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The notion of describing and revisiting the future self as a way to achieve goals is well known and a cornerstone of effective coaching practice. However, what human tendency are we counteracting when we call on the future self to step in?
The human inclination toward viewing small rewards now as more desirable than a greater distant reward is apparently hard-wired into us. For instance, we might purchase an attractive item in the moment even though our goal might be to pay down our credit card debt. Known as temporal discounting, it appears to have been programmed into us by evolution when threats to survival compelled us to take whatever we could get in the moment.
It is often been said that our evolutionary self is not very well suited to living in the world today. Our ancestors apparently walked 5-10 miles per day but very few of us approach that amount in a week let alone a day. The area of the brain known as the amygdala was designed to detect deadly threats and put into the motion the fight, flight or freeze response. Yet the amygdala kicks in when we are about to do something as threatening as speaking to a group of people. Our world has evolved but in general, we have not. It seems that one critical way to achieve our goals is to be aware of our humanness!
So how do we counteract these maladaptive tendencies? Call on the prefrontal cortex, easily my most favorite structure in the brain! Thoughtful decisions to choose a long-term goal over an immediate reward are rooted here. The so-called future self calls on the prefrontal cortex to define and remind us of what we really want in the long run, not what is calling to us in the moment. But like muscles we build in the gym, we need to exercise this area of the brain so that it is strong and available to us when we need it. That is why the future self exercise is so important and why it needs to be revisited during the coaching process.
Interesting research. Experimenters showed that if individuals were shown a computer simulation of themselves aged several years, they were more likely to put money into a retirement account. If we can help a clients clearly define what they want for themselves in the future, they are more likely to make choices to help them get there.
Coaches: What techniques do you use to help your clients get in touch with their future selves? Clients: How often do you think of yourself in the future?
This article was written for and featured in the Catalyst MInd Matters blog at ICF MN