How Would You Live Today If You Could See Yourself In 20 Years?

You need a new computer, but you’re short on cash. Your friend tells you he “knows a guy” who can get you exactly what you want on the cheap—just don’t ask where it came from.

You’re a little stressed and the offer is tempting. Do you take it even though you’re pretty sure it’s stolen?

This was the question posed to college students in a study about ethics and what affects decision-making. As you might guess, some students chose to take the stolen computer. Others didn’t.

What might surprise you, though, is one group of students was predictably more likely to do the right thing and refuse the stolen merchandise. The reason? They did one simple thing before deciding.

What they did differently will affect how you live your own life, build good habits, and make smart decisions today and in the future.

Curious what is?

Dear Future Me, Please Do The Right Thing

A few years ago at Northwestern University, three professors from the Kellogg School of Management were curious about how to get people within an organization to do the right thing when faced with temptations.

They tested a hypothesis that thinking about yourself in the future could encourage you to make better decisions. For their research, they rounded up a group of college students and asked them the computer question posed above.

First, though, everyone was asked to imagine themselves in the future and write a letter to themselves about who they are today. One group was told to look three months into the future. The other? 20.

Guess which group chose to do the right thing predictably more often? The 20-year group, of course.

But how does writing a simple letter—something no one else will ever read—lead you to make better choices?

The fascinating reason behind this has to do with how you see yourself in the future.

Research has shown most people, when imagining themselves in the near future, will picture their surroundings through their own eyes. It’s as if you are yourself within your own imagination. But when you look into the distant future, you’re more likely to take an omniscient view—removed from the scene—and see yourself as a stranger. Your life becomes a third person narrative.

The letter writing campaign these students took on altered how they viewed themselves in the future. It forced them to connect that vision of themselves in the future with who they are today. And that connection, interestingly, helped them make smarter, more ethical choices.

What could this do for your life and the habits you want to build? Goals you want to meet? Ideals you want to live by?

How To Write A Letter To Yourself

If you have important goals, habits, and ideals you want to live by, the science is in: you can help yourself stick to them by writing yourself a letter. And, just like the research has shown, thinking about the distant future works better than thinking about the near-term.

Want to lose weight? Write to your future self about diet and exercise. Aspiring to a great career? Tell yourself about the steps you’ll be taking to get there. Want to build the habit of adventure and travel more? Describe the placse you’ll be going and getting to reflect back on in the years to come.

Here’s how to formulate your own habit-cementing letter:

  • Write to yourself at least 20 years in the future. The research shows long-term works better than short-term. Sit down and imagine at least 20 years ahead to get the greatest effect from this simple technique.
  • Focus on the specific goals, habits, and ideals you want to cement. This Northwestern study showed that writing to yourself in the future will help you make more ethical decisions, but focusing on specific goals, habits, and ideals you want to be an important part of your life will help you benefit in those areas just by putting your attention on them.
  • Describe your present self in the letter. The important thing about writing to yourself in the future is that it connects back to who you are today. So, describe the goals, habits, and ideals you want to embrace as if you already are.
  • Repeat at least once a year.  All kinds of research shows you’re more likely to do what you say you will when you’re regularly confronted with your own commitments. Turn letter writing into a habit you repeat—at least once per year—for best results. The more you do it, the more reminders you get.

If you want to live a better life today, start by thinking about tomorrow. When you write to yourself, your brain will start to connect the dots into the future and quietly influence you to make the choices you need to become the person you want to be.

Do This In The Next 10 Minutes

Your homework today, and it’s very important, is to leave a comment with a short note to yourself 20 years in the future. Follow the steps above for best effect. For now, focus on just one ideal you want to be a part of your life.

Start this new habit right here with me today. I’ll kick it off with the first comment.

Additional sources:
You Make Better Decisions If You “See” Your Senior Self
For Long-Range Thinking, Imagine the Future Self