The guide: keep your future out of the trash can (and vice versa)

"Riding horses is exhilarating and will challenge you physically and mentally," says a horseback riding guide. "Good horsemen spend a lifetime learning how to improve their riding." No wonder horse riding is a good metaphor for the challenges we face in life.

This is the third article in a series about a new way to interact with the world.  There are links to the first three articles at the bottom of this one.

No proper trail ride starts without carefully matching a horse and its rider, and none is complete without a good guide.  Lacking either can turn an adventure into a disaster.  It's good to remember that a horse has a mind of its own, and without either the proper training or the proper direction from its rider, it will probably take the rider where he doesn't want to go, even resulting in injury.

Which trail are you on right now?

Who is making you read this article? Is it your past self? Your past self got you here, but your past self isn't making you read this article. Why are you here then? Your past self was interested enough to read this far, but you can stop reading any time. Because your past self isn't controlling you.

I say this to illustrate the point that you have no control over your future self. Just as your past self can't make you read this article, you can't force your future self to do anything. 

Too often we make plans, assuming our future self will follow through unquestioningly.  

Nothing illustrates a point better than an extreme example.  Take this scene from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.The movie, released in 1989, gave future The Matrix star Keanu Reeves his breakthrough role.  In case you haven't seen the movie, it's about two dim-witted high school students who use a time machine from the future to help them pass their history class. The boys realize they can solve their current problems using the time machine:

Our historical figures are all locked up and my dad won't let them out.

Can we get your dad's keys?

I could steal them, but he lost them two days ago.

If only we could go back in time to when he had them and steal them then.

Well, why can't we?

Bill thinks about what he would do in the future to solve his current problem and discovers the keys hidden in a logical location nearby.

In the following scenes, the boys run around assisted by their future selves who have cleverly hidden useful devices where they will need them. The tension builds until the heroes are seemingly trapped in an impossible situation.  But then Ted has an epiphany:In case the video won't load, it shows Bill and Ted trapped in their escape attempt by Ted's father.  Ted imagines a trash can hanging from the ceiling as a booby trap for his father.  As the trash can falls from the ceiling the audience is expected to believe Ted eventually uses the time machine to place it there in the past.


I remember the scene so well because it was immediately obvious to me how improbable this would be, even if time travel were possible.  The producers must have felt the ridiculousness would add to the vibe of the movie.

When you are firmly resolved to make a change, what happens?

I couldn't have been the only one watching the movie who doubted that a real-life Ted would have either the discipline or the ability to accomplish his spontaneous intention, time machine or no.  What about the real world?  How well do most of us follow through on our intentions?

Does having a high degree of emotional investment in the outcome ensure we'll follow through?  Take New Year's resolutions, for example. estimates that in 2020, about three out of four U.S. residents made resolutions.  Out of that number, another three out of four believed they would achieve their goal.  But how many actually did?  Results of studies vary, with one reporting 55 percent success after one yearOscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., & Rozental, A. (2020). A large-scale experiment on New Year's resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PloS one, 15(12), e0234097. and another, 19 percent after two years.John C. Norcross, Dominic J. Vangarelli (1988) The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts, Journal of Substance Abuse, Volume 1, Issue 2, Pages 127-134,  In the latter study, 23 percent of the respondents didn't maintain their pledges longer than a week.

It's likely none of those who abandoned their resolutions understood the many selves concept.  

It's more helpful to view ourselves as a collection of selves over time, each of whom have authentic wants and desires.  The person making the resolution isn't the same person faced with actually having to carry it out.  The Ted in the movie who desperately wants to see a trash can entrap his misguided father isn't the same Ted who will be faced with the laborious job of rigging a trash can to the ceiling in a place that's hard to get into, after he's already received the glory and the benefits that would have given him the motivation to do so.

The intentions of my past self are but one of many inputs determining the outcome of a decision I've made.  There are many others I'm facing right now, many of which I never could have anticipated, including my current social environment, my current mood, and my physical state.  Looking at things from this perspective, is it possible to expect success at anything I want to accomplish in the future?

