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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Snakes along the trail: your fears

This may be the most important article in this series. Our hopes and our fears are two of the most important elements that make us who we are.  We are constantly thinking about our hopes, but how often do we think about our fears?

"Nothing is so much to be feared as fear," American naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal in September 1851. Eighty-one years later Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed these sentiments in his inaugural speech:

We have nothing to fear but... fear itself.

When Roosevelt uttered those words, the stakes could scarcely have been higher: The country and the rest of the world were in the midst of the greatest depression of the century. Fear was everywhere, threatening to paralyze any action that could turn the situation around.

While none of us today face fear on the scale seen in the 1930s, we all face the very real possibility that fear can hold us back from achieving our goals and living our values.  This often happens without our conscious realization.

What is fear?

If we compare ourselves to an airplane, our hopes are like the thrust that keeps the plane in motion.  Our fears are like drag.  The forces need to be in balance for the plane to keep moving forward.

We can also compare our fears to a framework.  Fears are like road barriers. 

On one hand, they can keep us out of dangerous situations.  Right now, visualizing a possible future self painfully gasping for breath on a ventilator can motivate us to maintain healthy behaviors, like mask-wearing and social distancing in public. 

On the other hand, sometimes our fears impose barriers to places that we'd like to go - places that won't actually hurt us.  In those cases, we need to get a grasp on what's holding us back and why.

When fear is not helpful

Daniel Gilbert, quoted in the previous article in this series, has thoroughly researched people's predictions about what their levels of happiness will be after a hoped-for event occurs or fails to occur.  Gilbert and colleagues compared the future happiness of assistant professors who achieved tenure with the actual results.  Their happiness quickly returned to the baseline after the tenure was achieved. 

Gilbert and others monitored losing contestants in a dating game to see if they were as unhappy about losing as they predicted they would be.  They consistently were not.Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective Forecasting. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 345–411). Elsevier.

Obviously, fearing adversity in the future is not helpful when the adversity will be momentary.  Whether we attain our hopes, realize our fears, or even encounter an unexpected event, our happiness is usually only momentarily affected.  What about traumatic life events?

Should we fear trauma?

In fact, people who have experienced traumatic events can gain an increased appreciation of life as a result.  In 1995, the psychologists Dr Richard Tedeschi and Dr Lawrence Calhoun coined the phrase "post-traumatic growth" to describe the ability of individuals to triumph over traumatic events.  They describe this phenomenon as follows:

It is manifested in a variety of ways, including an increased appreciation for life in general, more meaningful interpersonal relationships, an increased sense of personal strength, changed priorities, and a richer existential and spiritual life.Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (2004). TARGET ARTICLE: “Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundations and Empirical Evidence.” Psychological Inquiry, 15(1), 1–18.

In a 2004 article, they quoted two individuals who had experienced post-traumatic growth.  Sally Walker, a survivor of an airline crash that killed 83 people said, "[Now] everything is a gift."   Hamilton Jordan, chief of staff for Jimmy Carter, gained a new perspective on life as a cancer survivor:

After my first cancer, even the smallest joys in life took on a special meaning - watching a beautiful sunset, a hug from my child, a laugh with Dorothy. That feeling has not diminished with time.

No one wants to go through trauma, and taking reasonable precautions to avoid severe risks is wise.  But realizing that we can even endure traumatic live events can help us put our fears into perspective.

What about problems?

Who of us isn't fascinated by the idea of a genie in a bottle who could instantly solve our problems for us.  However, if it were possible to have this experience we might quickly conclude that life is less meaningful.  Why?

Challenges and unexpected events bring meaning to life in at least three ways:

  1. They make our life story more interesting.
  2. They add to our skillset and make us more useful.
  3. They allow us to grow in ways we couldn't otherwise.An optimistic outlook, resilience, and a good set of cognitive tools can help us grow instead of shrinking in the face of adversity.  These are all subjects that will continue to be explored on this website.

Should we fear problems?  Think of the last time you felt the urge to curse about something.  What happened?  Was it a tragedy, pain, or mere inconvenience?

