I’ll get around to procrastinating later

Do you tend to put things off until the last minute? I do, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes this urge to procrastinate makes us behave in ways that are detrimental to our future well being, yet this happens all the time. In science, we find ourselves waiting until the last minute studying for an exam, preparing a presentation to our peers or writing a grant proposal. In a broader scope, we fail to save early and/or often enough for retirement. We delay changing less-than-healthy lifestyle habits. New Year’s resolutions are forgotten or deliberately abandoned by February.

Why do we make decisions that may endanger our future well-being? A recent article in Nautilus by Alisa Opar entitled “Why We Procrastinate” has a compelling explanation—we sometimes fail to identify with that future version of ourselves.

It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us.

In other words, the subconscious rationale is something like: “Why should I exert myself and do it now? Someone else will take care of it later.” That “someone else” being an abstract, future self. I think that goes both ways: I know I tend to look at foolish acts or decisions I’ve made in the past with the observation: “Who was that person?” As an added bonus, this rationale absolves me from some of the blame for a past act, since now I’m clearly a better, more evolved version of my past self. Clearly.

A possible consequence of this lack of identification with our future self is to delay or even fail to act in the present in ways that will benefit our future selves.

The disconnect between our present and time-shifted selves has real implications for how we make decisions. We might choose to procrastinate, and let some other version of our self deal with problems or chores.

This view of the future self as “other” originated in the realm of philosophy, particularly in the writings of Derek Parfit. In recent years, psychologists and behavioral scientists have produced a body of data that appears to support it. Some fMRI studies by Hal Hershfield at NYU’s Stern School of Business looked at the differences in brain activity when someone considers their present and their future selves:

They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more strongly activated when subjects thought of themselves today, than of themselves in the future. Their future self “felt” like somebody else. In fact, their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman. And subjects whose brain activity changed the most when they spoke about their future selves were the least likely to favor large long-term financial gains over small immediate ones.

Additional research has also suggested that if someone is made to feel more connected to the future self, they can be encouraged to make more prudent and practical choices. One way to establish a better connection is to help someone better visualize themselves in the future, through the use of digitally aged images. Some companies in the finance industry are trying to capitalize on this to encourage people to invest more in their retirement.

Phew! At least I didn't end up looking like the Crypt Keeper.

Images of current and future (+40y) me, Current me tends to put things off. Future me is very upset with current me for the state of his retirement account. And because I’m on his lawn.

Merrill Edge, the online discount unit of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has taken this approach online, with a service called Face Retirement. Each decade-jumping image is accompanied by startling cost-of-living projections and suggestions to invest in your golden years.

Intrigued, I decided to try out this tool. (Warning: Results are graphic and disturbing. At least to me.)

Of course, a contrary view is that thinking or our future selves as strangers does not necessarily mean we will deliberately make choices that will endanger the future self. If we generally treat other people with respect and consideration, why would our future self expect to be treated differently?

The silver lining of our dissociation from our future self, then, is that it is another reason to practice being good to others. One of them might be you.

If I still have your attention, please let me know other topics you’d like to see covered here at JAEP. Either leave a comment with a topic suggestion, or you can contact me by email at geernst at gmail dot com. But, hey, if you don’t get around to it until later, I’ll understand. Or rather, future me will understand. Well, probably. I’m never quite sure how that guy will react.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/glenernst

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  1. Dude, that face retirement thing is super disturbing. Can I procrastinate aging?

  2. Ask Donatella Versace or Janice Dickinson.