“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.
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:
- Set Policies You Can Stick To
- Be Careful With External Rewards
- Use the Power of Identity
- Remember That It’s Worth Your Time
- Work in Short Chunks and Take Breaks
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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