Present Bias

Why it's so hard to give a damn about our Future Selves


Those of us who struggle with procrastination are intimately acquainted with the Present Bias.

The Present Bias describes our tendency to choose a smaller, immediate reward over a larger reward in the future. Unfortunately, it seems to be an immutable law of nature that the things that are better for us in the long-term are a drag in the short-term. Ice cream tastes better than broccoli. Buying new clothes is more fun than saving money for a far-off retirement. Playing video games is more pleasant than writing or coding or designing.

Present bias leads us to consistently optimize for our current enjoyment, forever putting off the harder things that set our future selves up for success. When we fail to eat healthier, save more, or make progress on our goals, we’re digging ourselves into holes and leaving it to our Future Selves to try and find a way out.

What you can do about it:

Help out your Future Self. If you want to get up and exercise in the morning but have a tendency to hit snooze, you could have all your workout clothes set out the night before and arrange to meet up with a friend for a morning jog. If you want to focus on your work but find yourself doomscrolling Twitter instead, lock yourself out of your social media apps and websites at certain times of the day with a service like Freedom. If you have a hard time saving money, automate your savings withdrawals every month so it happens without you having to think about it.

Find ways to make the “right” thing a little more pleasant. Seek out a form of exercise you actually enjoy. “Bundle” an activity you enjoy – like watching Netflix – with an activity you put off – like folding laundry. Find healthy recipes that are also delicious.

Reframe how you think about rewards. If you can’t overcome Present Bias, find a way to work with it. Instead of running to lose weight in 6 months or writing to become a famous novelist, focus on the feeling of satisfaction you get after running a mile or writing a 1,000 words a day. When it comes to accomplishing goals, research shows that enjoying the process is a far better predictor of success than desiring the long-term outcome.

Imagine your future self. Studies show that taking the time to imagine our future selves can help motivate us to choose longer-term payoffs over immediate gratification. At the beginning of every day, imagine yourself completely satisfied at the end of the day. What one thing have you accomplished? Start on that task first.

More reading if you're interested:

Present Bias: Why You Don’t Give a Damn About Your Future Self

Social Pressure vs Commitment Devices: Which is Better for Behavioral Change

Other biases

Note

Who are we? Doist is the remote-first company behind Todoist and Twist. We operate on the (sadly controversial) belief that you can be ambitious without making yourself (or your team) miserable. We publish comics and other things about work and life. Subscribe to the Ambition & Balance newsletter below for exclusive content in your inbox weekly(ish).

Comic artwork by Anaïs Pirlot-Mares 🎨 Written by Becky Kane ✏️

The Doist Team

A remote-first company building the future we want to work in. Makers of todoist.com & twist.com

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