Prospection: Why We Would Rather Think About The Future Than Get There

“The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.”

—  Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Thinking about the future can be pleasurable. And most likely when you think about the future, you find yourself achieving and succeeding, rather than fumbling and falling.

This is what happens when you set a goal you wish to achieve. You instantly start imagining it. You daydream about getting that promotion, cracking that interview, or finishing that marathon.

Although imagining about the future may make us feel happy, it can also have troubling consequences. Researchers have found that if people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate its likelihood of happening.

Indeed, this feeling is so pleasurable that we would rather think about the future than work to get there. This generation (and evaluation) of mental representations of possible futures is called Prospection.

If you want to blame somebody for this predicament, blame the frontal lobe of you brain. The frontal lobe is the recent addition to the human brain that allows us to imagine the future. And it is in its very nature to make the brain default to nexting.

Your brain is nexting right now. It is using the word you are reading right now and the words you read just before to make a reasonable guess about the identity of the word you will read next, which is what allows you to read so fluently.

If you decide to quit your day job today to follow your passion, your brain would conjure up all kinds of good and bad future scenarios — based on which you would either be worrying, or become excited. You always have one foot in the future.

Similarly, if you are in Mumbai and are going out for a walk in August, your brain would automatically start calculating the chances of rainfall, thereby forcing you to consider if you should take an umbrella. Nexting.

“Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do, and like a heart that is told not to beat, it naturally resists this suggestion.” Anybody who has tried learning meditation would know this very well.

Roughly 12% of your day thoughts are about the future. That’s how important the future is. But this very habit of thinking about the future also makes it so hard for you to build good habits, and achieve your goals.

Goals inherently lie in the future: Become fluent in French in the next 6 months. Get into that swimsuit by next summer. Or, make a million dollars before 30. When you want to change an aspect of your life, setting a goal is often the logical first step.

But since you find it easy to imagine good events rather than the bad ones, you find it easy to imagine that good events are likely to occur, thus making you unrealistically optimistic about the future. Studies have also shown that people’s brains can confuse goal setting with achievement. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals.

Goals rely on factors which we do not always have control over. It’s an unavoidable fact that reaching a goal is not always possible, regardless of effort. An injury or your untameable procrastination might derail a fitness goal. An unexpected expense or an irrational mistake might sabotage a financial goal. This might in turn impede another creative goal as well.

What you should do instead is shift your focus away from setting goals to building habits.

Habits, compared to goals, are small, and mostly operate in the background. The purpose of a well-crafted set of habits is to ensure that we reach our goals with incremental steps.

If you are struggling to form new habits, I hope now you have a fair understanding why. A good approach is this:

  1. Set a small achievable task: Set a task small enough to be done on a daily basis. If you wish to run a marathon, a small achievable task (SAT) would be to run 200m daily.
  2. Prioritise consistency over improvement: If you are not comfortable running 500m daily, don’t force yourself to improve. Ignore growth completely. Run only 200m instead, but do it daily. Do it until your habit becomes a recognisable pattern for your brain to integrate into its existing model. After that it would be easier to shift gears.
  3. Become a zombie: Everyday your brain would conjure up multiple reasons to convince you to stay home. “It’s freezing outside, you would catch a cold,” “Remember that other thing you had to do?” “Today you should write, instead of run. That’s much more productive.” Your brain is an excellent rationalising machine, and you cannot beat it at its own game. You should go 180, and do the opposite instead. Become totally unreasonable, and do not engage in argument. Pay no heed to the excuses, the explanations, the justifications, and all the arguments, and just go out and run. Become as unreasonable and as single-minded as a zombie.

Warren Buffett reads all day to build the knowledge necessary for his investments. Stephen King writes 1,000 words a day, 365 days a year. With consistency, the benefits of these ‘non-negotiable’ actions compound and lead to extraordinary achievements.

While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits are automatic. They literally rewire your brain.

But it’s easier said than done. Forming new habits can be daunting, involving a lot of struggle, failure, and boredom. And it needs constant monitoring. To help you with that I’ve recently built an app called Mastery. Mastery helps you become more consistent with your daily habits. You simply have to create a new habit to track, for e.g. “Run 200 metres,” and put a green mark on the days you do it. Focus on trying to have as many greens as possible in a week. I promise you something good will come out of it.

Mastery is free, and available on the App Store.

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