I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night because I’m ‘night guy’. ‘Night guy’ wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours of sleep?’ ‘Oh, that’s morning guy’s problem. That’s not my problem—I’m night guy! I stay up as late as I want.’ So, you get up in the morning, with your alarm, and you’re exhausted and groggy…Oh, I hate that ‘night guy’! Ya see, ‘night guy’ always screws ‘morning guy’. There’s nothing ‘morning guy’ can do. The only thing ‘morning guy’ can do is try to oversleep often enough so that ‘day guy’ loses his job and ‘night guy’ has no money to go out anymore.  --Jerry Seinfeld

A master guide is a master salesman

Before we give up and relegate our efforts to taking our revenge on "night guy," take courage.  The solution is to think like a salesman.

A salesman?

While mastering the role of narrating self involves sharpening our storytelling skills, to succeed in the role of planning self we need to think like a salesman.

A master salesman understands their job involves:

  • Communicating value to the customer.  The customer needs to understand how the product will help them solve a problem.
  • Convincing the customer that this product can solve their problem.
  • Understanding who the buyers are.
  • Knowing what the buyers need.
  • Knowing how to put themselves in the buyer's place.

Here's how it applies:

  • Your future self needs to be as convinced as you are that this action needs to be taken.  How will you make sure you don't forget?
  • Your future self will be in a different position than you are right now.  How can you convince your future self this will work?
  • You're selling this idea, not to one future self, but to many.  How well can you know what circumstances you'll face in the future?
  • What support can you provide your future self right now? What will you need to accomplish this action?  Where will you get it?
  • Who can your future self turn to for support?

Other things to consider:

How will your future self know if you've accomplished what you set out to do?  How will you be able to compare the outcome to your intention?

I hope this idea will resonate with you

I recently learned the phrase "resonant identity."  It sounds like a buzz phrase, and maybe it is, but there's an important concept here.  If the product you need is only sold by someone you don't like, you'll buy it there because you have to.  But if you have the choice, you'll buy it from someone you identify with and relate to, someone whose personality resonates with yours.  Does this relate to our future selves too?  Science says it does.

Think like an old person, and your future self will thank you

A 2011 study looked for the answer to the question: Does my view of my future self affect the way I live now?  Hal Hershfield and colleagues observed how people's view of their future selves affected their behavior, specifically when it comes to saving for the future.  Hershfield concluded:

Future self-similarity accounted for unique variance in decision making, even when controlling for related constructs such as uncertainty about the future, affective appraisal of future outcomes, and the extent to which one is biased toward the present.Hershfield H. E. (2011). Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1235, 30–43.

In other words, they tried to rule out age, education, or anything else as a cause, and to control for just one variable: How did the way participants viewed their future selves affect their willingness to make sacrifices today to benefit themselves at some point in the years to come?

According to the study, here are things that make people more willing to sacrifice for their own future:

  • They think of their future self as similar to the present self.
  • They can vividly picture their future life.
  • They see their future life in positive terms.

Interestingly, participants who had a positive mental picture of elderly people also made such sacrifices.  Because, of course, seeing your future self vividly and positively means picturing yourself positively as an elderly person.

Don't lose sight of the big picture

The moral of the story is, visualize yourself living happily in retirement and put your nose to the grindstone and sacrifice your present life to make it happen, right?

Not necessarily. Hershfield adds, "People overestimate the degree to which they will feel good about a positive outcome and bad about a negative outcome."  He provides two examples: "Lottery winners and nonlottery winners are equally happy, and professors who fail to receive tenure still go on to lead meaningful, productive lives."In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman cites a Princeton undergraduate thesis (Cohn, 1999) where the respondents (362 adults, recruited by a professional survey firm) were asked to evaluate the well-being of fictitious members of various categories of people, by answering the following question: “Overall, what percentage of the time would you say that Jim is in a good mood, in a bad mood, or in a neutral mood?” Respondents who were not personally acquainted with a lottery winner or a paraplegic attributed almost the same level of misery to paraplegics and almost the same level of joy to lottery winners whether a year or a month had passed since the event. As a consequence, the long-term effects of these life circumstances on well-being are greatly exaggerated.

Making plans and sacrificing for the future are beneficial.  Is there something in your life you have now because you've made a sacrifice in some way in the past? Then you know the value of temporary self-denial. How can we balance enjoying life today with making life easier on our future selves?