I've never heard anyone say it out loud, but we seem to share a widespread belief that problems shouldn't happen to us. Why else would we have an urge to curse when the universe is actually giving us a gift?

In reality, the most successful people are problem solvers.  When we encounter an unexpected problem, we are naturally disappointed.  But how do you know what other, bigger problems you may have in the future that this one might prepare you for?

Just take action

There's no point in blaming another person or a past self for the problem at hand.  I might be tempted to think, "I should have known better!"  But if I really knew better, I would not have actually made the mistake.  It's hindsight bias that makes us think we should have known better.  Besides, regardless of how it got here, the important thing is, it's my problem.  I'm my present self, riding the horse I'm on with all of the emotions and circumstances that surround me right now.  I should be focused on three things:

  1. Taking responsibility for the problem, at least for the part I have control over
  2. Doing what I can to solve the problem
  3. Learning from the experience

One last thing:  After you've solved the problem (or failed to solve it), make sure you add your efforts to your identity map.  The more you can document how you felt when you encountered it, what you learned, and how you felt afterward, the more confident you'll be the next time a problem comes along.  What if you failed to solve the problem?  Write down what you learned.  And give yourself credit for trying.  The road to success is paved with failures.  Someday your future self will look back at your life map and smile knowingly as they see how this problem was one small step toward a larger success.

Now what?

It's often said that while there are lots of things we can't control, we can always control our attitude.  But they rarely offer useful advice on how to go about it.  I'm going to give you ten suggestions.While writing this article I observed that this list shares similarities with cognitive restructuring, a method "used successfully to treat a wide variety of conditions, including depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), addictions, anxiety, social phobias, relationship issues, and stress."  My list is intended to help you take action (or be at peace with not taking action). If the problem you're facing is emotional distress rather than action paralysis, you may want to try the steps in cognitive restructuring instead.

  1. Write down something you are putting off or are afraid will happen.
  2. Write down as many reasons you can think of for this fear.
  3. Write down as many negative outcomes as possible.  What does your future self look like if this fear comes to pass?
  4. Write down the costs of not acting.
  5. Write down the benefits of not acting.  Maybe it's a good fear.
  6. Write down the benefits of taking action despite your fear.
  7. Weigh the costs and benefits of acting versus letting the fear stop you.  Make a good decision.If you've got here and it's still not clear which path to take, try listing your core values and placing each one on the for or against side of the decision.
  8. If you decide to act, write down any progress that has already been made.
  9. Write down the next action(s), in as simple a form as possible, and make a schedule for getting started.
  10. Take the horse by the reins.  Also, recruit support from others.

One last suggestion:  Take the results from #4 and #6 above and put them where you can see them often.  This will help convince your future self, who might be tempted to give in to the fear again, to stay the course.

The real thing to fear isn't fear

In view of the foregoing, I have a slightly different take on Thoreau's and Roosevelt's claims about fearing fear.  It isn't fear itself we should be afraid of.  It is unexamined fear.  Some fears are good, but a thorough understanding of our fears gives us much more freedom than we could have otherwise.

Wear your seatbelt.  Wear a mask.  But when fear stands between you and something you really want, pick it up and look at it as closely as possible.  Maybe the key to the shackles you're wearing is already in your hand.

Next week:  How to stay on the trail


  • Fear is like the drag on an airplane or like a barrier in the roadway.
  • Our predictions about future happiness or disappointment are often wrong.
  • We can even triumph over traumatic events.
  • We shouldn't fear problems in life.
  • Don't curse your luck; just take action. A problem is a gift from the universe.
  • A ten-step method for dealing with a fear barrier that's in your path.

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

Back to top

The destination: your future self

We've been exploring the idea of comparing life to a trail ride.  We're all geared up, the horse is trained and ready, and we're off.  But where's the destination?

In the second article, we looked into the concept of creating a map-like identity.  Our identity sums up:

  • What roles do I play?
  • How do I play those roles?
  • Who do I interact with, in each role?
  • Where am I going?

This post will focus on the last question because that question determines which trail we'll be following.  In life, like on a trail ride, we don't have to ask this question constantly.  It comes up when starting out and when there is a fork in the trail, and at those points, we need to be prepared to decide which way to go.

