How often do you say ‘yes’ to something, only to regret it moments later?
Or eagerly agree to a social event or commit to a conference well in advance, only to become very stressed as the date becomes closer and closer?
Often, we fall victim of the empty calendar: we book unusual events days, weeks, or even months in advance just because our calendar looks empty. In reality, the only reason why the future holds so much free time is that we are too far away to consider the bigger picture, or even factor in our usual, daily commitments.
Sometimes, this phenomenon allows for spontaneity and to commit to a much needed holiday without having to weigh too many pros and cons. And that’s great.
But most often than not, it makes us say ‘yes’ to too many things, and then force us to juggle unnecessary commitments with what really matters.
So why is it that we take future commitments so lightheartedly, only to become emotionally stressed when they become the present?
Thinking about the present vs Thinking about the future
The future is a pretty abstract notion: it only exists as a present experience of our own imagination.
Every time we think about something that is distant in time, space, social link, or certainty, we travel through what’s called psychological distance: the farther away you feel from an object, person, or event, the more abstract it will be.The #future only exists as a present experience of our own imagination. Click To Tweet
Let’s take planning a holiday as an example.
Booking your flights a year in advance is likely to make you think about abstract notions of relaxation and fun, but the closest your trip gets in time (and space), the more you will focus on concrete details of the present situation, such as how to get a visa, what to pack, where to eat, and a lot more practical decisions.
When it comes to taking a holiday, most of the time it will be worth it (as long as you know what kind of holiday you actually enjoy). But when it comes to more mundane, recurring commitment, the inability to gauge the future complexity of present decisions expose us to a great danger: credit card behaviour.
Decisions on credit
What is credit card behaviour?
It’s any decision carried in the present that will have a negative impact on your future resources.
Let’s talk money.
You might decide to spend more money that you do not currently have, and then pay it back over a few months, with interest. You are deciding to spend now your future resources.
But it doesn’t just happen with money.
Let’s talk sleep.
You might decide to stay up late today because you’re on a (often imaginary) deadline. This means you will be tired and poor-performing tomorrow (risking to fall into the sleepless cycle): it’s a decision to spend now your future resources. And pay with interest.
More examples of credit card behaviour?
Saying yes too easily.
Not taking care of your health.
Ignoring your relationships (waiting for an imaginary better time).
Settling for an unfulfilling job.
Drinking coffee to ignore your body’s need to recuperate.
And any other decision made at tomorrow’s expense.
Just like credit card debt, sometimes it’s just a temporary resort that comes in handy. And, just like credit card debt, sometimes it’s worth the interest rate.
But, just like credit card debt, when it becomes the norm, things can get out of control.
If you don’t make time for sleep, you’ll have to find more time to balance poor performance.
If you don’t make time for positive relationships, you’ll have to find time to cope with draining relationships or loneliness.
If you don’t make time for health, you’ll have to find time for illness.
So how can we balance our brain’s bias to prefer the present over the future?
(and save our future self from all sorts of debt?)
Reverse the game
Let’s do a quick recap.
When we imagine the future (or something otherwise distant), we activate parts of the brain associated with cognitive, abstract thinking. As the distance shrinks, the decision becomes present, and concrete, acquiring context, details, and an emotional aspect. This is how many people end up taking on a commitment they regret soon after.
Whenever you are deciding about the future, imagine yourself doing it in the present. By moving the future closer to you, you will be able to give it context and better evaluate the consequences of your decisions.
Planning your time in advance will also help you see the big picture: if you have any future deadlines or recurring commitments, stick them in your calendar. This will give you a clear reminder of the juggling a light “yes” in the present might require in the future.
Lastly, remember that your decision-making abilities tend to worsen later in the day.
Keep this in mind, and “sleep on it” if you’ve had a long day. You’ll thank yourself later.