Balancing Your Two Selves

“We actually don’t choose between experiences. We choose between memories of experiences. And even when we think about the future we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories.”

– Daniel Kahneman

I often have trouble getting myself to do the things that I’d like to be doing, like going to the gym or meditating regularly. Recently I ran across a big idea that helped me understand why this is true, and also provided a few hints that allowed me to improve the situation.

The eminent professor of psychology and economics Daniel Kahneman gave a TED talk a few years ago about two fundamentally different ways we experience our lives: our first-hand experiences as we live through them, and our memories and stories that we come up with after the fact. He calls these two perspectives the experiencing self and the remembering self.


These two selves are often in direct conflict, and Kahneman points out that the remembering self usually runs the show when it comes to making decisions:

“You can think of the remembering self sort of dragging the experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.”

On the other hand, sometimes the situation is reversed and the experiencing self makes the decisions — we’ve all done something that seemed appealing at the time and regretted it later. To rephrase the above, “you can think of the experiencing self sort of saddling the remembering self with memories that the remembering self doesn’t need.” We seem to be particularly bad at balancing the needs of these two systems.

So how can we live in a way that satisfies both selves?

In my own life the two selves often butt heads. Let’s take a closer look at the example of deciding to go to the gym.


The experiencing self has both ups and downs while I’m actually there, but the remembering self wants to package the entire activity into a single, compact impression. That impression can be one of pain, frustration, or wasted effort, and it’s hard to talk myself into repeating the experience. I do still go to the gym, though, and I even look forward to it. How do I manage it?

Use the Peak-End Rule

One strategy you can use is to encourage your remembering self to have good impressions of the experiences you want to repeat on a regular basis. The remembering self thinks in stories, according to Kahneman, stories that are defined by “changes, significant moments, and endings.” This is the peak-end rule of psychology.

I take advantage of this rule by making sure that the final moments of the gym-going experience are overwhelmingly positive: I breathe deeply, take a hot shower, smile at the workers at the front desk on the way out, and bike fast on the way home.

As a result, the next time I think about going to the gym I remember the good feelings from the previous session and expect to repeat them.

Other Strategies

I’ve accumulated a number of strategies and a few cautionary tales that have helped me be more effective and productive and do more of the things I want to be doing:

I’ll go into each of these in more detail in future posts.

In the meantime I’d love to hear other approaches. Do you have tricks that help you reconcile your remembering self and your experiencing self? Share them in the comments!

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8 thoughts on “Balancing Your Two Selves

  1. I’m developing a new strategy: enlisting others’ help to make it easier or more likely that I’ll [go for a bike ride/wash my hair/work in my sewing room/etc]. If I don’t tell anyone about my goal for the day (and especially if I don’t tell myself!), then it never gets done. But if I ask Kyle or Mom to play with LB so I can do a specific thing, then they tend to keep me on task. Or even if I tell LB that I’ll be working on a quilt while she naps, then I’m more likely to do that than waste time on the Internet. And then when she wakes up I thank her and show her what I’ve done, because sharing my progress with others is also a motivating factor (as I’m sure you’ve found with your blogging).

    1. That sounds like a great way to get things done. (I can imagine it now: –”What’s your secret to productivity?” –”Well, first you have a baby….”) It’s sort of a corollary to Parkinson’s Law (“Work expands so as to fill the time available”) — if you only give yourself just enough time to do the work you need to do, you’ll just do the work.

      For those of us without this “convenient productivity tool” getting work done can be quite challenging. I’m going to be writing about my approach to this at the end of this sequence.

  2. I really like your strategy of using the peak-end rule for difficult activities. Gym going is tough. It used to be a social activity for me to work out with my close friends so motivation was never an issue. But lifting weights on my own proved challenging over the years until this year.

    I started a different program (×5-beginner-strength-training-program/) where I no longer needed to be at the gym for more than 3 times a week to progress. Now each day in the gym is an exciting adventure. I never know how my body will react to the weights, whether lifting will prove so easy that I can increase the weight next time or so difficult that I struggle with the very first rep. In addition, this current program allows me to increase the weight for at least one exercise each month to mark easy progress.

    Overall, I think the best thing to do is to try out different athletic activities until you find one that you fall in love with and will schedule your life around it just so you can participate.

    1. Absolutely, going to the gym with friends is a great motivator. I’ve had some great climbing partners over the years (climbing is perfect for this, since pairing up is built into the activity) and it becomes more about catching up or having a good conversation than working out, which I think is great. It’s hard to coordinate schedules, though, especially when life situations change.

      I do like the idea of not knowing exactly what to expect from your workout. In fact, that’s the next thing I’m going to write about! 🙂

  3. During intense experiences in my life I often have this strong fear that I will remember little or none of it afterwards, and thus most of it will be lost. This concept of remembering and experiencing self seem to provide a resonating explanation to this effect: only part of the experiences get picked up to become part of the memory, which is the one that lasts.

    This made me realize a strategy that I use for such end and that can also be applied to the example of going to the gym. While a significant part of my memory of a gym is of the ending of it (that nice bath and fresh awake feeling), another big chunk are short pleasurable moments spread all around the hour of exercise.

    During some points of the exercise routine I choose to focus deeply in the physical experience, akin with concentration the attention towards breathing for meditation or relaxation. I make an effort to fully feel each muscle, each tingle of pain, the flowing breath, the sweat running, the heat of the skin. This seems to work nicely for short bursts, I do get to remember those moments afterwards (which make for a happy memory successfully!).

    Interestingly, keeping this kind of focus for too long seems to actually make it harder to remember. After a couple of minutes of focusing on the physical experience the body retracts itself back to this “automatic-experiencing” mode with its 3 second attention span. When this happens I actually find it hard to recall what I was focussing on in the first place. Makes me think that for this focus-and-imprint thing to work properly it actually needs to be in short bursts in order to give the mind a chance to imprint it into the long lasting memory.

    1. Nice! I like this method of paying attention to the physical experience. I’ve done something similar and you’re right, I do remember those moments very well afterwards.

      I think the ability to pay attention in this way is trainable, and is a large part of what certain kinds of meditation are about. But there may indeed be a physical limitation on how much of your ongoing experience it’s possible to convert into long-term memories. I wonder if the mechanism is well understood.

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