Most of my financial planning clients feel strongly that they are willing to forgo present consumption for the sake of future consumption i.e. they are willing to make sacrifices now to ensure a financially secure retirement for themselves in the future. However, a few have no desire to make this sacrifice and simply don’t feel that their future selves should in any way determine how they should act today. Now, it’s only too easy to criticize this latter view as being selfish and short-sighted, but I want to suggest that it may have more to do with their understanding of what constitutes the ‘self’.
If you believe in a unified concept of the self (see my recent post: The Importance of Getting Lost) that endures over time, where the future is as equally a part of you as the present, then it makes sense to criticize any neglect of your future self. On the other hand, if you deny the existence of a single entity persisting over time and think of the ‘self’ as being more a series of overlapping selves connected by memories and similarities of character and interests, then it makes sense that you might feel more separate from your future self than, say, from another person. This suggests the possibility that it might indeed be rational to neglect one’s future self in favor of one’s current self.
If you doubt this reflect for a moment on the nature of procrastination. Does this not involve imposing a burden on your future self that you don’t want to impose on your current self? If you repeatedly procrastinate does it not say something about how you regard your future self, that you are consistently willing to impose burdens on him or her rather than impose them on your current self? This suggests that our relationship with our future selves is not all that different from our relationship with other human beings. The solution to treating others badly is to develop empathy, putting oneself in the shoes of another. Perhaps we can use the same technique to solve the problem of procrastination, by putting ourselves in the shoes of our future self and convincing ourselves that our future self is just as much in need of care and concern as our present self?
“I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.” Susan Orlean