A common technique when training children to plan, organize, manage their time effectively, and self-regulate (all of which are executive functions skills), is to ask them to picture their future selves. What is your future self doing? How is your future self feeling? If I want my future self to be done with homework and relaxing this evening, then what do I need to do? I need to plan my time accordingly and then I need to execute my plan. If I am able to picture what “being done with homework and relaxing” means and looks like, then I am better able to plan and execute that plan to achieve my goal.
Without this picture of my future self, it is much harder to figure out the steps necessary to reach my goal, making it that much more difficult to motivate myself to start working. My goal is fuzzy, so I am more likely to procrastinate and do fun things.
THE PROCRASTINATION PROBLEM
According to psychology professor Dr. Timothy Pychyl, “The essence of procrastination is ‘we’re giving in to feel good,'” (Wang, 2015). It is tied to impulsiveness, “a tendency to act immediately on urges” (and not perfectionism as most people expect) (Wang, 2015).
Part of this impulsiveness and difficulty delaying gratification may be related to “temporal myopia” whereby a person has a hard time clearly picturing his future self and how his current decisions affect that future self. “Their vision of their future selves is often more abstract and impersonal, and they’re less connected emotionally to their future selves. Temporal myopia may be largely due to their higher levels of stress which can shift their focus to more immediate rather than distant concerns” (Wang, 2015). Because she has a vague vision of her future self and that self feels emotionally distant, a person with temporal myopia tends to give in to her impulses, seek relaxation now, and push work and stress to “later”.
To combat this pattern, executive functions coaches work with kids on picturing that future self more clearly and creating a closer emotional connection to that future self, by asking questions like “How will it feel when…” and by pointing out that the uncomfortable feeling (dread) of having work hanging over his head will go away faster if work is done now instead of later.
Executive Functions Coach, Paige Davis, pushes that connection to her learners’ future selves even further – she asks them to “Picture your future lazy self.”
YOUR FUTURE LAZY SELF
I love that adjective because it is so true. Often we actually tell ourselves that our future selves will be more productive than our current selves are. I do that almost every day when I write my To Do list for the following day. But my future self is just as lazy as my current self and my future self is often mad at my current self for thinking otherwise.
By calling my future self “lazy”, I am strengthening my connection to that self because it is both humorous and true and I can easily picture a lazy me in the future. If that lazy me is stress-free because I have completed all of my work, that is even better.
The problem is my current self has a much stronger connection to me than my future self and I want to relax now! However, if I am able to delay gratification, if I can self-regulate and control my impulses, if I can picture my future lazy self and plan and execute the plan, that future self will be even happier than my current self with a break. My current self with a break has anxiety over starting work and that future self has the stress of being overwhelmed by work. Without that break for my current self, I avoid a lot of stress and get to the future relaxed self faster.
Dr. Pychyl along with collaborators Dr. Piers Steel and clinical psychologist and doctoral student Alexander Rozental suggest reminding yourself (or your learner) that “Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable” (Wang, 2015). I would add that putting off the task will actually make it less enjoyable because you feel bad while you are procrastinating. With that knowledge plus a clear picture of your future lazy self, it is harder to put off work.
Branstetter, R. (2014). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder. Adams Media: Massachusetts.
Davis, P. (2015) Personal communication.
Wang, S. (2015). To stop procrastinating, start by understanding the emotions involved. The Wall Street Journal.
Ward, S. & K. Jacobsen (2013). Executive Function Skills – Practical Strategies. Cognitive Connections.