Staying on the trail - become a time traveler

I'm going to share one of the secrets of time travel with you.

Over the years I've thought a lot about the implications of time travel and I've come to the realization that it's more possible than most people realize.  And I'm not talking about science fiction.  But that will have to wait for later.  I'm going to share something here that I've learned much more recently.

This article is part of a series.

Talking to myself

I've been having conversations between my past and future selves.  I didn't think of it that way at first.  It started when I began adding predictions to my annual review about what things would be like the next year.  I wrote a quip at the end, asking my future self to let me know how many of the predictions came true.  The following year I enjoyed "replying" to my past self by writing so my future selves could read the "conversation."  At the time I thought that these conversations would be limited to one-way.  But then I made another discovery.

I've been learning more about structuring my implementation intentions to make them more useful.  I used to have long to-do lists with items that once appealed to me but which often ended up never getting done.  I would feel bad about not following through on something that seemed so important to me at one time.  It wasn't a great system.

Keeping myself on track

Now I have a separate note for each intention with entries by date.  As I've recommended already, the first step toward any goal should start with motivation.  Ask yourself, why do I want to take this action?  Then write it down.  Don't expect your future self to remember.  

I should mention that this method isn't needed for every type of task.  Some tasks absolutely have to be done, and they have to be done by a certain date.  There are other methods that work best, such as breaking up the task into sections, estimating how much time each section will take, and scheduling each part for its own date.  What I'm talking about here isn't the urgent, day-to-day must-dos, but the tasks that can move you closer to the future you wish to inhabit.

Using this method, the next time you look at the task/intention, you'll also be reminded of the reasons you had in mind for doing it.  Now, in your current circumstances, with your increased knowledge gained in the meantime, you'll be in a better position to re-evaluate.  Were you feeling overly optimistic when you set this goal?  Was there something you hadn't thought of?  Is it still desirable but for some reason not practical to do immediately?  Record the date and your latest thoughts about the goal.

Here's how I discovered how I can have a "true" conversation between my past and future selves.  For one complex repeating task, I had a number of steps listed.  Over time I started to realize that not all the steps were necessary. I jotted down a note about feeling like I should remove one of the steps.  Then I moved on to something else.  The next time I went back I wrote in my journal, "I'm really not even doing steps 1 and 3 but I'm leaving them for now.  Never mind, I just checked with my last month self who told me to get rid of it.  And I didn't think there was two-way communication with the past."

OK, if you were looking for some amazing way to go back in time and reverse a past mistake, you are sadly disappointed right now.  But this method may help you to avoid future mistakes.  Knowing that two versions of myself at two separate times felt the same way about something made it much easier for me to make the decision.  Instead of wasting time and effort to think long and hard about it, I let my unconscious mind do the thinking in the interim.  This is a highly underused method that many people who are now considered geniuses made good use of.

The future self journal method

I didn't make this up.  "Future self journaling" is actually a common enough concept that I'm not going to give specific references here.  I'm taking suggestions from others that combine the strengths and reduce the fluff, as I see it, in others' systems.

The phrase "future self journal" is brilliant, because it captures the goal of the exercise.  It is both a guide for the future self, a way to increase the likelihood of success, as well as a way to measure progress and make course corrections more easily.

Here are the key elements of a future self journal:

  1. Express gratitude
  2. Describe what you want to see
  3. Visualize the experience
  4. Obstacles you might encounter
  5. Implementation intentions
  6. Affirmative statements
  7. Inspiring words

I numbered these in order for a reason.  You may wish to organize them in a different order, omit some entirely, or include things I'm not mentioning. It's your journal to use in any way you wish.

WOOP, whoop!

Before I go into detail about each section, I want to express my gratitude to Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, a professor who has studied the pursuit and achievement of goals for many years.  She developed the WOOP method, which is an acronym standing for:

  • Wish
  • Outcome
  • Obstacles
  • Planning

I won't break down this acronym here, but I'll be integrating her approach into this journaling method and explaining at each point where the two fit together.  Just to prove this method actually gets results, I want to discuss the results of one study that tested the WOOP method.Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Physical activity in women: effects of a self-regulation intervention. American journal of preventive medicine36(1), 29–34.  The study reports that those trained using the WOOP method were "twice as physically active (i.e., nearly 1 hour more per week)" as the control group.