Don't let fear unsettle you.  The success or failure of your current efforts will have little effect on your overall future happiness.  On the other hand, not putting forth any effort can lead to future regrets.  A future article will discuss this.

Let's take action

Let's break down our salesman analogy and apply it to ourselves.

Your future self needs to be as convinced as you are that this action needs to be taken. How will you make sure you don't forget?

First, ask yourself why you are taking this action.  Will it move you closer to something you want?  Will it be worth the effort?  To help yourself decide, imagine you had the time and everything else you need to take the action right now.  Would you do it?  If the answer is no, maybe you shouldn't do it at all.  Why would your future self feel any different?

Write down your desired end result. Visualize what is necessary to get there. Try to work forward from where you are now and backward from where you want to be.  It's possible there's an insurmountable gap in there.  Finding it now will save your future self a lot of wasted effort.

Now that you are convinced you want to take this action, write it down.  Write it as if you were explaining it to someone who disagrees with you.  It might be your future self who will disagree.  By all means, don't trust your remembering self to see things the way you do now.  Remember, the handler is unreliable and untrustworthy.

Your future self will be in a different position than you are right now. How can you convince your future self that this will work?

Put on your black hat and weigh the possibility of failure.  Consider the potential cost of failure.  Is it worth the risk?  Again, write down your reasons. Consider possible scenarios (future selves) where things go badly, and create a plan to account for them (disasters, loss of a job, etc).

Establish a clear system for deciding what is important and what you should work on first.  The system is often more important than the goal. (Thank you, James Clear.)

Make taking action easy for your future selves.  Break it up into bite-sized pieces as much as possible.  A little action more often is much better than a big push once in a while.

You're selling this idea, not to one future self, but to many. How well can you know what circumstances you'll face in the future?

You've thought about what can go wrong with your goal. Now think about what can change in your life.  What changes do you expect to see?  What changes might surprise you?  Try to consider them all, and think about how you'll adjust your plans in each case.

Try to remove as many obstacles as you can now.  What can you remove from your life to make it easier to stay committed to your goal? 

What support can you provide your future self right now? What will you need to accomplish this action? Where will you get it?

What materials, information, and connections will your future self need to accomplish the task?  How can you begin making them available?

What steps will my future selves need to follow?  What training or equipment will I need?

Create a framework to guide your future self. 

  • Schedule events on a calendar.
  • Set reminders on your phone.
  • Make something you are looking forward to contingent on making progress. 
  • Learn about commitment devices.  Here's a good place to start.

Where can your future self turn to for support that you don't already have?

Who will be able to help my future selves?  What will I need to do to get them on board?

Establishing a support network now can help assure you'll reach your goal.  People who commit themselves to others often do better than if they just commit to themselves.

You should go through this process for anything in your life you would regret not doing.  Make a list of your ideal possible selves and ask yourself, At the end of my life, will I regret not doing this?  If so, set a date on your calendar to do this exercise for each ideal possible self.

But don't do the exercise and stop there.  Every time you picture yourself thinking of a possible future self, positive or negative, get your list out and add it somewhere.  Your future will gradually become clearer.

As you begin taking the steps you've outlined on your list, regularly check to see if things are progressing the way you expected.  Make adjustments as necessary.  Keep the yellow hat nearby for times when you are feeling discouraged, and put the black hat on when things are going well.  Write down your successes.  And remember, writing down setbacks and failures is also important.  You will be more likely to learn from them, and your narrating self can weave them into a useful part of the story.

While the steps outlined above are directed to an individual who wants to manage her many selves, they can just as easily be applied to managing a team of other-selves. After all, a good manager learns to manage herself first.

Congratulations.  You've got your map, and the trainer and the guide have worked together to plan out your route for you.  They've also been hard at work getting the horse ready.  Next time you'll finally get to saddle up and take a spin around the corral.


  • You can't control your future self. Instead of dictating plans to yourself (or others), persuade your future selves.
  • A master planning self:
    • Writes a convincing record of reasons to act and the steps involved.
    • Creates a system for easily reaching the goal using small, sustained efforts.
    • Anticipates changes that may require adjustments to reach the goal.
    • Provides the materials, information, and connections to the ones who will use the system in the future.
    • Establishes a support network that will ensure success.

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