Don’t let “the future” turn into “too late”

Exercise, Brain, Daily, Purpose, Future You

The forward march of evolution? Perhaps we missed a fork in the road…

Yes, we’ve come a long way. And despite the difficulty to perceive it, we are still evolving as a species. Though perhaps not as fast as our capabilities to harvest (exploit) the natural world around us. Or the structure of our society.

But it is not all bad, because our brains are also quite capable of adapting when our bodies have not yet done so. It is not all gloom and doom. Really.

Which is not to say our brains don’t need all the help they can get. Signposts, so to speak, on the evolutionary road.

A short while ago, I talked about how a big part of what’s holding a lot of us back from exercising regularly is that, despite all the evidence we have, we tend to discount the future too much for our own good.

In that post, I ended up suggesting a strategy for reducing the strength of that effect, to help our brains deal with it: Having frequent good looks at ourselves. Not in a mirror, because it is not about how we look today; instead, we need to look at what some refer to as the “Future Self,” the person you want to be when you get old(er).

Even that, however, does not always suffice. Because there are strong forces aligned against our regular exercising.

No, there is no great conspiracy or big money interests in fattening us up. Just plain human nature: Mainly, a tendency to want to make money (a proxy for controlling reproductive resources), which drives most business activities, including the food industry; also, a propensity to not understand just how optimistic we tend to be about the future.

It is this latter part that I want to talk about today.

The Lure of the Future

Perhaps you’ve had a chance to watch the talk I mentioned in that previous post. If so, then what I’m about to say will already be familiar. If not, I still urge you to watch it, even though I’m about to give you another big chunk of knowledge I gleaned from it.

At the same time as we discount the future benefits of being active and healthy, we tend to overestimate how much more willing to exercise we will be tomorrow. Like last time, I have a few pictures, also shamelessly lifted from the excellent talk by Dr. Whatshername, to bring the point home…

Exercise, Daily, Everyday

The present eventually turns into the future. But is it the future we had anticipated?

In a nutshell, today you might say “I’m tired, and I have a lot to do, so I’ll rest today and exercise tomorrow.” (Note: This can be quite alright, given that it is the exception, and that you do, in fact, regularly exercise. Rest is often a good idea, and listening to your body when it asks for it is always in good order.)

But what happens the next day? And the day after that? Without a strong commitment device (a Purpose, ideally, or perhaps some other mechanisms to help us in the short term), many of us simply overestimate how willing they will be to exercise in the future, and mainly fail to do it in the present.

It is called the “Present Bias,” but it could also be called “Procrastination.” I like to think of it as boundless optimism about the future, because what it comes down to is precisely that: An optimism about how much more willing and capable to exercise we will be tomorrow.

Admit it, you’ve felt that way. I sure have, all too often.

What’s wrong with that?

Exercise, Fitness, Health, Everyday

Today is the day. Everyday.

Well, when tomorrow comes, it is no longer “tomorrow,” but again “today.” And guess what? “Today” we feel just like we did on the “today” which was “yesterday.”

Confused yet?

Don’t think about it too much. Just keep this in mind: Today is the only time you have to make the right choices.

And there is a strategy to help your brain with that as well.

No-brainer Decisions

Yup, you guessed it (probably): The trick is to not think about making that decision, and just do what you know you need to do.

Don’t consider what you feel like doing tomorrow. Consider that exercising is the right thing to do today.

That’s a big part of the reason why I chose “No-brainer Fitness” as the name for this blog. I recognized a long time ago that many of the decisions we agonize over should not be agonized over. They need to become automatic. No-brainers. Because that is a good way to follow one’s Purpose on a daily basis.

By the way, the same applies to food as well. In everything I wrote about exercise, in this post and the previous one, you can substitute “eating right” and get the same result:

Diet, Exercise, Daily, Everyday, Health, Fitness

Exercise and diet, diet and exercise; two parts of the same future discounting and present bias.

It all comes down to the choices we make on a daily basis.

Those choices are the signposts of your own personal evolution towards fitness and a long, active life.

Being able to imagine the future, thinking about Future You, is a powerful tool. But too much optimism about the future, only just a day away, is also a dangerous procrastination device. It is not called a “double-edged” sword for nothing.

Hence my recommendation: Keep Future You in mind as you go through each day, and don’t consider what you might do tomorrow. Decide, each day, to work towards that Future You.

Perhaps more importantly, don’t even make the decision. Just exercise. It’s a no-brainer! Or it has to become one…

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Image credits: All images in this post were shamelessly lifted from an excellent lecture given by Michele Belot, Professor of Economics and Director of the Behavioural Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh (BLUE), as the third lecture in the 2014 Our Changing World series, entitled “Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours“. It is a really good lecture, about which I have spoken in a previous post.

