On being kind to my future self

There’s this saying among authors: everyone wants to have written a novel. No idea who said it first, but it’s pretty damn true. I myself have heard countless people say something along the lines of: “Someday I’ll write a novel.” “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a novel!” “When I have time, I’ll get that novel written.” What all these people truly mean, though, isn’t that they want the experience of writing a novel, they’re saying that they want the feeling that comes with having written a novel. Two very different things.

Now, I’ve written a few novels—all self-published; I lacked the drive to query editors and publishers—and I can attest: writing a novel is a lot of work. It’s akin to hiking a mountain and, just as you think you’ve hit the summit, you realize you’ve actually reached a ridge, that the summit is still yards and yards away, and then learn that even that was yet another ridge, and so on. But, just like a good hike or trek, writing a novel is a lot of fun, and completing it comes with a wild sense of accomplishment.

And it’s that sense of accomplishment most people truly want; it’s that future feeling, the pride and satisfaction and elation, all of it in the future. It’s seeing your future self, the novelist, and wanting to be him or her.

I realized that, for me, this could serve as motivation. It wouldn’t have worked for me where writing a novel was concerned—I just had a story I wanted to tell and enjoyed crafting it—but maybe with other tasks I didn’t enjoy for their own sakes.

Now, this is an ongoing process, so I can’t say for sure how effective it is in the long term, but early results are pretty good and, for now, let’s just say this is an experiment in its beginning stages and that I’ll revisit it and the results in a later post.

So, first off, I began thinking of my future self as a separate entity, a person I could actually please or disappoint, but also someone for whom I had a deep attachment. This way, I could ask myself, “What would my future self feel/say/want?” If I was putting something off, I’d think about how it would impact my future self, according him the same respect and compassion I would a close friend.

I mean, if sleeping in meant that a close friend would have to rush around in the morning and miss out on her morning stretches and meditation session, I certainly wouldn’t sleep in, because I wouldn’t want to cause my friend that kind of distress. So why am I willing to do such a thing to my future self?

I’ll think about how shitty my future self will feel if I don’t do X, but I’ll also think about how great he’ll feel if I do accomplish X. That’s where that feeling of completing a novel comes in: you motivate yourself to work on that novel so that your future self can finally experience the feeling of having written a novel. Well, to be honest, I’m using the novel-writing thing to illustrate my point; wanting to have written a novel is actually terrible motivation to write a novel. But, wanting to experience the feeling of having worked out in the morning, that’s pretty great motivation, and by then focusing on the other ways in which your future self will benefit from regular workouts, the motivation is compounded.

We often hear things like, “What would you tell your younger self?” but what if we turned it around and asked, “What would your future self tell you, right now?”

He might say something like, “Please don’t eat that second piece of cake because I’m really gonna feel guilty about it,” or she might say, “Hey, y’know what, don’t buy that Blu-ray, ’cause if you do, I’m just gonna feel it’s okay to buy another one, and another one, and then I’m not going on that trip,” or maybe, “Buddy, if you don’t answer those emails now, I’ll have to answer them, and that’s just more work for me.”

But there’s the flip side, too: that, eventually, your future self becomes your present self (or vice versa?) and so you get to relish the rewards of having done that extra work or exercised that restrain—or whatever—as your past self. Get it?

Basically, I’m saying that, once you reach the point in time at which you benefit from those decisions you made earlier, you can and should take a moment to appreciate it, essentially thanking your past self (which is, of course, you). So, the reward isn’t only in having avoided guilt, saved money for a trip or reduced your workload, it’s in feeling proud and accomplished for having made those decisions in the first place.

In other words, by thinking about your future self, you are bringing awareness to the decision, to the action and the eventual outcome; you’re taking a moment to be mindful of your actions, allowing you to take greater pride in them.

Anyway, like I said, it’s a work in progress for me, but it’s something I’m practicing: simply being aware of those moments when I might be sabotaging my future self—through procrastination or succumbing to distraction or simply giving in to “not feeling like” doing something—and stopping to imagine how my future self might feel if I allow this sabotage to take place (guilty, annoyed, stressed, frustrated), along with imagining how he would feel if I do not (relaxed, relieved, happy, proud).

So, I dunno, maybe give it a try and, who knows, you’re future self might thank you…

Note: For the record, in my book, the proper motivation to write a novel is that you’ve got a great story to tell, one that just can’t go untold. Just saying.