuality. When we think of ourselves, the MPC lightens up, and when we reflect on others – say, friends or family – it powers down. And the moment we think about complete strangers, the MPC switches off completely. The trouble is that once we visualise our future, the MPC gets confused.
Say you’re thinking about a career move in the next two years. As you picture this, the MPC deactivates, and your brain creates a disconnect between who you are today and the future self it tries to imagine.
The further ahead you look, the more your mind starts acting as if it’s thinking about a total stranger – one it doesn’t particularly care about.
This makes coming up with an inspiring long-term vision hard.
Our brains are totally detached from the person we think we’ll be in ten years, which has a negative impact not just on us, but also on society as a whole. As futurist and game designer Jane McGonigal says:
This glitchy brain behaviour may make it harder for us to take actions that benefit our future selves both as individuals and as a society.
According to McGonigal, the more your brain considers your future self as a stranger, the less likely it’ll be to exhibit the self-control you need to today. The more likely it also is that you’ll make anti-social choices that’ll harm your community and the wider world in the long run.
Assuming most of you aren’t total sociopaths, I’m sure you’ll probably agree that’s not a good thing.
Three Easy Ways to Get Better at Visualising Your Future
Being able and willing to project yourself into the future is an essential skill when it comes to achieving your objectives and leading a fulfilled life.
But the more you treat your future self as a complete stranger, the less able you are to resist the immediate temptations that keep you stuck where you are today. Instead, you’ll find yourself procrastinating more, exercising less, putting away less money for retirement, and giving up sooner in the face of temporary pain. You probably also won’t care about long-term challenges like climate change, racism, and inequality.
Put simply, the less you’re able to tap into your future self, the more of a present-day arsehole you are.
Building a better present-day connection with your future self will help you counteract some of your present-moment impulsivity. This means that if you can start painting a vivid picture of how you want a typical day to look like in ten years, it’s much more likely you’ll make decisions today that’ll get you there.
Here are three simple practices to help you with that.
1. Prospective Writing
At least once a week, write for fifteen minutes uninterrupted about any new doors and opportunities that have opened, might be opening, or you’d like to have opened for you.
This is called prospective writing, and it can be extremely helpful for coming up with constructive, future-focused ideas. It will help you build a connection with your future self as a dear friend, rather than as that stranger I talked about earlier.
If you’re already in the habit of journaling regularly by writing down your innermost thoughts, then that’s great. You’ll find that prospective writing about the mid to long-term future will add a helpful new dimension to your practice.
2. Google the Future
Ever heard of futurists? These people have the coolest job on the planet. They’re getting paid to explore predictions about the future.
I want you to become your own futurist by making a list of all the things you’re interested in – food, sex, dog grooming, AI, alternative medicine, education, the city you live in, or your ex’s whereabouts – whatever. I then want to encourage you to do a Google search once a week for ‘the future of’ at least one of the things on that list. This will give you some interesting insights into how the topics you care about right now might look in the future.
Most importantly, it’ll get you into the habit of being curious about the hereafter. And at the very least, it’ll make you a more exciting dinner date.
3. Predict the Past
Another futurist technique involves looking back at a past choice you made (or didn’t make). It could be a particular turning point in your life or even a small decision you made earlier today. Now visualise the impact if you’d have made a different choice instead.
This exercise is an excellent reminder that you have free will and the future isn’t inevitable – just like it wasn’t unavoidable that you ended up where you are today. It should remind you that just as you made choices yesterday, which shaped your present moment, you’re about to make decisions today that could radically shape your future. Better get clear on what you want that future to look like so you can start making the right decisions in the next couple of hours.
And if you decided to keep reading this far, your future probably already looked a little brighter than it did seven minutes ago.
Conclusion: Appreciating Your Inner Clairvoyant
Our brains may not be good at thinking about the future, but that doesn’t mean that you get to watch Netflix and scroll Amazon for the rest of your present moments.
To get the life you want, you need to make your vision of the future as compelling as possible – enough for it to pull you forward once the going gets tough. Doing so is certainly no guarantee that you’ll make it happen, but at least you’ll want to keep moving.
So, here you go my friends. Enjoy rubbing that crystal ball and do get in touch if you would like my help with it.