Not Bullshit: Visualizing Your Success

"Visualize your success" has long been laughed off as the mantra of the self-help industry. (An industry that helps people much less than its name might suggest.) And while I'm skeptical of any advice that comes in three easy payments of $19.95, this time it might actually be worthwhile. But to explain why, we need to talk a bit about economics:

Pick one: You can have $100 today or $110 if you wait a year.

Which do you choose?

Most people choose $100 today. This is despite the fact that $110 in a year is objectively a better deal--especially given today's interest rates. So why do we typically take the worst option?

The answer is something called future discounting. We value things in the future less than we value things right now. We like immediate gratification.

This broken thinking shows up everywhere: It's why we eat that extra slice of cake, why we rack up debt on our credit cards, and generally why we put off 'til tomorrow what we ought to do today. We make all sorts of decisions that make things harder on our future selves, instead of easier.* We treat ourselves (our future selves) badly.*

Fortunately, there's a way to avoid the trap of future discounting: According to behavioral economists, the best way to sidestep it is to imagine your future self where you made the right decision.

This means thinking about being thinner instead of how tasty another slice of cake will be. Or thinking about life after debt instead of the 20 minutes of fun you'll get from putting some pointless purchase on your credit card. If you take a second to imagine how a given decision will impact (for better or worse) your future self, you are much more likely to choose wisely.

This dramatically changes the questions you ask yourself when you're making a decision: Will this make me fat? Will this make me rich? Will this make me happy?

Try as I might, I can't see any difference between "imagining your future self" and "visualizing your success." Every time you make a decision ask yourself how it will impact your goals. If it helps, do it. If not, don't.