“Honesty is the best policy.”
– Benjamin Franklin (maybe)
Last Thursday I wrote about taking advantage of the peak-end rule to make it easier to do more of the things you want to be doing, like going to the gym. That technique works because our memories and our experiences don’t always align — we’re in some sense made up of two different selves, what Daniel Kahneman calls the remembering self and the experiencing self.
There’s another way to think of yourself as being made of different selves, and it leads to the very useful technique of setting policies and sticking to them.
I’ve always been active, but I’ve never been an endurance runner. Every time I tried running for more than five minutes I wound up out of breath and in pain. But a few years ago something changed, and I realized that if I pace myself properly I can run moderate distances without too much trouble. And though it’s still a little painful, I discovered that running doesn’t tire me out like I expected, it’s a great way to warm up for other kinds of exercise, and it reliably generates that post-workout high.
Still, once I added running on the treadmill (or as a friend likes to call it, the hamster wheel) to my workout routine, I ended up going to the gym less often. At home I would remember the pain of running and sometimes decide not to go to the gym at all. Realizing this, I stopped bringing my running shoes and the problem went away. (This is not as strange as it sounds: my gym is a rock climbing gym and I spend most of my time there in climbing shoes.)
Except now there was a new problem: once I got to the gym I wanted to run and I couldn’t because my shoes were at home.
What’s going on here?
The version of me at home felt deterred by the pain of running, and the version of me at the gym just wanted to get on the treadmill. Me-at-home had just woken up — of course I didn’t feel like running at that point. Me-at-the-gym had just biked to the gym and was already half warmed up — of course I felt like running. The problem was, the one making the decision to run was me-at-home.
Let the Best Self Decide
I resolved my dilemma by instituting a personal policy: always bring running shoes to the gym but don’t make the decision to run until I walk in the door. Me-at-home thinks, “Packing these shoes does not oblige me to run. I’ll only run if I really feel like it.”
Now the decision feels like a game, and when I leave the house I find myself wondering which way I’ll decide. Will I run or not? The anticipation makes me want to go to the gym more, not less.
The key, however, is to be honest with your past and future selves. The policy only works because me-at-home and me-at-the-gym have an understanding. If me-at-the-gym doesn’t actually feel like running but I make myself do it anyway — because “I might as well, since I have my shoes with me” — then me-at-home will feel betrayed.
In fact, the first time I put the policy in effect I intentionally didn’t run on the treadmill even though I wanted to. I did this to set a precedent and to signal to myself that I was taking the policy seriously.
The Art of Making Deals With Yourself
A good personal policy is an agreement between selves that you can feel good about on both ends, and crafting one is an art. It’s harder than it sounds and is full of subtle pitfalls. Here are some rules of thumb that may help you build policies of your own:
- Start small and build trust slowly with success spirals.
- Empathize with your other self: you will feel differently about things when caffeinated, tired, excited, calm, or angry, and these states are mostly physiological.
- Be fair. A policy that is onerous or one-sided inevitably results in a breach of contract, and it’s hard to rebuild trust in yourself after a breach.
- Practice. Willpower is a limited resource, but like a muscle it gets stronger with exercise.
- Understand how you discount the pleasure and pain of future events in inconsistent ways.
- Be flexible and adjust your policies over time as your circumstances change. Don’t be alarmed when the technique that seems like a magic bullet “wears off” after a few months.
This idea of trading or negotiating with future selves is closely related to the idea of identity, which I’ll be writing about in a future post. I’ll also come back to this idea in the context of productivity and time management. Coming up next: the right way to motivate yourself with rewards.
Have you ever struck a deal with your future self? How has it worked out? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.
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