The trails ahead: your possible selves

Since there's no way of knowing how your life will end, the destination isn't fixed.  So actually, what we are concerned with isn't one self, but a number of possible selves.  In The Map: Who Are You? Where Are You Going? we briefly touched on the work of Hazel Rose Markus and Paula Nurius on the subject of possible selves.Markus, H., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954–969. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.41.9.954  In that article, we also looked at the concept of ideal selves: the roles we want to fill in the future.

Let's look at how our possible selves influence our decision.

According to Markus and Nurius, our possible selves provide us with three things:

  1. An incentive for behavior: We either take action toward a desired future self or away from a feared future self.
  2. A way to understand our current hopes and fears. 
  3. A way to understand the seemingly strange behavior of others.

Our possible selves are distinctly social.  They are "the direct result of previous social comparisons in which the individual's own thoughts, feelings, characteristics, and behaviors have been contrasted to those of salient others."

An incentive for behavior

As an illustration of the first point, consider a person who has been dieting and is tempted by a third slice of pizza.  If the person has a relatively easy time losing weight, it might be difficult to resist the temptation.  On the other hand, if the person has a real struggle with his weight, he may envision himself as obese or out of control and this fear may motivate a greater degree of willpower.

A way to understand hopes and fears

Imagine another person who has made an appointment to meet a friend for lunch, but the friend doesn't show up.  What will her reaction be?  She may shrug off the oversight, but if one of her possible selves is a lonely person, she'll probably take it much harder.

When others behave strangely

It's difficult to understand others, but it's especially difficult when someone acts differently than we expect.  This could be because the person is haunted by a possible self that we've never met.  Markus and Nurius comment that this can lead to behavior that is "inconsistent, crazy, or seriously at odds with what others perceive to be our 'true' selves."

Possible selves also determine the limits we set for ourselves.  Studies have been done where the experimenters rigged the experiment to look as if the participants had higher abilities or more accurate judgments than they really did.  Later they revealed the deception to the participants.  The surprising part was, even though the participants were informed that their scores were inflated, their increased confidence persisted.  This, according to Markus and Nurius, is because possible selves had been activated that were not available before.  In other words, the idea that they could succeed - in an area they previously thought they couldn't - opened up new possibilities for achievement.  The temporary deception proved to be empowering.Dowrick, P.W. (1977). Videotape replay as observational learning from oneself. Unpublished paper, University of Auckland, New Zealand. Cited in Bandura, A. (1981. Self-referent thought: The development of self-efficacy. In J.H. Flavell& L.D. Ross (Eds.), Development of social cognition: Frontiers and possible futures (pp. 1-21). New York: Cambridge Press.

One way to meet your future self: surrogation

The map article discusses the pros and cons of striving for one ideal future self.  While crafting an identity is an important way to find meaning in life,Actually, none of us has just one identity.  We fill multiple roles so we have multiple identities.  But we have to focus on one at a time. we can't be sure that reaching the goal will be what we hoped it would be.  Daniel Gilbert, social psychologist and writer, is an expert on "affective forecasting."  He identifies two common problems with predicting our future experiences:

  1. We are bad at predicting how events will unfold.
  2. We "don't know who we will be" when experiencing a future event.

However, from his experiments, Gilbert has discovered a more effective way of knowing how we'll feel in a future role.  It's called surrogation, meaning "using other people's experience as a guide to your own."  Whether we are considering trying a new food, a new experience, or a new role, the most effective way to know how we'll feel about it is to ask someone who's been there.  This is the concept review sites like Yelp and Amazon are built on. 

However, most people would rather be their own judge of whether they would like something.  This is why most people will decide whether to watch a movie based on the movie trailer rather than looking at reviews.  We generally trust our ability to predict the future based on our own experiences rather than trusting the experiences of others. Gilbert's research shows that our intuition is not the best guide in this kind of situation.

What we've learned

Life is full of mystery.  We don't know where we'll end up, but the possibilities are constantly influencing our behavior and that of others.  Realizing this fact can make life a little less confusing.

