Harder Than It Looks
We spend a lot of time thinking about the future—as much as one hour out of every eight—and yet we do a poor job of acting to achieve the future we desire. For starters, we’re overly optimistic about what’s to come. Rutgers psychology professor Neil Weinstein found that college students expected to stay healthier, have longer marriages, and travel to Europe more often than any studies of population trends would predict. In another study, young women reported that they expected to be assertive and outspoken in upcoming job interview situations. When put to the test, however, they were actually much more reserved than they predicted.
“We expect that when the future shows up, our best self will show up,” says Peg Streep, author of Mastering the Art of Quitting. Instead, we get our typical everyday self, struggling with the same traits—fear, laziness, procrastination—that consistently hold us back today.
Not only do we overestimate our ability to achieve change, we underestimate the effort it requires and the toll it will take. When we think about the executive position we plan to land, we don’t foresee the unrelenting stress. We imagine cuddling a cooing baby, but don’t factor in the sleepless nights. Or we daydream about our documentary being acclaimed at Sundance without considering the toil of producing it. We all dream of victory celebrations. Few of us fantasize about practicing.
To ward off these pitfalls as you launch your own reinvention, seek out people who have already achieved the dream to which you aspire, suggests Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. These successful achievers can share the reality with you—both good and bad. Sit down with the owners of a few seaside bed-and-breakfasts before you start scouting properties. Talk to a few Masters swimmers about the challenges and rewards before you commit to a training program.
It’s difficult to anticipate accurately the effect reinvention will have on our world, in part because among our other future-focusing flaws, we’re generally poor at what’s known as affective forecasting. “We’re really crummy at predicting how we’ll feel in the future,” Streep says. It is well-documented that we assume achievements and successes will make us happier than they actually will because we adapt to life changes, even major ones, fairly quickly and then tend to revert to our usual happiness baseline. The flip side is that when terrible things happen to us, we tend not to be as devastated as we would expect: We end up landing back near our pre-setback happiness level.
To make the best decisions for your future self, you need to stop imagining that person as a stranger and instead see that it’s you. Hal Hershfield, an NYU marketing professor, conducted studies showing that people who could identify more closely with their future selves made decisions that were better for them, like saving more for retirement.
To sway people toward more productive future-focused behavior, Hershfield’s team asked subjects to look at virtual images of their future selves. “It’s an imagination aid,” he says. “We think it gets people to think about their future self and step into his or her shoes.”
Caring more about our future selves can also help us counter the tendency to discount future rewards, which makes so many of us embrace immediate gratification instead of long-term payoffs. Picturing your future self as a mom, a world traveler, or a retiree who climbs mountains might be just what you need to opt for the salad and an hour at the gym instead of a burger and fries and five rounds of Candy Crush.
Set Real Goals, Take Real Action
As you’re planning your reinvention, be as coldly realistic as possible. “You don’t want to be overly optimistic in the deliberative phase, because you might pick the wrong goal,” says Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at NYU who has researched identity goals.
You also need to factor in the reality that learning, or process, goals are more realistic and achievable than performance, or outcome, goals. Decide, then, that “I’m going to learn to cook well,” rather than “I’m going to become a Michelin-star chef.”
At age 36, Robert Ziltzer, of Scottsdale, Arizona, found himself progressively gaining weight and sought a way out. “My waist had gone up four or five inches and I’d sequentially needed to buy new pants,” he says. As a weight-loss physician with a family history of heart disease who wanted to be a positive role model for patients, he was eager for reinvention and decided to try to achieve it through something that had long been on his bucket list: running a marathon.
How would the busy doctor, husband, and father of two young children make the time to train? He started by avoiding an assumption that keeps many strivers from ever getting out of the starting blocks. Instead of underestimating the support he’d get from his family and their tolerance for the disruption his efforts at self-improvement might cause, he did something too few of us do: He asked them. “I said to my wife, ‘I’m thinking about doing this, but I’m concerned that it will take too much time away from the family,'” Ziltzer says. “She said, ‘Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine. Go do it.'”
Ziltzer made it just a few hundred yards before getting winded his first time on the road. “I was really discouraged,” he says. But he learned to slow his pace and gradually worked up to one mile, then two, then three, and now 20. His biggest problem now, he says, is boredom during his long runs.
“There’s an early period of volatility when you’re changing your behavior,” Markman says. “It takes a lot of mental energy and planning and playing around with your schedule.” That’s one reason he advises going after just one major goal at a time. “If you’re trying to do this on several fronts at once, you’re going to end up doing a bad job at all of them,” he says.