Future problems: Why planning how you’ll behave never really goes as planned…

Why present and future me are different people

So here’s a scenario I’m sure you’re familiar with:

You’re out having fun and somebody reminds you of some obligation you’ve been putting off. Since you don’t really feel like dealing with the fun police, you look them square in the eyes and with a mischievous grin plastered across your face say “all good, that’s future me’s problem”.

The truth is, as much as we like to pride ourselves on our abilities, anticipating our own future behaviour isn’t a skill that we’re very good at. In fact, it’s about as accurate as if we were being asked how a friend might act in that future situation. And from what I’ve observed, there are three different ways in which this poor forecasting can play out.

1) Conflicting interests

The above is an example of the first type of future forecasting problems. It occurs when we enjoy what we’re doing now but know we should be doing something else. The problem here is one of an incongruence. Deep down, the change we’re putting off isn’t something we really want and so temptations easily win us over. There are many reasons for this. You may simply find comfort and security in the familiar, fear change or genuinely resent the idea of behaving in a way that’s in some way imposed by others (society, friends, family etc). Regardless of the underlying cause, this incongruence is why it’s so easy to procrastinate, to tell ourselves we’ll do something in the future and as such, justify the belief that we are free to enjoy the moment. And so, we give in.

At the point where we succumb to temptation, we get a temporary rush that then fills us with guilt. And so we start looking for a way to make ourselves feel better about doing what we want instead of what we should. Behavioural science labels this a permitting spillover (I’ve done something bad, but I promise to do something good later so it balances out) and the below are just a few examples of this problem of failing to commit to future change:

  • Exercise: binge watching an entire series on Netflix and then saying you’ll commit to going to the gym 2-3 times a week only to give up soon after (even though you have to keep paying for the pesky membership fees)
  • Diet: saying you’ll change your eating habits…but only after you’ve eaten that last slice of chocolate cake or one more glass of wine
  • Finances: looking at your newest cringeworthy credit card bill and saying you’ll save money as soon as you get that next pay check, only to go impulse buying when a flash sale email lands in your inbox

2) Uncertainty

I know it’s a cliched point to start on but the saying know thyself really is the best way to explain why this situation arises. In a way this is an extension of the first example, the main difference being that you genuinely don’t consciously know what it is you want (especially in situations where unconscious decision making is dominant).

The best study I read about on this topic was one conducted by Dan Ariely’s team many years ago on male university students (his summary of the study in Predictably Irrationalis quite entertaining). Asked about their anticipated sexual behaviour, the participants were presented with a range of scenarios that ranged from conventional all the way into the well… not so conventional. In a rational headspace, they typically swayed much more towards the conventional. However, in the heat of the moment (yes, they got real-time feedback), when emotion took hold and opportunity appeared, their desires were far riskier than the participants had expected of themselves. This study suggests that unless we’ve been in a specific situation or environment before and know what we’ve done in the past or have an incredible level of self-awareness, it can be quite common for your rational system 2 mind to think you want to do something completely different from what your unconscious, emotional system 1 mind will otherwise have you do.

3) Overconfidence

The third situation is one of overconfidence and is tied to the planning fallacy.

The first example that comes to mind is the inability to calculate exactly how much time you need to get to that meeting/lunch/coffee. Surely it only takes 20 minutes to dash down the road? Or you’ll definitely be able to sleep in until 8am because you’ll only need 15 minutes to run out the door! This is the reason I tell quite a few friends (and in the past some colleagues too) a different meeting time (customised to accomodate their tendency to run late) so that I’m not stuck waiting for too long.

Another example with more of a corporate twist is long term projects. Especially in bigger companies, we can be notorious for thinking we can get a much faster turnaround time than is actually possible. This occurs despite what we know of past or similar projects and you find yourself saying “Sure, there have been delays on other projects I’ve worked on, but this is different because (insert some absurd justification to help you distinguish this from any other situation ie different people you’re working with, the time of year, the client…)”. The truth is, even experts are terrible at forecasting and anticipating when it comes to the distant future and having too much expertise just boosts that irrational overconfidence.

So what can you do about it?

For the third situation, the best solution is one I saw described in Chip & Dan Heath’s book Decisive. In short, it recommends building in a reasonable buffer. In the same way that a lift is designed to actually hold a lot more weight than it says (because the last thing we want is that cable snapping and people getting very seriously injured), add some flexibility to your plan. The degree of flexibility will vary according to how serious you perceive the consequences to be (ie you want a lot more wiggle room if failure to deliver a project would mean losing a multi-million dollar client account than if it just meant your friend may get slightly angry for sitting in a cafe alone for a few minutes). Another thing you can do is ask somebody with a lot of experience and no emotional attachment how other similar projects have gone. By anchoring them to the past/present, it stops them from falling into the overconfidence trap as well and gives you a more realistic target to work with.

For the other two situations, there isn’t really a quick fix because the first thing you need to do is take the time to try and work out your values. This will help remove the uncertainty in the second scenario and help you spot inconsistencies in your values for the first. If you can then change the importance given to say a fun night out vs a healthier way of living with better quality sleep and diet, it means you’re much more likely to voluntarily change your behaviour and to do so consistently and for the long term. However, if you’re somebody that simply needs a nudge in order to change in the hope that this helps you build momentum for long term change, consider using either incentives or commitment devices (or a combination of the two). This carrot/stick approach can force behaviour which if consistent enough can drive you into new habits which themselves over time help shift your values.

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