Imagine waking up in the morning, looking in the bathroom mirror, and seeing yourself 20 years in the future.
Yesterday, everyone living in the Northern Hemisphere gained a “bonus” hour of daylight. There’s no shortage of recommendations for what to do with that extra time: exercise, learn a new skill, or volunteer top most lists of productive suggestions. Most of us, though, make poor use of free time—it’s much easier to use that hour to nap or get distracted by digital technologies like social media or email.
So, what can people to do to make better use of their free time?
One of the problems with using time wisely is an inability to imagine how our present and future selves connect. Dr. Hal Hershfield, a psychologist with the UCLA Anderson School of Management, describes the problem this way: “When people think of themselves in the future, it feels to them like they are seeing a different person entirely—like a stranger on the street.” This disconnect can lead to a host of bad decisions in terms of health behavior (e.g., smoking) or long-term planning related to family or work.
In one study, Dr. Hershfield describes an experiment designed to evaluate how and why people save money for the future. The study proceeds from the premise that people are indeed estranged from their future selves (i.e., that saving money is a choice between saving today and giving money to a stranger in the future). I interviewed Dr. Hershfield for BlackBoxPhd.com about this study as well as his general approach to future-self research (click here).
The study makes clever use of virtual reality technology. In the first part of the study, participants were shown a visual representation of themselves (a digital “avatar”) that simulated how their body and face would look in the future. You can get a general idea of how this age progression technology works by visiting Merrill Lynch’s Face Retirement page.
Dr. Hershfield and his colleagues randomly assigned participants to one of two groups (current self or future self). Participants were told that they were going to enter a virtual reality environment and that they would answer a series of personal questions. The experimenter then showed participants two images of their avatar before they entered the virtual reality environment: participants in the current-self group saw front and side views of their avatar, and participants in the future-self group saw young and age-morphed versions of their avatar.
In line with the researchers’ predictions, people who interacted with the aged version of their self were more willing to allocate money to a savings account. In fact, they saved more than twice as much money to their retirement account! When the study was adjusted to account for the influence of immediacy (i.e., whether participants were reacting to demands of the researchers) or emotion, people who interacted with their aged self still had an increased tendency to allocate a higher percentage of pay for retirement. As you might expect, the phenomenon of caring more about present versus future economic conditions is common, but Dr. Hershfield’s study is a compelling and unique way to prompt behavior change.
In general, future-self research focuses on high-stakes events such as career success and financial planning. But it’s easy to see how this research can help in the short-term, too. For example, if you wanted to use your extra hour of daylight to jog a few times a week, you can use wearable technologies such as a Fitbit or Nike+ sensor, which provide the same sort of continuous data that Dr. Hershfield collects in his studies. With some tweaks by the manufacturer, the collected data could depict a happy avatar of yourself after attaining a mileage goal, or display a fatigued avatar if you don’t sleep right. In other words, technology that’s available right now can help you visualize the effort needed to reach a near-term goal, like getting in shape for the summer beach season, or the effects of not taking care of yourself.
Although you might be scared to see a realistic image of your future self, an avatar might end up becoming a good friend or even a mentor. He or she will give you honest feedback, respond immediately to criticism and change, and can teach you how to spend your time more wisely. I’ll explore this idea more in future posts.