We Are Terrible At Thinking About The Future. This Is A Bad Thing, But Here’s How To Get Better


A recent article by Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future in Slate magazine points out that the further out in the future you try to imagine your own life, the more that future self feels like a stranger – someone you don’t know and consequently don’t care about.

This effect harms both ourselves and our society. McGonigal cites studies showing that the more you regard your future self as a stranger, the worse your impulse control is today, and the less likely you are to care about future threats such as climate change, the replacement of human jobs by automation, or overpopulation.

A survey by the Institute for the Future found 53% of Americans rarely or never think about something that might happen 30 years from now. Their findings also suggest that the older you get, the less you think about the future, and that contrary to what you might expect, having children or grandchildren does not make you look ahead more.

The only thing research has found that does increase future thinking is a ‘brush with mortality’, like a near-death experience or a terminal medical diagnosis.

McGonigal emphasises that thinking about the future and empathy for your future self is good both for you (it improves your self-control and makes you more likely to save for the future) and also for society and the planet. To get yourself more into future thinking, she suggests doing weekly Google searches for ‘the future of’ things you are interested in, to get some specific ideas about the future of things you care about (as I read a fair amount of science fiction and listen to tech-related podcasts, I think I may have this one fairly well covered).

Good as this recommendation is, there are a couple of ideas from NLP that might give you a more powerful experience of connection to your future self. These ideas are: the ‘timeline’ (a spatial metaphor that we all use to help us think and talk about time) and ‘associated’ vs ‘dissociated’ viewpoints.

First, the timeline. Time is a difficult thing to talk about or even think about, as we can’t see it or touch it. In practice, we have to resort to metaphors. We don’t even have to think about this consciously, it just comes out in our language. We talk about the ‘near future’, or retirement being ‘a long way off’. We talk about ‘putting difficult times behind us’, or imminent events as ‘coming up shortly’. Memories from your childhood seem ‘further away’ than memories of what happened yesterday.

In modern industrial societies, we often use the metaphor of time as a line – perhaps like a road, where events are fixed markers and we move along the road past them (“we’ll get to that in a minute”), or perhaps like a river, where we stay still and events float towards us (“year-end is nearly upon us”).
We can look forward along the road or river into the future, or perhaps back along it towards the past.

The second idea is the difference between ‘associated’ and ‘dissociated’ ways of looking at an event or an experience. To illustrate this, think of a good memory – something that you feel good about when you recall it. Your experience of the memory may involve sounds, or feelings, but there will most likely also be something you can see. You may have a picture of the event, or you may be immersed in the memory, seeing it as you saw it at the time.

If you are seeing a picture of yourself in the memory (as an outside observer would have seen you), that’s called ‘dissociated’ in NLP. If you are immersed in the event, seeing what you saw at the time, that’s called ‘associated’.

Now try this thought experiment: if you’re outside the picture looking in, notice what happens when you step into it and see the memory as it happens through your own eyes (‘associated’). If you were in it already, notice what happens when you step out and look at yourself in the memory from the outside (‘dissociated’). Move in and out of the two viewpoints as many times as you need to in order to notice the difference in your experience of the two viewpoints.

I’m betting that for most people, ‘associated’ felt more involved and a fuller, more immersive experience than ‘dissociated’ (I’m saying ‘for most people’ because everyone’s subjective experience is different). That’s what you would expect: when you look at yourself from the outside it can seem almost as if you’re looking at someone else, and you would feel more detached the further away you are looking from.

Conversely, if you are ‘associated’ in a memory, standing in your own shoes and looking through your own eyes, you will probably have more access to the sensory input from that memory – not just what you can see, but also what you can hear and particularly what it feels like.

So what happens when we put these ideas – timelines and associated/dissociated viewpoints – together, to think about your future self and how to connect with him/her?

First, get a sense of where your timeline is in your perceptual space. If you could point to where the past feels like it is, where would you point? (Try actually physically pointing – ‘embodying’ the experience will make it feel more real). With your other hand, point to the future. And where is now?

For some people, it’s quite simple – the past feels like it’s behind you, and the future is ahead, with ‘now’ approximately where you are. For others, maybe the past is to your left and the future to your right, and maybe ‘now’ is a little way in front of you. Bear in mind that any combination is possible, and there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ timelines – what you discover is what’s been working for you all this time. And you don’t have to see your timeline clearly, just get a sense of which way the past is and which way the future is.

Look along your timeline to your ‘future self’, five years in the future. How connected do you feel? Does this feel like you, or more like someone else that you don’t really care about? Now what happens when you walk along the timeline towards the future and step into the shoes of your future self, becoming the future you? What do you see? What do you hear? And what does it feel like? The chances are this ‘associated’ view will be a much fuller, richer experience for you, and you will feel more like it matters what you are doing and what’s happening to you five years in the future. Take as long as you need to notice everything that’s worth noticing. When you’re ready, bring everything that you’ve learned back with you to now, and take a little while to integrate everything that you’ve learned. Now – what are you going to do differently, now that you feel more connected to your future self?

That’s the basic process. I am guessing that for many of you (if you actually did it) it’s been quite a profound experience. Here are some refinements you can add to make it even more powerful.

  1. Physically lay your timeline out on the floor and physically walk along it to get to your future self. Again, the embodiment will make it a more deeply felt and therefore more powerful experience. When you’re ready, walk back to now along the timeline only as quickly as your unconscious mind learns what you need to learn from each step of the way.
  2. Alternatively, if you are short of time or space, you could imagine floating above the timeline and down into your future self.
  3. Repeat the process, associating into your future self at 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years in the future. What’s different about each of these?
  4. When you are associated into your future self, look back to the you at ‘now’. What advice do you want to give them?

Let me and the readers know how you get on with this exercise by commenting below!

Some related posts:
An Introduction To Timelines In NLP
Eliciting Your Timeline (Practical NLP Podcast 75)
How To ‘Test-Drive’ Your Timeline (Practical NLP Podcast 76)
‘Associated’ vs ‘Dissociated’ In Language
Introduction To Submodalities (And How They Are Useful)

Finally, here’s another way you can use timelines – as a study aid:

If you’re currently studying or on a training course, this guided visualization MP3 is for you!

It’s designed to help you review and integrate everything you’ve learned on any course or training that you’re undertaking. 

It takes you on a journey above your timeline to help you recover resourceful emotional states from times when you learned new knowledge rapidly and easily, and bring them back to the present. During the journey we ask your unconscious mind to review and integrate everything you’ve learned from the start of your training programme, all the way back to now.

More details, testimonials and instant download here: Using Your Timeline for Learning and Review

© 2017 – 2023, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.