I love Thursdays. At Penn especially, Thursdays for most of us are when we’re done with our classes for the week, and we can just max and relax. When it’s Thursday, it feels like the next school week is a forever away and is a problem for the “future me” to solve.

In the same vain, there’s so many things right now that we constantly delegate to a new and better “future us” to solve, at way bigger time scales. If I asked you to imagine your yourself 10 years from now, what would you think? Would you be smarter, more confident, better rested? Would life be more stable/fun (even more than it already is)? Chances are, if you’re like me and a bunch of other people, in ten years, so much would change that you probably see yourself as more settled, and all of those unsolved problems (career, love life, etc.) would have just magically been solved. Also, for a smaller number of people, the sheer amount of stuff you would have done in ten years probably makes you think that you’d be living such a different life that you might little in common with who you are now.

It turns out, there is a connection between anticipating the next week and anticipating the next ten years and it starts with temporal landmarks:

Temporal landmark (TLs): Moments that stand (or will stand out) in time relative to the surrounding days.

At a simple case, these are your go-getter Fridays that we so love, and Mondays we so hate. At the lifetime scale, this when we graduate high school or get married, or can be recurring events like New Year’s or Christmas. The point is, these moments in time shift the way we hold ourselves accountable for things today and in the future.

Research today shows a couple really cool (some potentially obvious) insights about TLs:

  • People actually organize their memories based on distinct TLs: We (tend to) view the person we are today as different from the person we were before we graduated high school. Additionally, when we think about the future, we chunk the versions of ourselves into distinct points separated by potential TLs (for ex. before and after we get married).
  • We tend to forgive past mistakes that happen before a TL: For example, if I didn’t meet my workout goal in 2019, then when New Year’s happens (this is the TL), I view 2020 as a new year, and myself as being smarter and more knowledgeable now than before. I set a similar goal and expect a new result.
  • We tend to view our person after a TL as smarter, more capable, more secure: For example, when I have an assignment due in two weeks that I don’t know how to start, I pretty much do nothing right now with the expectation I’ll know what to do after a week (the Fridays work as temporal landmark).
  • Because our future self is “better” after a TL, we tend to delegate responsibility to the better future self (and lose motivation now): If I set a workout goal in January to lose 10 pounds by December, I would probably do nothing the first 4 months thinking, “hey it’s only 10 pounds, future me can still do it”

What we can do

Now, if you got this far, you’re probably thinking, “Hey this is life, there’s nothing I can do about procrastination”. For many people who have tried to do work early, the constant active effort just doesn’t seem worth it and also feels super tiring. But there are two really simple solutions (that are still actively being researched). The first is a change in mindset, and the second is a change in environment.

For the first: Simply realize that who you are now is the same person you’ll be after a TL and that present you is going to be the one eventually doing the hard work. Take an example from above: When you set a goal to lose 10 pounds by the end of the year, it isn’t future you that loses the 10 pounds, it’s current you. Current you puts in the work, and becomes the cooler, smarter, future you. So stay present, and try to breakdown the mental separation you have between you and yourself as you anticipate a TL.

For the second: Forgive yourself. Create your own TLs at your “lows” so that when you experience it, you can safely forgive yourself for the past mistakes you’ve made and start over. A really interesting result of this is the rising adoption of quarter systems at universities. Maybe a logisitical move, but being able to forgive yourself of your grades more often gives you the chance to keep going and start over. Make special holidays that you and your friends celebrate could actually keep you moving and relegate your past mistakes. All of this builds into a theory called “the fresh start effect” (feel free to do more research if you’re curious).

Closing Thoughts

I thought these ideas were super cool, and while some might be inherently obvious, I thought it would be cool to show you how to think about things like procrastination in a potentially different way as well as where research stand right now.