This difference appeared as early as the first week after intervention and was maintained over the course of the 4 months.

Does that sound promising?  Here's a chance to put this power to work in your own life.

How this journal works

Express gratitude

Unlike others who have suggested this type of journal, I'm putting gratitude first.  Here's why:

A rich person is able to get what they want. A grateful person already has what they want.

Of course, every one of us wants to gain riches so we can get what we want, but think about the difference between the two.  One is half empty, the other is half full.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to see improvements in life, but if you're not happy with what you have, what makes you think you'll be happy with more?

Always focus on gratitude first.  Never base your happiness on something that you don't already have.  Besides, gratitude is an antidote to the ego and its tendency to damage relationships.

Describe what you want to see

This is the "wish" part of WOOP.  Every goal starts with a desire for something.  A truly happy person is grateful for what they have, but who wouldn't take more if they get the chance? 

What's on your list?  This is a "wishlist", so you can put anything you want on there.  Think big.  This is no time to limit yourself.

Some people will tell you that you should know exactly what you want in life.  I disagree.  There's always a reason why we want something and it's seldom the reason we think.  If you can write down why you want something the moment you start wanting it, it will be easier to stay focused on it later because you'll be able to reevaluate it.Did you want this car because your neighbor has one?  Now that you've moved to a new neighborhood does it matter? 

So write down what you would like to have or to achieve, and why.  The sky is the limit, but try to capture as much detail as possible.  Put on your yellow hat.

Visualize the experience

This is the "outcome" part.  Imagine you've reached your goal.  Your wish has been granted.  How do you feel?  Try to really put yourself in the shoes of your future self.  Imagine celebrating reaching your goal.  Who will you invite?  What will you do together?

How will your life be different if you reach this goal?

Now, visualize what it will take to get you there.  According to Bob Bowman, coach to Olympic medalist Michael Phelps:

For months before a race Michael gets into a relaxed state. He mentally rehearses for two hours a day in the pool. He sees himself winning. He smells the air, tastes the water, hears the houses, sees the clock.

There is a giant body of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that visualization greatly increases the odds of success.For example, homeowners who imagined themselves utilizing a cable TV service were more likely to subscribe to such a service when requested to do so weeks later. Similar results were found for other situations and applied to both positive and negative events. Gregory, W. L., Cialdini, R. B., & Carpenter, K. M. (1982). Self-relevant scenarios as mediators of likelihood estimates and compliance: Does imagining make it so? _Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43_(1), 89–99. []

Courtney Ackerman, whom I've already quoted a number of times on this blog, writes:

Practicing visualization of goal completion can not only help you improve your focus and mindfulness, it can also lower your stress, improve your performance, enhance your preparedness, and give you the extra energy or motivation you might need to accomplish everything on your list.

In The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Kelly McGonigal wrote, "Imagining your future self can increase your present self's willpower."

While you are visualizing, write down in as much detail as possible what you see.  Now, write a message to your future self.  Cheer yourself on.  As you visualize yourself reaching a milestone, send yourself an inspirational message.  Your future self may actually read it someday and get just the motivation you need to keep going.  Just think how you'll feel!

Visualize yourself making the last step to reach the goal.  What step did you need to take just before that?  Try to work your way from the goal back to where you are right now.

At this stage, keep your imagination focused on positive outcomes.  Of course, it's inevitable that negative situations will come to mind.  After all, up to this point we've basically been daydreaming productively.

Obstacles you might encounter

This is the natural next step.  It's the second "O" in WOOP.  In fact, Dr. Oettingen's genius is discovered right here.  It turns out that visualization, on its own, is a poor tool for achieving goals.  The subconscious mind can't tell the difference between a goal that has actually been achieved and one we've only reached in our imagination.  Ironically, it's by making good use of this step that turns dreams into realities.

This is because there will be obstacles, and they can easily derail our goals unless we are prepared to deal with them.  If, during the process of visualizing the process of reaching your goal, write it down in this section right away.  Do you have doubts that you can ever reach your goal?  Write them all down here.  Fears, frustrations, imposter syndrome, not knowing the next step to take - write down as many as you can think of.  Don't consider any to be silly or insignificant.  This is the time to put on your black hat.