Also, while we have no way of knowing exactly who our future self will be, there is a way to determine whether we'll like the view at the end of the trail.  Ask someone who's been there!

The next article will discuss how to deal with the possible selves we hope to avoid becoming.


  • Our subconscious mind constantly forecasts future roles, "possible selves."
    • This can motivate certain behaviors.
    • It can explain why different people behave differently to the same challenges.
    • It can help us understand why others sometimes act in ways we wouldn't expect.
  • We are bad at predicting the future
  • We can increase the odds of knowing if we'll like where we're headed, by asking someone who's already been there.

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

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The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”Whether Peter Drucker actually said that or not, it's true.  Is there a meter for self-esteem?

For many years, the most common measuring device for self-esteem has been the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.  How does it work?  Is it valid?  And why do some think there's a hidden dimension measured by this simple test?

How are self-esteem levels measured?

"There are more than 200 different scales that purportedly measure self-esteem," states Thomas Scheff, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at UCSB.  

Another psychologist writes, "The construct of self-esteem is one of the oldest in psychology and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES; Rosenberg, 1989) is still the most prevalent measure of self-esteem in the field."Ruddell, R. J. (2020). Validity and reliability evidence for the Rosenberg self-esteem scale with adults in Canada and the United States. University of British Columbia.

The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale is a simple instrument using ten items, including five positive items and five negatively worded items.  Items are ranked using a four-point scale.

You can take the entire test yourself here.  It only takes about a minute.  "The scale ranges from 0-30. Scores between 15 and 25 are within normal range; scores below 15 suggest low self-esteem."

What does Rosenberg's Self Esteem Scale measure?

The RSES is intended to be an accurate measurement of global, or overall, self-esteem.  Its author intended it as a measure of self-worth, which he considered to be the equivalent of self-esteem.

Is the Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale valid?

Many studies have undertaken to validate the RSES.  According to its author, its "minimum Coefficient of Reproducibility was at least 0.90."  According to Vaz et al., "As a general rule, a value of over 0.90 should be considered high."Vaz, S., Falkmer, T., Passmore, A. E., Parsons, R., & Andreou, P. (2013). The Case for Using the Repeatability Coefficient When Calculating Test–Retest Reliability. PLoS ONE, 8(9), e73990.

For example, a 2019 study concluded, "This scale can be regarded as a useful tool for evaluating the level of self-esteem of individuals with intellectual disabilities."Park, J.-Y., & Park, E.-Y. (2019). The Rasch Analysis of Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale in Individuals With Intellectual Disabilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

A 2012 study observed, "The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) is a widely used instrument that has been tested for reliability and validity in many settings.... Versions of the scale have been tested for reliability and validity in many languages and have, on average, been found to be effective."  However, the study pointed out, "Some negative-worded items appear to have caused it to reveal low reliability in a number of studies."Tinakon, W., & Nahathai, W. (2012). A Comparison of Reliability and Construct Validity between the Original and Revised Versions of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. Psychiatry Investigation, 9(1), 54.

Another study analyzed the RSES for method effects, that is, the tendency for individuals with certain personality traits to answer in certain ways that skew the results. The five-factor personality models are used to help determine these effects.

The authors observed that the use of negative questions may disrupt potential biases, as they were intended to do, but they may also introduce "multidimensional factor structures of self-esteem."  In other words, sometimes the way the answers can be interpreted may lead to a determination that the test measures something other than simply global self-worth.Quilty, L. C., Oakman, J. M., & Risko, E. (2006). Correlates of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale Method Effects. Structural Equation Modeling: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 13(1), 99–117. doi:10.1207/s15328007sem1301_5

A 2017 study of the RSES in Burundi likewise observed a method effect, "mainly associated with negatively worded items."  The authors concluded, "Our data suggested that an overall cultural effect, rather than a merely specific language effect, may undermine the cross-cultural transportability of the Western scale."Fromont, A., Haddad, S., Heinmüller, R., Dujardin, B. T., & Casini, A. (2017). Exploring the validity of scores from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES) in Burundi: A multi-strategy approach. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 27(4), 316–324.

