During my first year of college, the headliner at the annual “Spring Fling” concert was LL Cool J. I knew enough of his hits—and enough of my friends were going—that I didn’t want to miss out on a weekend of fun.
The only issue? I had an Intro Spanish final exam on Monday morning, and I was woefully unprepared. As you might have guessed, I didn’t hunker down and study. I enjoyed the show alongside my classmates and ended up with a barely passing grade and a poor grasp of basic Spanish.
Who hasn’t experienced a similar dilemma?
Part of the problem is that we often lack a strong emotional connection to our future selves: They can even seem like strangers to us. That’s why we have a hard time choosing to do something to benefit the future self—say, studying for an exam—when there’s a more fun option right in front of us. And the consequences for this disconnect are real: Research finds that young adults who lack a sense of closeness with their future selves perform worse in their classes in subsequent semesters.
So how can you help young people make better decisions now that they won’t regret later? Telling kids that their actions today will have consequences tomorrow may not be effective if they don’t have a strong bond between their current and future selves. Instead, ask them to imagine stepping into the shoes of their future self to see the world through those eyes. Thinking about tomorrow more vividly may lead them to choose more wisely today.
Don’t assume that kids think beyond the present.
Do ask young people how they think they’ll feel about a decision in the future. Talk to them, without judgment, about both their current and future feelings. A concert might provide rich memories for their future selves, but if they always prioritize fun over sacrifice, they’ll surely be worse off in the long run.
With curiosity and gratitude,
Hal Hershfield, a professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, is the author of Your Future Self: How to Make Tomorrow Better Today.
MORE FROM OUR COLLABORATION WITH CHARACTER LAB