This is really a two-part process.  The first part is to capture everything and keep it where you'll see it later. The second step involves putting the yellow hat back on and finding ways to get around each potential obstacle.  Ideally, this should be done on a different day, when you are in a different state of mind.  There are more sub-steps to the process which I'll discuss in a future article, but for now, just think of one solution per obstacle.

Implementation intentions

This is the P in WOOP.  Take the results of the yellow hat session in the above section, and for each obstacle, write:

When _________ happens, I will ___________.

Now write a message to your future self.  Tell yourself how proud of yourself you are.  Predict how you will feel at that moment.  It might seem silly, but you will be accomplishing two things:

  1. You're making a stronger connection with your future self.  Your experiencing self will be less likely to back out of the deal because both your anticipating self, you right now, and your remembering self, you after you've jumped over the hurdle, are working as a team.
  2. You're also setting yourself up for more success in the future.  If you succeed in overcoming the obstacle, you'll have a pattern you can use again.  Add it to your identity map.  If you fail, you'll have a fairly clear record of why.  It will be easier to make adjustments in the future and learn from this failure.

That's a win-win, either way.

It's important to mention here that this is a process, and the process is actually more important than the outcome.  Why?

What's more important when you're on a trail ride, reaching the destination or enjoying the ride?  Ideally, you'll enjoy both.  But if you go through the trail ride of life pinning all your happiness on reaching some destination or another, you're going to have a lot of regrets, or worse.  Learning to enjoy the ride is the key.  Some of your wildest dreams might come true.  Don't give up on them!  Many of your goals will end in failure.  But learning to enjoy the process means you'll not only have a better life, but you'll be much more likely to reach your goals.

Affirmative statements

A lot of people put these first on the list.  They advise telling yourself how good you are and how successful you'll be.  The problem is, some of the affirmations well-meaning people suggest won't work.  This is because our subconscious knows when we're making things up.  If you tell yourself you'll succeed every time, not only will it not convince you, your subconscious might start doubting what you're telling it at all.  You'll be in ConfiDebt.

I put these down here because we've already started off being grateful, so we're focused, not on making up something we're lacking, but on leaving ourselves open for more.  By the time we've reached this point we've had to think about obstacles, so we'll probably need a confidence boost.

Now's the time to use affirmations, but make sure they fit.  If you felt like your goal is too high and you just aren't cut out for that kind of success, you're probably experiencing "imposter syndrome."  Tell yourself, "Everyone feels like an imposter before they become an expert.  This feeling is a sign that my goals aren't too low."

What if you're discouraged because you're not making the progress you hoped for?  Tell yourself, "I'm human and make mistakes.  I am valuable.  I am competent."

These are all true.  When you write them, and when you re-read what you wrote, and when you rewrite it again because you need a reminder, you'll actually be convincing yourself.

Inspiring words

Need some more inspiration?  Use this space to write down quotes you've encountered recently or good advice you've recently heard.  End the day feeling inspired, and you'll be ready to go through the process again tomorrow.

Enjoy the journey

For some people, life is like a horse race.  They'll bet everything they have on a certain outcome.  Success is always around the next bend in the track.  If you want to live your life that way, more power to you.  For the rest of us, life is a trail ride with many interesting destinations.  If you want to have the best ride possible, along with the other suggestions in this series, I hope you'll try out the future self journal.  I'm confident you'll be glad you did.


  • We can have "real" conversations between our past and future selves.
  • This kind of conversation can help us make decisions we'll find easier to live with.
  • A "future self journal" can help us optimize these conversations.
  • The WOOP method has been shown to help people actually achieve their goals.
  • Elements of a future self journal:
    • Express gratitude
    • Describe what you want to see
    • Visualize the experience
    • Obstacles you might encounter
    • Implementation intentions
    • Affirmative statements
    • Inspiring words
  • Life is a journey.  I hope you enjoy the ride!

Article series

  1. A New Way to See Your Self - Take a Trail Ride to a New Identity
  2. The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going?
  3. The Horse Trainer: Narrate Your Life Like There's No Yesterday
  4. The Guide: Keep Your Future Out of the Trash Can (and Vice Versa)
  5. The Horse: Your Experiencing Self
  6. The Rider - Your Present Self
  7. Don't Beat the Horse
  8. The Fly on the Horse - Self-Distancing
  9. That Tricky Horse Handler - Your Remembering Self
  10. The Destination: Your Future Self
  11. Snakes Along the Trail: Your Fears

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