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Did, Doing, To Do: Why your Past, Present, and Future Selves Need to Chat

Who is going to control your destiny, the "past you" or the "present you?" [1]

Recently I've been drawn to the notion of how our actions are informed by our past, and how they impact our future. I've particularly found it helpful to think of myself as three people: my Past Self, Present Self, and Future Self. I haven't found a solid reference for this from psychology (I'm sure it's out there [2]), but I want to share my thinking, and to get your impressions.

The perspective I'm trying for is that of asking how well we treat them. What if someone could hear your conversations? Would they think you're a saint? A genius? A jerk? Let me give it a shot.

Talking to your Past Self

I can think of three reasons to visit the past: Nostalgia, self-esteem, and insight.

If a thought from the past gives you pleasure, then naturally spend some time with it. Well-made memories are a treasure. But limit yourself; the past is over. Treat those memories as something you take off the shelf, savor, then put back with respect. Warning sign: "That was the highlight of my life."

To treat your past self well, honor her. She did hard work to get you here, after all. Celebrate how courageous you were, how much you experimented and tried. No one else could have done it.

That said, I believe the highest use of the past is to learn, that is, to chew up experiences that turn your present self into an improved future one (more loving, smarter, or kinder, say). Productive use of the past is via debriefs (pointers in Personal Lessons Learned In 2008) and analyzing and capturing lessons learned. Hard-earned experience without capture and reflection is waste.

A special challenge I face in my relationship with the past is around doubt. Second-guessing your Past Self with questions like "Why did I do that?" or "Did I do the right thing?" is toxic and unproductive. It's disrespectful. To combat this, renew trust that you made the best choice given current information. Blaming our past selves for not knowing what we know now - for not knowing the future, in other words - is absurd. A constructive way to handle these thoughts is to detach a bit from that person. He tried something (hear hear!) and got some information. It's your job to integrate that. Be grateful.

Talking to your Present Self

Clearly most mental effort should be in the present. Do you agree? It stands to reason - this moment is your only decision point [3], your only chance to affect the future. This is when you put your lessons learned into play through enlightened choice. You know that list of tasks your Past Self created? Work them. You see that blocked out project time on your calendar? Use it.

Watch your task appetite, though. You want it all (that's human nature), and you can only do one thing at a time (that's human circuitry), but take care how much you defer to your future self - it's easy to overload that person coming up.

This is also your sole chance to celebrate your accomplishments. Zipping right past them without giving a little cheer is a lost opportunity for happiness. Come on - you rocked! Warning sign: A culture that asks "What's next? Let's keep moving, people!" without pausing. "The best is yet to come" might tell you something too.

Reflection takes place here. This is when you connect where you planned to be, what your current goals are, and what new actions will take you there.

Finally, watch your self-talk. This is probably the most common self-help concept on the planet, but I honestly haven't found a book or idea that's been helpful. A popular one is Shad Helmstetter's What to Say When you Talk To Yourself. Any suggestions?

Talking to your Future Self

A final crucial activity is how you prepare your Future Self. What kind of gifts can you give? I admit it - I love this category. I'm an information collector and prospector. I capture all but the tiniest tidbit that might be valuable. News stories, interesting phrases, cool job descriptions, and especially blog ideas, product ideas, and new ways to help clients. Yum!

For productivity, pay attention to planning (see Simple Project Planning For Individuals: A Round-up). Look ahead in your calendar to see what you might need for all the projects coming his way, and pave the way. Do this by working back from due dates and working out hours needed to accomplish each one on time. Consider blocking out time for specific ones, as I described in Testing The Classics: A Time Management Experiment: Time Blocking. He will thank you, trust me.

Books deserve a special mention. They're an investment and a resource for when the time comes for needing that knowledge. I know that I can't know it all (anti-knowledge is a strength), and these books represent an act of faith that my future self will need them some day. It's a kind of preparation for the unknown, I suppose. Much more in On Keeping An Umberto Eco-like Anti-Library, especially in the incredibly insightful comments.

A practical note: Preparations can save yourself a ton of work. For example, my internet connection went out at home. It was frustrating, especially due to poor timing. After the standard stages - denial, anger, etc., I consulted my notes from the last time it happened [4], and fixed it in 5 minutes! Hooray past self!

To enable these conversations, keep a log of what you did, decisions made (see A Key To Continuous Learning: Keep A Decision Log), and your thinking at the time. This journal is what you'll mine for insights.


What do you think? What are your tricks and methods for working with yourselves? I'm curious!


Reader Comments (3)


I got this idea from Josh actually, but I've been working on a decision journal that helps me map why I made certain decisions in the given moment. These are the big decisions; job change, major purchases, relationships, etc.

Since starting it early this year, I've found myself trusting my past self a lot more, which only leads to a confident present self and a more focused future self, since I don't have that sense of past doubt that you mentioned. We can only work with the limited information we have at the current time and make decisions on that and in order to avoid second-guessing, this technique works like a charm.

Blogging itself is a great way to track your thinking, whether it's around a niche or just personal thoughts, you see your evolution over the years. Plus, a record of your thoughts can only serve as a great teaching tool.

June 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAkshay Kapur

Hi Akshay, thanks for sharing. I do the same thing, and I think it's really useful. First, just recording that I made the decision helps give me what I call a healthy sense of detachment." Second, reviewing my decisions as you describe gives perspective and lessons for the future. I wrote more about it here, FYI: [ A Key To Continuous Learning: Keep A Decision Log | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/04/key-to-continuous-learning-keep.html ].

June 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

What you're talking about comes pretty close to transactional analysis and this may give you references for what you are talking about. TA deals with the parent self (the voice from the past - sometimes critical, often times useful for reminding the current self of previous experiences, but also sometimes needs to be thanked for the reminder and ignored so that we are not trapped by what happened before). Then there's the adult self who can be in the past (delving for references on which to map the present), the present (deciding what to do now) and the future because the adult self will know that actions have consequences. And finally the child self who plays (which is sometimes a good thing so long as the adult self knows when to stop) and has no thought of consequences. That last one is probably where the comparison with what you're talking about breaks down. Although finding fun things that can't be done now but might be worth putting aside for the future might come under child self maybe?

June 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

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