Want to Improve Your Life? Write Yourself a Letter

By Jessica Stillman | Small Business

Science shows that writing about how you will look back on your life decades in the future drastically improves decision making. Put that insight to use.

Physically, you're just one person, of course, with one head and one heart. But think about yourself through time and suddenly it seems like there are many 'yous.' There was you as a carefree child, as a high school goth (a phase you'd like to forget), the young person with supreme (utterly oblivious) confidence, the confused and dispirited twentysomething, etc.

Details differ among individuals, but take a long enough perspective and most of us have the uncanny experience of feeling our unitary identity splinter into several very distinct personas.

This reality can sometimes be good for forgiving ourselves for past foibles--"That was in a different lifetime," we say of early mistakes--but it can also be put to use to improve our current decision making, according to a fascinating recent Medium post from founder Tyler Tervooren.

What would older me do?

He points to scientific research out of Wharton that tested the effect on ethical behavior college students' imagining themselves in 20 years time and then writing themselves a letter about their current lives from the perspective of that future self. Even though no one but the study subjects themselves read the letters, those that wrote them were far more likely to avoid dicey ethical decisions like buying a discount computer they knew was probably stolen.

Why does this strange intervention work? "Research has shown most people, when imagining themselves in the near future, will picture their surroundings through their own eyes," Tervooren explains. "It's as if you are yourself within your own imagination. But when you look into the distant future, you're more likely to take an omniscient view--removed from the scene--and see yourself as a stranger. Your life becomes a third person narrative."

How to get some great advice from yourself

To improve all sorts of decisions, Tervooren contends, you can take the perspective of a future self to make you more objective about your current situation. "If you have important goals, habits, and ideals you want to live by, the science is in," he says. "You can help yourself stick to them by writing yourself a letter. And, just like the research has shown, thinking about the distant future works better than thinking about the near term."

So, whether you want to take more risks, improve your diet, or make a major leap in your career, a simple and completely private writing exercise might be able to push you to actually see what needs doing and stick with it. Just make sure to imagine yourself at least 20 years in the future (science says thinking about the near-term future doesn't help), focus on specific goals or areas of your life rather than pondering how to improve things more generally, and take the time to both describe your actual present self and outline how you should be behaving.

Which area of your life could you possibly improve with a little advice from your wiser and more objective future self?

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