‘That’s a problem for future Homer. Man I don’t envy that guy!’ —Homer Simpson
As any casual viewer of The Simpsons knows, delayed gratification has never been one of Homer's strong points.
Fortunately for him, he hasn’t aged since the show first aired in 1989 so, ironically, he doesn’t have to worry too much about ‘Future Homer’.
However, for the rest of us, there’s no escaping the fact that our future selves are waiting helplessly for us a bit further down the continuum of time, hoping in earnest that our present selves don’t screw things up too badly for them.
So, then why is it so hard to develop lifestyle habits that benefit our future health?
As paleoanthropologist, Daniel Lieberman explains in The Story of the Human Body:
“We didn’t evolve to be healthy, but instead we were selected to have as many offspring as possible under diverse, challenging conditions. As a consequence, we never evolved to make rational choices about what to eat or how to exercise in conditions of abundance and comfort.”
Given that during our entire evolutionary history calories were in short supply, it makes little sense to our instinctive ape brains, concerned only with survival and procreation, to choose the calorie-sparse apple over the calorie-dense cookies.
Ape brain thinks:
‘Cookies = Me stay alive longer. Me get more sex. Woohoo!’
'Apple = Meh.’
It’s normal not to want to choose the apple.
Wanting the cookies doesn’t mean your body has some sort of intrinsic need for some junky goodness ('my body is telling me it really needs this chocolate!'). It just means that in the conditions we evolved in, calorie-dense foods always trumped calorie-sparse foods because they increased our chances of surviving and making babies.
Modern, calorie-dense foods that have been engineered in labs to be as highly palatable as possible are particularly hard to resist. Eating too many of these is more likely to decrease your time spent alive, not increase it.
Our natural aversion to exercise also originates from our evolutionary past. Surely only a dumb ape would use up precious energy to lift heavy weights for non-survival reasons, right?
As tempting as it may be for non-gym-goers to agree with that last statement, the opposite is closer to the truth in our current environment.
People who sacrifice some of their time and energy to lift weights on a weekly basis benefit their future selves in myriad ways, including increased metabolic rate, decreased blood pressure and increased bone mineral density. There is even some evidence showing that weight training reverses the aging process.
But all this logic and reasoning isn’t going to stop the primal hardware in your head from coaxing you to sit on the sofa and eat the cookies instead of going to the gym. It’s telling you quite sensibly (because it still thinks you live on the African savannah) to chill out, indulge and save your precious energy.
So, if your own brain is constantly trying to sabotage your efforts to stay healthy, how can you override it to ensure a better life for Future You?
DESCRIBE YOUR IDEAL FUTURE
What does your ideal life look like in 5-10 years time? How do you want to look, feel and perform?
Will your current lifestyle habits get you there?
If not, what changes do you think you need to make?
Making changes is easier if you set up the right environment around you. Think about your work, your social life, your family, your leisure activities. What needs to change?
How will you look and feel after having made the necessary changes?
What’s just one small change you could start with?
Put it all in writing so you have something concrete to aim for.
That was the fun part.
Now comes the scary, but vital part:
DESCRIBE A FUTURE TO AVOID
Here is where you write about all the bad stuff that will happen in 5-10 years time if you carry on with your current, unhealthy lifestyle habits (think about sleep, stress, nutrition, exercise, social life, work, etc.).
Think about how you’re going to look, what you’ll be capable of doing and not capable of doing. How will you feel?
Describe in detail what will happen to your physical health: bodily functions, libido, metabolism, muscle mass, blood pressure, posture, cardiovascular health, risk of diabetes / heart disease / certain cancers, chronic pain, bone strength, mental health, etc.
If this doesn’t motivate you to take action then try thinking 15-20 years ahead. And don’t forget, it’s not some imaginary person waiting for you in the future. It’s you.
The above exercise is related specifically to your health but you can apply it to any aspect of your life, e.g. career, personal finances, relationships. It’s based on the ‘Future’ section of the Self Authoring Suite designed by Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist, to help people align their actions with their goals.
The take home message is that the state of Future You is dependent on what sacrifices Current You chooses to make now.
'You get to pick your sacrifice. You don’t get not to make one. You’re sacrificial whether you want to be or not’.