Discover more from Perspectives
Stop Outsourcing to Your Future Self
A guide to getting more done by getting it done now or not doing it at all
Imagine for a moment that you have a partner whom you love and care about, but you treat them terribly. You drop the ball and expect them to pick it up. You procrastinate, and they have to deal with things in a rush. You miss details, and they have to scramble to keep things on track. You overcommit and then expect them to show up, despite being completely booked.
This partner you’re treating so badly? That partner is you. Your future self is the one who pays when you don't plan ahead. Your future self is the one who has to deliver on everything you commit to. Your future self has to live with all the bad decisions you make today.
So many of us treat our future selves terribly, and for the most part, we don’t care that we do it. What if, instead, we could flip the script?
Being kind to future you
What would you do if your future self were sitting right next to you as you made every present-moment decision? What if they had a say in everything you did now?
I suspect that you would make very different decisions. Perhaps you would put more money away in a 401(k), rather than getting a nicer car. Maybe you would get out of a bad relationship, rather than avoiding the messiness of ending it. You might cook more and order out less. Maybe you would start saying “no” more often so as to give yourself more time for what you really want to prioritize.
I have a saying when building products: "Future you hates opt-outs." Whenever you have a tough choice as a product manager, the easy thing to do is to create an opt-out; after all, it gives users a choice as to whether or not they want to participate in your product. But by choosing to launch an opt-out, you’re binding yourself—and every other person to ever work on the product, or adjacent products—to honoring the opt-out. Data now has to be stored differently, and it has to be audited to ensure that the company complies. Complications pile up, and the next thing you know, something that seemingly costs you nothing is having huge potential consequences for many years to come.
While it's one thing to build your products with opt-outs, it is another to build opt-outs into your life by saddling your future self with constraints. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way—I once spent a period overcommitting to everything that came my way, because I wasn't sure how to say no. I told myself I would figure it out at some point, and I ended up booked back-to-back for two months, with seven of those weeks dedicated to travel. It created havoc at home and completely drained me. That was when I realized that my future self had to learn to set boundaries with my current self, or they could no longer coexist.
So, my future self set a boundary. No more outsourcing. If my present self wanted something done, she had better darn well do it herself. And as soon as I started to enforce that boundary, I found myself with less stress, more time, and the ability to prioritize what was truly important.
How to hold your present self accountable
It's easy to promise something to someone else and then hand that chore over to your future self. What’s harder—but far more productive in the long run—is to find a way to do it in the present. Here are a few strategies for making this process easier.
1. The 24-hour rule
Whenever I promise someone I’ll do something, I do it immediately, rather than outsourcing it to future me—and by immediately, I mean within 24 hours. It became clear to me that if I didn’t actually do something within a day, I would just keep kicking the can down the road, and the cycle would start all over again. This discipline of a 24-hour timeline forced me to see how often I was saying “yes” as my present self and forcing the work on my future self.
Somebody once asked me for a recommendation to fill a board position, and I thought of a name on the phone. This would have been a prime time to put it off and make a note to arrange an introduction for some vague point in the future. Instead, as soon as I hung up, I sent a message to the person, asking if they were interested in meeting. The reply came within five minutes, and I immediately sent the introduction. No more noodling on it. No more sending it into the future. The process was quick and painless, rather than fraught with procrastination.
What the 24-hour rule taught me was that I was signing up for way more than I could reasonably accomplish. By forcing myself to actually do the things I had committed to within a set period of time, I was able to train myself to stop biting off more than I could chew.
2. The one in, one out rule
If I don't think I can get something done within the next 24 hours, which I still count as my present self, then I no longer say yes. That said, however, some things are unavoidable, and that’s where the one in, one out rule comes in.
You can't schedule a trip in 24 hours and also take that trip. But how many times has your present self not even bothered to look at the scheduled dates and check if you can actually make it? In these situations, consider making an easily-accessible calendar of all your future travel, then taking a glance before you say yes to another trip. If it's already packed beyond what you feel comfortable burdening your future self with, apply the one in, one out rule: cancel one thing for each thing you say yes to. Not only does this process force you to keep your commitments manageable, but it also forces you to be mindful about what you’re signing up for.
Every time you say yes to something, you're implicitly saying no to something else; you just don't know what that thing is. If you agree to go to a conference in another city, you may miss your child's school play. If you commit to speaking at a live event, you are locked into the location should something else come up. By implementing the one in, one out rule, you are picking and choosing ahead of time what your priorities are.
3. A fast “no” is better than a slow “yes”
Your brain is tasked with making 35,000 decisions every single day (ref). Many times, they're easy, such as whether or not you want to wear the purple shirt or the blue one. Other decisions are harder, such as whether or not you want to work out or see your friend for coffee. We would rather not disappoint people, so we often say yes to things, even if we don't want to do them.
Other times, we push decisions into the future because we’ve run out of brainpower to put into weighing our options. The thing is, though, whenever you put off making a decision, you are taking a choice you spent time thinking about right now and then procrastinating on it. This turns it into something you then have to revisit and reconsider in the future, thus doubling or tripling the work.
But what if you just reduced the number of decisions you had to make? One way to do this is to make a choice immediately, without having to spend extra time and brainpower on it. As the Bible says, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” When you say “maybe,” you are burdening your future self with having to make the decision. By giving yourself permission to say “no” quickly, you are taking that weight off your shoulders and giving others time to respond.
4. The fast-forward rule
UCLA professor Hal Hershfield performed a study on the psychology of retirement savings. Participants were shown either a picture of themselves today, or an aged-up picture of themselves in the future, and asked to choose how much of their pay they would put toward retirement. Those who were shown pictures of their future selves chose to save 30% more for retirement—6.8% vs. 5.2% for those who were shown current pictures (ref). When participants saw their future selves, they traded off more from the present to take care of the people they would one day become.
You can leverage this finding to make things easier on your future self. Imagine putting up a photo of yourself in the future, along with a date. Each time you are asked to commit to something, you look up and see that picture of yourself before making a decision about whether you want to add more things to that person’s plate. When you can visualize the person you plan to burden, you will think twice about doing it.
One of my favorite interview questions for fireside chats is, “What is one piece of advice you wish you had gotten when you were just starting out?” I have gotten a ton of interesting answers that speak to the regrets and challenges we all have in our lives.
I want to end this post by changing that question slightly. Today, you are the future self of your past self. A few days, months, or years ago, you were setting up who you are today for success or failure. With that in mind, what is one request from who you are today that you would make to your past self?
That is a message from present-day you to past you. Your future self also has a message for you. Think about what that message is, and live accordingly.