Take a good look at Future You

Exercise, Future You, Sedentary, Movement, Daily

When something is done well, you might as well use it. But make sure to credit the source.

Why don’t we exercise enough?

Is it because we are too lazy? Not disciplined enough? Unable to stay motivated?

If you’ve read my most recent post, you know those are essentially the questions we were left with at the end. Because we have all the evidence we need about why we should exercise.

If you’ve read anything else on this blog in the past, you know the answer is not in motivation or discipline, two strategies that will fail you eventually, or drive you (and many around you) nuts.

It is pretty clear that only the strongest Purpose can keep us going in the long term. Yet for most this sense of Purpose remains elusive.

So while it seems we have tendency to be lazy, the truth is slightly different. You could say we are “wired” to be lazy, to economize our efforts, and only the strongest of wills can hold firm on their self-commitments.

By the way, this is not a figment of my imagination, or some wild theory I just came up with. It comes from research in behavioural economics, which others could probably explain better than I can.

But I’m going to explain it to you in my own words. With the help of visuals from a really good talk I recently watched on YouTube. (Even if you think you don’t have time, if you are serious about understanding fitness and long-term health, you should be watching that talk. After reading this post.)

The Truth

Most of us have a strong discounting rate when it comes to our “Future Selves”. (That’s a term borrowed from economics, and it is highly accurate in meaning. However, most of us are not bankers and economists, thankfully. So…) To put it more simply, I hope, the problem is as follows: when you think about the way Future You will be, the possibility of a healthy and active Future You is not seen as important enough because it is too far into the future.

Even though you want to be healthy and fit (who doesn’t?), the Future You is too remote, too distant, too hard to see clearly. The present, and very near future, occupy all that your mind can really consider and act upon. No, I’m not saying we live only for the present, but we have a strong bias in favour of the short-term instead of the long-term.

Those of us who have a much stronger Purpose typically enjoy a stronger sense of that Future Self. In essence, to them it is easier to keep their eyes on the prize. (Back to our economics/finance terminology, a stronger sense of the Future You comes from having a much smaller discounting rate). In other words, a strong Purpose can be understood as considering the distant future as equally important, or even more important, than the present or near-future.

Let’s see how this works

Look again at the image at the top of this post.

You have two pictures of Future You: one that is healthy and fit, and one that is frail and, probably, suffering from some illness(es). The road to each Future You is a series of short-term actions, choices that happen everyday, with their specific consequences:

Exercise, Daily, Health, Fitness

Two images of Future You…

Although there is no absolute certainly about the outcome, we know for sure what the odds are:

Exercise, Fitness, Health

Feeling lucky, punk? It is all about playing the odds… I know what my money is on.

Take a good, hard look at those two Future You. Can you see them well? Which do you want to really be Future You? I bet I know.

So what happens? Why is it still not a complete no-brainer to exercise regularly?

Well, each of us considers those futures against the present. It is a decision process in which you pit Present You against Future You. At least in terms of enjoyment:

Health, Fitness, Exercise, Daily

If the future appears not important enough, you are likely to pick doing nothing.

Conversely, if the Future You is clear enough, and important enough, your choice would be otherwise:

Health, Fitness, Exercise, Daily

If Future You is “important” enough in your mind, you will act accordingly. Most of the time. Well, often enough.

That’s basically it. How well you can see Future You, and how you manage to keep Future You in mind on a daily basis, influences how you behave. How much you are eager to exercise regularly.

This works whether Future You is simply a healthy and active Old You, or an incredibly fit and muscular Two Years From Now You, or Winning A Race in 6 Months You. Future You is what you envision yourself to be like at some point in the future. Personally, the only Future You I think is truly worth having in mind, having as a Purpose, is Healthy And Active Old You. Which should make You exercise regularly, and in a reasonable way…

Future You, which becomes the source of your Purpose, is not the only contributing factor to exercising regularly, as we’ll see next time. But it is a necessary beginning. Without it, you must fall back on motivation, or worse, on discipline.

The good news is that you can improve how Future You influences Present You. You need to look at Future You regularly.

So keep a picture of Future You where you can take a good look at it everyday, just as you head out to exercise…

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Image credits: All images in this post were shamelessly lifted from an excellent lecture given by Michele Belot, Professor of Economics and Director of the Behavioural Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh (BLUE), as the third lecture in the 2014 Our Changing World series, entitled “Behavioural Economics and Health Behaviours“. It is a really good lecture, about which I will talk again in my next post. And from which I will shamelessly lift more images.