The overall consensus seems to be that the test is valid, with the possible exception of method effects introduced by the negative questions.  Regardless, the "multidimensional factor structure" leaves a mystery to solve.  Does the scale measure positive and negative self-esteem?

Or maybe we should ask, Is self-worth the best measure of global self-esteem?

Two studies suggest that there is another, closely related, factor that is also measured by the RSES: self-competence.

What is self-competence?

Self-competence is essentially the opposite of helplessness.  It involves a degree of emotional intelligence and self-respect.  It also involves the interrelationship between self-perception of personal worth and efficacy. It has been described as the ability to choose and present a desired self-image to others, the capability to handle daily tasks and challenges.

In 1995, Tafarodi and Swann published an alternative test to the RSES which measured two related dimensions of self-esteem they called self-liking and self-competence.  They point out, "Evidence for two underlying factors raises the possibility that there may be two distinct global dimensions of self-valuative feeling. That is, global self-esteem may be experienced in two distinct senses. Although such a dichotomy may appear somewhat puzzling at first glance, it does in fact align with a recurrent theme in the self-esteem literature."Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann Jr., W. B. (1995). Self-Liking and Self-Competence as Dimensions of Global Self-Esteem: Initial Validation of a Measure. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(2), 322–342. doi:10.1207/s15327752jpa6502_8

Tafarodi and Swann discussed the fact that demonstrations of competence often lead to positive appraisals from others that foster self-worth, and likewise a person with high self-worth often seeks goals that leads to higher competence, thus creating a snowball effect.  This contributes to the likelihood that one dimension will closely correlate with the other, making the two difficult to differentiate.

Robert Ruddell's 2020 study makes similar observations.  In discussing this two-factor description of self-esteem, he notes, "If the construct of self-esteem is comprised of both components of self-worth and self-competence, then we would still expect to see some evidence of self-competence in the RSES, as reported in the pattern of relationships observed, even if self-competence was not intentionally built into the measure at the time of construction."Ruddell, R. J. (2020).

Ruddell concludes, "Based on our findings, ... it is clear that the RSES, a measure which was intended to only capture self-worth, is inadvertently capturing self-competence as well.... Our results further suggest that there may be considerable overlap with the construct of optimism. Thus, we also advise including a measure of optimism in future validation work with the RSES.... Moreover, these findings suggest that perhaps mental health functioning has an even larger shared variance with self-esteem than previously believed."

How can you improve your self-esteem?

Ruddell also commented, "The third definition of self-esteem incorporates both competence and worthiness into its conceptualization. Nathaniel Branden was likely one of the first researchers to investigate this two-factor approach. He described self-esteem as 'the conviction that one is competent to live and worthy of living.'"

For a discussion of Branden's six pillars of self-esteem and how they can help you improve your self-esteem, see the article What is Self-Esteem, Really? And How To Increase It the Right Way.

That tricky horse handler - your remembering self

Do you ever wish:

  • You could manage your instincts and emotions better?
  • You would more consistently make decisions you are happy with?
  • You could motivate yourself better?

By now, I hope you've found some ways to improve by following this horse trail ride metaphor. Today we're going to talk about one reason why many of us make decisions we regret: We place our trust in someone who isn't trustworthy: our remembering self.

This article is part of a series.  You may wish to start with the first article.

"Discipline is hard," writes Dr. Atul Gawande.  "We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at."  Dr. Gawande is well-known for making an important connection: Discipline, that ever-elusive quality that separates successful people from wannabees, is directly connected to the relationship with have with our memory.

Memory is untrustworthy

"Many people believe that memory works like a recording device," said Elizabeth Loftus, in her TED talk.  She's been studying memory, specifically the phenomenon of false memories, since the early 1970s.  She continued, "You just record the information, then you call it up and play it back when you want to answer questions or identify images. But decades of work in psychology has shown that this just isn't true."

Dr. Loftus, considered by some to be one of the 100 most influential psychological researchers of the 20th century, is an expert in false memories.The authors of the paper also ranked her as the 20th most cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks.  She can say authoritatively, "Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people."  She adds:

If I've learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it's this: just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn't mean that it really happened. 

