Studies show that we struggle to picture our future selves – making it harder to for us to plan for (and save for) tomorrow. So what can we do about it? In this short film, John-Paul Flintoff, author of ‘How to Change the World’, investigates.
John Paul: Hello. Hi. I'm John Paul.
John Paul: It's all right ...
Claire: I'm sitting here.
John Paul: Yeah. Happy with the hat?
Luke: Yeah. I'm happy.
Saran: Um ...
Claire: Um ...
Dewayne: Um ...
Connor: I haven't quite figured that out yet.
John Paul: I'm John Paul Flintoff. As a writer and coach, I work with people to tackle seemingly insurmountable problems like how to change the world or how to take control of your financial future.
Imagine your life when you're 70. What's it like?
Teri: That's a really hard question.
John Paul: It's quite hard to connect with your 70-year-old self, isn't it?
Lily: Really, yes.
John Paul: Research shows that we simply can't relate to our future selves. Brain scans show that most of us use one part of our brains when we think about ourselves and a different part when we think about strangers or about our future self. In other words, our future self is just like a stranger. If we don't know who they are, we're going to struggle to give them money so making provisions for retirement will be hard. If we can't relate to our future selves and our focus is on the here and now, how can we take control of our future? As with other seemingly insurmountable problems, we need to break it down and then take the first step.
How often do you think about planning for the future?
Claire: I'm good at planning for parties.
Connor: I think into the future enough to plan, but not to plan that far ahead. There's part of me that doesn’t think I'll even make it past 50.
Lily: I try to keep myself focused by setting short-term goals.
John Paul: How would you like your retirement to be?
Luke: I want to have one of those huts in Bora-Bora.
Dewayne: I'd like to have 100 billion pounds, sterling.
Connor: In my private mansion with my big garden.
Saran: This picture shows me chilling on the beach.
Claire: Big outdoors, loads of dogs, like a farmhouse kind of thing.
John Paul: What are you doing right now to make this happen?
Lily: I'll get back to you on that one.
Luke: You're not really told how to do it.
Dewayne: Honest, like I don't know. I'm too ... I don't want to say I'm too young, but I haven't thought about that sort of stuff.
John Paul: What are you not doing? What are you afraid of?
Teri: I get quite caught up in the here and now and all the things that I need to get done and it always feels busy that I put off things like that.
Osman: I just know that I can't just spend every penny I have all the time.
Claire: When you reach 30, I think you see that time is moving a lot faster than you anticipated. Yeah, you should start thinking about the future.
Saran: I've been so busy doing, seeing the bigger picture, unfocused. This has allowed me to focus a bit more, which is really good.
John Paul: Do you feel as a result of this conversation, you're more likely to save for the future?
Teri: I should start the sooner, the better really to be honest.
John Paul: Like tomorrow or ... ?
Teri: Yeah, like tomorrow.
Osman: Now I'm starting to think further. I've never thought what I'll do when I retire.
Claire: You just made me realize that I actually do really know what I want to do.
Portia: It's not massive. It's not crazy. It's very doable. It's just step by step.
Saran: My mum says how does a mouse eat an elephant and it's one bite at a time.
John Paul: How does it feel to say that?
Teri: A relief I think because like you said, it's one thing that you can do that makes it more manageable.
Dewayne: I'm not fixated on the journey, but I'm going somewhere and I feel like I need to maintain focus.
John Paul: One thing I've noticed is it makes your knees wiggle about when we talk about money.
Lily: Does it?
John Paul: Thinking about your future may be hard, but planning for it doesn't need to be.
Focus on how you would like things to be - not what you don’t want
Recent studies have shown that people relate the same way to complete strangers as they do with themselves in the future. This is worrying information when it comes to retirement: After all, why would people save money for someone they don’t recognise?
Research by UCLA social psychologist Hal Hershfield revealed that we think of our future selves as strangers1. He measured brain activity while people thought about their current selves, themselves in 10 years and celebrities like Matt Damon and Natalie Portman. Interestingly, they showed similar activity when thinking about themselves later in life as they did the celebrities. Putting the theory into practice certainly proved how easy it is to live in the here-and-now rather than planning ahead.
We called in the help of John-Paul Flintoff, leading writer and life coach, and nine millennials for our own social experiment exploring and addressing the future self disconnect. Despite dreams of living out their retirements in country mansions and beach huts in Bora Bora, they had no idea how they were going to make it happen.
John-Paul is the author of the critically acclaimed book 'How to Change the World', coaching readers to overcome the obstacles they face in their daily life. He used these techniques to help our participants learn some introspection and break down their major goals into achievable pieces.
We asked him a couple of questions about getting involved in the project and why it’s so important to make small changes now to benefit yourself in the long term:
John-Paul Flintoff (JF): We all have a choice. If we don’t think about where we want to go, and what we want to be, in the future - then we can hardly complain if it’s not what we wanted. Obviously, human beings can’t control everything about the future, but we can set a general direction, and keep adjusting it - or drift helplessly. Additionally, there’s plenty of evidence now that people who live with a strong sense of purpose, with a clear idea of where they are going, and why they are doing what they do, feel better. Quite literally: well, instead of unwell. We can all do that, and I believe it’s a fundamental life skill.
JF: The process would work with anybody thinking about their financial future - or indeed any other part of their future. We started by looking at something people didn’t really want to look at, and then I asked them to think what things would be like if, magically, they get everything right. I asked them to describe it in detail, maybe draw it. (Some drew their future selves on a beach, or in a big mansion.) By describing it in detail, they were able to work out backwards how to get to that dream, one step at a time. Anybody can do that.
JF: The single most important thing is to keep your focus on how you would like things to be - not what you don’t want. Because when you describe your dream, you know immediately what needs to be done about it.
It can be incredibly difficult to connect with our future selves but could it help us save smarter? We investigate the psychological reasons behind why we lack empathy with who we will become.
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