When life is a mess, help your future self

Where were you three years ago?

Whenever I ask this question, the answer usually includes a long ermmm sound, followed by the person looking up and trying to recollect what things were like 3 years before.
Usually, things looked very different.

Even if you were in the same job, lived in the same place, and hung out with the same people, some things looked very different.
Maybe it was your mood. Maybe your friends’ interests (or your friends altogether). Maybe it’s how you felt in your body. Maybe you had the best holiday of your life. Or maybe you had a lot less credit card debt.

Whatever it was, a small difference multiplied by 36 months makes a big difference.

Three years ago, things looked very different for me.
2014 Matt didn’t have a blog (in fact, he was terrified of writing online).
He lived in a different part of town, next door to a world-class snoring flatmate.
2014 Matt didn’t sport a glorious beard (in fact, he decided to clean shave 300 times in a year – no weekends – and succeeded).
He was in a great relationship (but felt he just got lucky and didn’t know how to meet women).
He wasn’t even in great shape (unless you’re a lizard).
2014 Matt needed to give himself a good kick in the bottom.
(Thanks for eventually doing it dude!)

thinking long term

Take a minute, and write down 5 things that were different for you in 2014.
From your haircut to your income, everything’s game.

Now you see: tons can happen in 3 years.
How much positive change could you create by being intentional for the next 3 years?

(Hint: tons).

And yet, we want it all right now.
Research actually shows that, the worse our situation seems and the more stressed we feel, the more we are biologically wired to think short-term.

So. Can you cultivate long-term thinking?

How to improve long-term thinking

Here are five exercises for you to start thinking long term, and make it a daily practice.

Accept the present, but take responsibility.

Whatever your present situation, accept it as your starting point.
Wishing things were different won’t make them any different.
Here are the choices you have: either go through your present situation and improve things over time; or ignore the present and stay where you are (i.e. let things get worse).

You want to be honest with yourself, but also take responsibility and recognise that your past choices got you where you are today.
The aim of this isn’t blame and regret, but rather empowerment.
Only by accepting that your choices got you here can you start believing that new choices will get you somewhere else.

By accepting that your choices got you here, you understand that new choices will get you there. Click To Tweet

Stop being so selfish.

Once you accept that your past self has given you the present opportunities and challenges, you can start to see how the same will happen three years from now. Or ten.

So, instead of wishing and wanting everything to be different right now, think longer term (and act short term). Make your next move thinking about your 2020 self. Imagine them, visualise them.
Having a longer-term direction, and being to support something outside of your present self, will give you direction and sense of purpose, making the present better too.

Work on the cause, not the symptoms.

We live in a culture that teaches us to focus on the symptom, rarely on the cause.
Do you have a headache? Take a painkiller and ignore the reason why that happened.

When it comes to creating better opportunities for your future self, you need to cultivate an obsession with finding the cause behind the symptom. Otherwise, you will be dealing with the same problems, just under a different guise.

For example. If you’re feeling lonely, binge-watching another TV show may make you feel better for the next two days. But will you be more or less lonely then? How about a year later?
Looking at the cause may not be pleasant. Maybe you don’t know a lot of people. Or maybe you tend to not put a lot of effort in relationships. But once you understand the cause, you can change things for good. You can start meeting more people and commit to following up more regularly.
2020 self will thank you.

Seek experiences, not entertainment.

What TV show were you watching in October 2013? What restaurants did you go to? Who knows.

If you did anything that pushed you to grow, however, you’ll remember.
Did you travel anywhere new? Gave your first public speech? Went to an event on your own and uncomfortably spoke to a person that became a great friend?

Sometimes, the line between entertainment and experience is thin. But the difference is huge.
Experiences stay with you after they’re complete. The boost in confidence, social life, self-awareness, or any skills gained perpetuate way beyond the boundaries of the experience.
Entertainment, on the other hand, it’s just a temporary distraction from everyday life. Sometimes, it has a therapeutic effect. But more often than not, it’s just an effort to conceal a deep-seated problem without dealing with the actual problem.
Entertainment is the equivalent of painting a toilet. It may look a bit nicer, but it’s still a toilet.

Guess which one will help your future self? Weeks on end of Netflix!

(Only kidding).

Measure the true cost of short-term choices.

Time to confess. I don’t really have a sweet tooth, but I love chocolate cakes. Especially when they’ve got multiple layers. And dark chocolate covering the top. Ehm. Can we add jam in the middle? Yes, please.

However, I rarely have chocolate cake.

One reason is that I like to keep it a special occasion: get the best slice of cake possible, and make it an experience.
But the main reason is that, although cake+chocolate may give instant pleasure, it comes at many invisible costs. The same sugar spike that triggers a massive release of dopamine in my brain (the pleasure neurotransmitter), also causes all sorts of havoc in the body, that translate into a groggy afternoon, the inevitable trough after the euphoric spike, and terrible health and performance issues down the line. It makes me less able to enjoy life and what I’m passionate about.
In other words, I am paying my short-term entertainment using my long-term credit card.

The same goes for video games, binging on tv, shopping, drinking a bit too much,…you know the rest. Make it a special occasion and it can be therapeutic, but when it becomes a way to shortcut instant gratification, it comes at a hidden (future) cost.

When you understand the true cost of short-term choices, that’s when you appreciate the hidden benefits of thinking longer-term. Really looking after yourself but also…beyond it, all the way to your future self.

Now you know. Looking back, has your past self be kind to you? Or have they left you a mess?
Think. Then choose how you want to feel when you look back in 2020. (Grateful).

Do it!

— Matt

PS: learn how negative thoughts start and how to break the short-term cycle.

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