As corroboration, I examined a "mega-analysis" of eight studies on false memories, including one participated in by Loftus.Scoboria, A., Wade, K. A., Lindsay, D. S., Azad, T., Strange, D., Ost, J., & Hyman, I. E. (2016). A mega-analysis of memory reports from eight peer-reviewed false memory implantation studies. Memory, 25(2), 146–163. doi:10.1080/09658211.2016.1260747  The authors concluded, "Our results firmly support the assertion that suggesting false events can produce false memory in a substantial percentage of people.... Our results reinforce how important is it to continue educating people about the malleability of memory."

Another study examined people's memories of a public event, specifically, the O.J. Simpson trial.Schmolk, H., Buffalo, E. A., & Squire, L. R. (2000).
Memory distortions develop over time: Recollections of the O. J. Simpson verdict after 15 and 32 months. Psychological Science, 11, 39-45.
  Sixty-three college students were interviewed three days, 15 months, and 32 months after the trial, and their responses to the same questions were compared.  The study found, "After 15 months, 50% of the recollections were highly accurate, and only 11% contained major errors or distortions. After 32 months, only 29% of the recollections were highly accurate, and more than 40% contained major distortions."  Clearly, our memory of past events cannot be trusted.

One last study: Sixty-seven 14-year-old males were interviewed in 1962 and then again at age 48 in 1997.  They were asked 28 questions that were identical to those asked the first time.  For the large majority of the answers, the study authors concluded, "Accurate memory was generally no better than expected by chance."  In other words, a stranger would have had as much chance of guessing their answers as they did remembering them.Offer, D., Kaiz, M., Howard, K. I., & Bennett, E. (2000). The altering of reported experiences. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 735-742.  doi:10.1097/00004583-200006000-00012 

Why it matters

Of course, no one really thinks that memory is infallible.  But why are we making such a big deal about this?  It's because discipline, the ability to actually make ourselves do what we want in order to get what we want, is closely tied, as I mentioned above, to how we treat our memory.

We tend to make decisions that neither our past nor future selves would make.  Think about that for a moment: to do so is almost the same as having a rogue agent enter your body, making you do something that you normally wouldn't choose to do.  How many of us would be happy with that?  But most of us do it routinely.  For some examples, look back at what I wrote about situations where we either fail to carry out a decision or make a decision that we wouldn't have chosen to make in the past.

We also tend to forget what kind of person we are, what kind of person we want to be.  Many people get to the end of their life and realize they had a dream they forgot to pursue.  Or maybe we realize, too late, that we were living a life based on what we felt we should do instead of what we really wanted.  Or we allow negative experiences to tell us who we are, not realizing that we have control over our own story.

What is the remembering self, exactly?

I had to do some digging to answer this question.  I owe it to you, because though I've been writing on this concept for weeks I didn't have a clear picture of where these phrases come from.  I borrowed the phrase "narrating self" from Yuval Noah Harari, who apparently adopted the concept from Daniel Kahneman (also quoted in the same article).  To the best of my knowledge, Kahneman adopted this concept from Seymour Epstein, who himself borrowed heavily from the ideas of William James.

I need to point this out because it was the change in terminology that Harari used that inspired me to create this article series.  Both use the term "experiencing self," but as a counterpoint, Kahneman uses "remembering self" while Harari uses "narrating self."This phrase seems to originate from the work of Dorrit Claire Cohn who writes about modes of presenting consciousness in fiction.  To Cohn, the "experiencing self" relates a personal involvement in the narrative, while the "narrating self" provides a more detached version of events as if witnessing them but not personally involved. 

It was this distinction between two counterpoints to the experiencing self that made me think of another option.  If the remembering self is the product of an otherwise rational mind relying on faulty memory, why can't the narrating self be another role played by the rational mind, but one that takes charge of the narrative process to a greater degree?  Thus I created two characters in the metaphor to fill a similar role:  The handler, and the trainer.  

