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Good intentions – The future is now! Or maybe later?

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Adopt a healthier lifestyle, exercise more, save money, contribute to a cleaner environment… Many of us are good at setting goals, but actually achieving them remains a challenge. Where do we go wrong? And, in specific terms, what can we do about it?

People are physiologically and psychologically designed to live in the here and now. Our ancestors managed to survive because they were able to quickly respond to opportunities and dangers as they occurred. As Daphna Oyserman, social scientist at the University of California, puts it, this focus on the moment – instead of daydreaming about future goals – ensured that our ancestors did not fall prey to the many predators that crossed their path.

Our brains are wired in the ‘here and now’, and this becomes painfully clear when we try to turn our good intentions into actions. The sweets jar at work suddenly becomes very hard to resist, even if we have made it a point to eat fewer sweets. And that makes sense, because for our ancestors, not grabbing sweets would have decreased their chance of survival. If you are sensitive to snacking, you could say you simply have a well-adjusted survival mechanism!

However, in our Western society, where we have access to plenty of food and drink, far too many unhealthy snacks and passive pastimes, this ‘well-adjusted survival mechanism’ unfortunately has a disastrous impact on our survival chances. We are becoming overweight and prone to cardiovascular diseases, and we are faced with psychological issues. In these modern times, people with the strongest focus on the future seem to have the best chance of survival.

Daphna Oyserman and her colleagues analysed the link between this focus in time with regard to the set goals and our motivation and commitment to achieve them. A study that looked at the intention and motivation to save for the future revealed that when the future is presented in days rather than years, people are more motivated and inclined to save. Oyserman explained that years feel further away than days, and that the latter make us feel closer to our ‘future self’, making our goals more relevant.

In another experiment, Oyserman and her colleagues showed that climatologists often present environmental effects in centuries, but they would benefit from expressing them in decades instead to boost people’s motivation to tackle environment issues. This effect was mediated by the fact that people believe such estimates to be more accurate and the goals seemingly more relevant. The researchers concluded that, despite our ability to reason out the remote future and to come up with all sorts of theories, at the end of the day, we are still impulsive by nature and we prefer short-term goals over long-term ones.

But how do we reconcile these scientific findings with the fact that virtually all of our good intentions are long-term goals? After all, we want to improve our lives in the year ahead, with new opportunities and possibilities.

Oyserman says that the outcomes and results of these goals (become fitter, reduce CO2 emissions, save money for grandchildren/pension, etc.) seem too far off and quite irrelevant to our current self. So how do you make long-term goals relevant?

1) Use metaphors to get a more concrete idea of what lies ahead. An example? Describe it as a path to be taken, a route to be determined and followed all the way to the future. This implies that numerous short-term goals need to be set and there will inevitably be obstacles along the way. After all, parts of the road may be strewn with stones and there might be quite a few rivers to cross. By anticipating what lies ahead, your journey will seem more concrete, and the results and outcomes will seem closer within reach. This will give you a feeling of control.

2) Visualise your future self. Oyserman and her colleagues claim that an effective strategy is to identify with the end goal as much as possible – how would you feel once you have reached that goal, how would you act, what would you look like? The more you identify with a concrete goal, the closer this goal feels and the higher your motivation will be. In doing so, find yourself a role model and learn from their journey.

3) Have you successfully set off on your path but have you lost motivation because the ultimate goal seems too far away? Then boost your motivation by looking at how far you’ve come. Where did you start, what have you achieved, and what were the milestones along the way? What are you proud of? What is the next step towards your goal and how will you tackle it?

If you look at how far you’ve come, you will find out interesting facts about yourself, and you will be able to pinpoint both your successful and unsuccessful strategies. Use them to get back on track and reach your goal, one step at a time.

We are still surprisingly similar to our ancestors and we find it easier to pursue goals that seem closer, which often compromises our long-term goals. To turn good intentions into realities, you need to bring your goals closer, develop a sense of control, and give yourself a thumbs-up for your hard work. The future is here and now!

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