PSCYHOLOGY TODAY, Carlos Alós-Ferrer Ph.D.

Stop thinking of your future self as “yourself.”

  • Many of us struggle to keep track of tasks and deadlines, and get frustrated with ourselves.
  • The mistake is in how you treat your future self.
  • A simple change of perspective on how you view your future self can greatly improve your self-management.

Do any of the following examples sound familiar?

  • You make a “mental note” about something important. Then you forget it until it’s too late.
  • You leave your home. You forgot an item (your glasses, your backpack, your gloves…) again!
  • Your workplace is so full of written notes and post-its that you just ignore them.
  • Where did that deadline come from? It completely escaped your mind.
  • You keep promising yourself to “get organized,” but you never find the time for it (and would not know where to start anyway).

The good news is you are not alone. Many of us struggle with self-management and feel like we have too much to do to keep track of everything. The bad news is that does not make it any less frustrating.

You and Your Future Self

Do you wish there was a better way to keep things in your mind? There are many proven and tried self-management and organization methods, which some people swear to be life-changing. Some of them might work for you. This post is not about that. Quite the opposite. We are going to talk about one simple change of perspective that will probably help you.

Ready? Here it goes.

Stop thinking of your future self as yourself.

Raising an eyebrow? Please bear with me for a minute.

A large part of your brain is devoted to unconscious thought and action. You do not usually remind yourself to breathe every few seconds. You do not really think about all the steps involved in walking, or even in typing on your computer.

Your brain constantly looks for ways to automatize behavior to free your mental resources for more important tasks. When you learned to drive, you needed to think about every little step and check. A few years later, you “just drive” without a second thought. This is marvelous. Imagine how limited our lives would be if we always had to pay the same level of attention to everything, even after doing it a thousand times.

The downside is that a lot of what you do—indeed, a lot of what you are—comes from automatic brain functions. You have a route to go from home to work. If you need to do something different today and turn right rather than left at that intersection, chances are that you will still turn left, and mentally yell at yourself for doing so. Because that is the routine programmed in your brain.

As we are bombarded with more things to do, more information, and more important things to keep in mind, we need to step out of our routines. And that is difficult. You are fighting a very efficient part of your brain that simply wants to keep doing what it knows.

Your Future Self Is Not Your Subordinate

What can you do to make sure that you break the routines when you need to, and remember that deadline, that thing you need to take with you, that new task you need to complete?

When you make a mental note, you cannot conceive that you will forget it. It is completely present, it is clear why it is important, and, after all, if you know now, you will know later, because it is just you, right?


If you need to do or remember something later, you want to pass information from your present self to your future self. But in the present, you think of your future self as just the non-automatic part of yourself. And that is wrong. Your future self is a mixture of that and a very powerful set of automatic behaviors.

A trainer, or a well-chosen set of self-help books, might help you put together a life-changing set of strategies to better manage your future self and improve your life. Here, I am just going to give you a simple principle that might help you, starting right now.

Treat your future self as if he or she were your extremely busy boss.

Most likely, you have been doing exactly the opposite. You are treating your future self as a subordinate, somebody who just must react to your every whim, and do so without a fault. When that does not work, you become frustrated with that subordinate who keeps failing to carry out your wishes—yourself

Turn that around. Suppose you need to make sure that your very busy boss remembers a meeting, or a deadline, or the need to grab something. Will you just tell the boss once, in passing, and trust that this single reminder will be enough? Surely not! You will start thinking about how to set reminders. Maybe take the time to set up a daily checklist and think where that should be so that the boss sees it for sure. Maybe program an alarm or two on the boss’ phone, with text reminders.

Suppose you need your boss to remember a key piece of information. Or 12. Will you just cover his or her workplace with a carpet of post-its and leave the boss to sort through them? Certainly not. You will think that through. Maybe a single Post-it in the middle of the computer screen for the first thing the boss needs to do in the morning. And maybe the rest go into a tidy priority list in an otherwise clean desk.

Suppose you just realize something important, and your boss needs to keep that in mind later. But the boss is in the middle of a meeting. Will you just whisper that piece of information to him or her and move on? No. You need to make a proper (but short) note right away and make sure the boss will receive it, maybe as an email, maybe as a clearly labeled note.

If you think of your future self as a busy boss, you will realize that you cannot take things for granted. In the present, you need to stop and think about how to help your busy boss in the future.

Once you make this mental switch, you will start noticing things that you can do to help your (future) self. And you can do a lot more than you would be able to do for your busy boss at work because you have better access.

You can program alarms in your future self’s phone. You can hang must-take things from the house door handle, or block the door with a big object to remind yourself about something you need to do.

Think of your routines, and assume that your future self is just mindlessly following them tomorrow. What can you do today to make sure that they are interrupted? How can you tinker with them now? Get creative! You know yourself best. Just remember: You are not your future self.