Horse training is challenging work, requiring a great deal of skill.  On the other hand, a person can become a horse handler with just a few hours of training.  Which would you want to prepare the horse that needs to take you to your destination?  Likewise, purposely taking on the role of trainer in our trail ride of life will produce much better results than relying on untrained memory.I in no way want to disparage the honorable profession of horse handler.  This role is often responsible for important things in real life.  But I needed another role in my metaphor alongside guide and trainer, so the unfortunate handler got the short stick.

In the conclusion to Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman points out that our "remembering self" creates problems that distort our perceptions.  "The remembering self's neglect of duration, its exaggerated emphasis on peaks and ends, and its susceptibility to hindsight combine to yield distorted reflections of our actual experience."

In his book, Kahneman mentions another reason memory skews our self-perceptions.  He uses assertive behavior as an example of availability bias.  Those who were asked to think of six examples of being assertive felt more assertive than those who were asked to think of twelve examples.  This is due to the brain's discomfort when having difficulty recalling experiences.  On the other hand, those who were asked to think of twelve examples of not being assertive felt more assertive than those who were only asked to think of six.

What we can do

The obvious answer is, we would benefit by finding ways to avoid relying on our memory as much as possible.

Gawande, quoted above, is best known for his book The Checklist Manifesto, which simply encourages the use of checklists whenever a complex, essential task is being carried out.  Airline pilots have used them for years.  Gawande, himself a surgeon, advocates this simple memory aid as a way to reduce possible catastrophic results from relying on memory.

Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

There's that word again: discipline. For many, it conjures up images of reduced freedom, but for the wise, it's a tool to give ourselves the ultimate freedom: the ability to keep our selves marching in lockstep, all the way to the goal.

Other ways to keep the handler at bay


From the studies above, it's obvious that if there's anything in your life right now that's important to you, it's worth recording.  Especially if it has to do with your goals, your values, your experiences, or your identity.

Writing to your future self

I started doing this with my 2019 annual review.  I made predictions and asked my 2020 self whether I was close.  It was like a fun game I played with myself.  I plan to keep doing this every year.  I also learned that decisions that can be delayed for a time are better handled in committee.  I can have several of my future selves look at the decision from a different emotional perspective.  I'm much more likely to be satisfied with the outcome that way.

Make sure to record the emotions

As I mentioned in The Three-Step Method to Emotional Intelligence, there are many reasons to keep track of our emotional experiences.  I'll add another one here.  Recently I was suffering an emotional low for physical reasons.  It was difficult to think of all the good things that have been going on in my life.  Fortunately, I had my mood journal from the last two years.  I was able to look back on the many good days I've had and also observe that there have been some other low times too, but seeing how many good days I had compared to the bad days convinced me that life isn't so bad.

Stories are worth recording

As I've already pointed out in this series of articles, seeing life as a series of stories has tremendous power.  It lets us see all the parts of our life, desirable and undesirable, as parts of a narrative that has value.  It can teach us about ourselves, and it can also be interesting to others.  Good storytellers don't rely on their memories (most of them, at least).  Sometimes the most fascinating parts of the story are in the details.  The only way we'll be able to tell the story later, when we really see the value in it, will be if we record them now.

Having a detailed map helps self-esteem

From the availability bias example above it's obvious that having a lot of instances of yourself being assertive already recorded would come in handy if your assertiveness is ever questioned.  This is why it's super useful to keep your identity map regularly updated.  

Keep recording!

These days we have many ways to document our lives: Computers, mobile devices, or a good old-fashioned notebook will do.  I hope it's clear that relying on memory isn't going to get you where you want to go. 

Speaking of where you want to go, we're now fully equipped for the ride.  We have all the crew on board, and our map is ready.  It's time to set out for the destination.  Next time, we'll hit the road!


  • Memory is untrustworthy
    • It can be rewritten
    • Our memory of past events can't be trusted
    • Sometimes it's more than useless
  • Why it matters
    • We can stay in control
    • We can do what we really want
  • What is the remembering self, exactly?
    • It involves relying on a faulty memory
    • We can take charge and create a new narrative
    • The handler represents the skewed perspective our memory gives us
  • What we can do
    • Record everything
    • Write to your future self
    • Record the emotions
    • Record the stories
    • Record the victories

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

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