How’s this for an exercise warm-up: Write a letter to yourself 20 years in the future.
The simple act of penning a note to your future-self will increase your likelihood of exercising and push you to workout longer, according to a new study from Columbia Business School’s Michael Slepian. And perhaps counterintuitively, Slepian also found, it’s more beneficial to feel connected to yourself 20 years down the road than only a few months away — which has implications for self-improvement in business, management, and other skill development.
“The more we feel connected to our distant selves, the more we understand that, while some behaviors don’t impact ourselves in the short term, cumulatively they add up,” says Slepian, an assistant professor in the management division.
It’s easy to skip or skimp on a workout, or to justify eating that bag of chips or pint of ice cream, because these decisions yield little to no immediate gain or loss. Unlike activities with immediate benefit such as saving money (which results in a measurable financial savings), your life won’t change from one workout or meal.
But can a simple letter change that calculation and help a person connect today’s exercise decisions to the distant health results? To find out, Slepian, who has also studied the temporal effects of keeping secrets, teamed up with the University of California’s Hal Hershfield and California State University’s Abraham Rutchick, Monica Reyes, and Lindsay Pleskus.
First, the researchers questioned 191 people about their physical health and how connected they felt to their future-self. The results showed that people with a stronger feeling of future self-continuity reported significantly better health. Next, 250 people were assigned to write a letter to themselves with the prompt, “Think about who you will be 20 years from now, and write about the person you are now, which topics are important and dear to you, and how you see your life.” Another 250 people wrote a letter to their future-self three months out.
Participants who wrote a letter to their distant-self were 1.43 more times likely to exercise and exercised 1.40 times longer than the people who wrote a letter to their near-future self.
“With a continuous self that exists from today into the future (e.g., 20 years from now), each healthy behavior is no longer seen as isolated, but instead is part of a continuous stream of behavior,” according to the study, “Future Self-Continuity Is Associated With Improved Health and Increases Exercise Behavior,” published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
The authors see implications from the research for developing skills for new careers and promotions, or for starting a long-term projects.
“Realizing that a new set of skills or credentials are needed to move up the ranks might feel daunting when the future-self feels too far removed,” the authors write. “Yet, when seeing the continuity between one’s current and future-self, the benefit obtained by each effortful task may be better realized.”
Previous academic research has established how a stronger connection between future focus and present behavior can influence our daily lives – be it by encouraging healthy dieting and exercise, or by reducing risk-raking in drugs and sexual activities. Partly as a result, the act of writing a letter to your future-self has become a popular tool for self-improvement, with websites such as futureme.org allowing you to submit a letter that will be sent back to you in 1 to 5 years.
Where Slepian’s study is unique, however, is in linking the current self to the future-self over an extended time perspective of decades. The results suggest that futureme.org is thinking too short-term and should add a 20-year option: The distant future-self appears to have the greatest influence on today’s self.
As for Slepian, he says he’s yet to write a letter to his older self – but he is exercising more these days, which he does credit in part to a stronger sense of future self-continuity.
“It’s not so much about writing the letter as highlighting that connection to yourself in your own head,” he says. “It makes you think, ‘What choices today could have long-reaching implications?’ It gives a shock to the system by forcing you to think about the longer time horizon.”