There is a famously adorable psychology experiment in which small children are asked to sit in front of a marshmallow and not eat it in exchange for a bigger prize later on. As you can imagine, this is not a skill that comes easily to a 4-year-old.
The most successful toddlers were able to avoid eating the sweet with all kinds of adorable methods, including singing, hiding the marshmallow under something, or going through the sheer exertion of willpower.
A contemporary version of the test can be viewed here.
Decision-making is hard: Dealing with adult marshmallows
The experiment isn't really that far off in describing how life is for adults. Every single day, we're assaulted with marshmallows (I really wish I meant this literally). You could spend money on going out, or you can put it in savings. You could set up a deferral into your 401(k) or buy a motorcycle. You could watch Homeland or go to the gym.
And, fun as it would be, it's really hard to sing all day to keep yourself from choosing the easy way out.
But what if there was a better way? It turns out that the answer to making the right choice, the one you know you really want to make in the grand scheme of things, could boil down to a really easy trick.
Find a way to have sympathy for your future self. Forge a connection.
How to connect to your future self
That might sound a little woo-woo, but hear me out. It's really easy to have sympathy for ourselves in the present moment. For example, right now I'm tired and I don't feel like cooking, exercising, or working. I've had a long day, I didn't sleep well, and I've maxed out my daily allotment of caffeine.
All I want to do, to be honest, is eat ice cream and watch my saved episode of Homeland.
I know that we have all been in this place.
But instead of thinking about how I feel now, some really cool research suggests that I should be thinking more about how I'm going to feel in the future.
For example, that means thinking about how awesome I feel after I've exercised. Or how pleased with myself I'll be when I'm still agile at 60. Or how superior I'll feel (we're admitting things, so we might as well include this) when I can claim another decade of not putting on 10 pounds.
In other words, instead of falling into feeling sympathetic for myself as I stand before you today, all I have to do is find ways to feel sympathetic for my future self.
The limitless applications of empathy
You can do the exact same thing, and the magic of it is that you can apply this concept to pretty much every area of your life.
For example, one study manipulated a digitized version of people's faces to look older and then prompted them to make financial decisions. It turned out that people saved more money when they saw the picture. And how could they resist, with that nice old version of them staring back?
You thankfully don't need a digitally aged version of yourself to take advantage of the idea. Just think about what the older version of you would want. To spend long summers hanging out by the pool with adorable grandkids? To eat at all the best restaurants in the city?
In other words, what will make the older version of you happy? What will make him or her sad?
Now, once you have those answers in your mind, think about how much money you're putting into your retirement account. Will Older You be happy about this?
It even works for morality. In another study, researchers tested survey respondents for their "future-self continuity" and their tendency to make ethically questionable decisions.
Guess what? People who related more to their future selves were less likely to tolerate unethical business decisions, lie, and make false promises.
The possible applications of developing a relationship with your future-self, in other words, seem to be endless.
So while it might be fun to avoid the proverbial marshmallows of our world through singing, you might just have more success with the simple step of imagining how you'll feel about something later.
And whatever your future-self's driving motivation is -- a healthy body, the financial means to wear a new Hawaiian shirt every single day, or the smug satisfaction of a job well done -- he or she will surely thank you for it.