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Ever dread that something you know you should do, but you just can’t seem to face it?

 An impending work deadline?

 An urgent job around the house? 

An uncomfortable conversation with a friend or partner?

Whatever the problem, it’s likely you’ll deal with it the same way we all do—by putting it off for as long as you possibly can.

If you’ve ever succumbed to procrastination, there’s a good chance you’ve fallen victim to a cognitive bias known as hyperbolic discounting.

What does that mean, and why does it matter?

It means that when faced with two rewards, we predictably take the one that arrives sooner, even if it’s smaller.

And it matters, because it might be the single biggest barrier between you and the body you want.

What Is Hyperbolic Discounting?

 

hyperbolic discounting

As humans, we like to believe we are well informed, forward-thinking, and consistent in our preferences.

Unfortunately for us, many scientific studies have shown this simply isn’t true—we almost always prefer immediate gratification even when the future reward is bigger and better. 

Take the following situation as an example:

Imagine you’ve been given the choice of having $90 now, or $100 in two weeks. Most people would take the $90 now and be very happy. Even when they know the extra $10 is only a mere 14 days away, the idea of having something good now versus something great later is too compelling to pass up. 

In other words, we’re happy to pay $10 to get $90 now versus getting $100 in a few weeks.

Interestingly, however, if both rewards are not immediate but far in the future, this bias largely disappears. 

For example, if given the choice of getting $90 in a year versus $100 in a year and two weeks, most people will choose to wait longer for the larger sum.

Why? 

The simplest answer is that if we’re compelled to start thinking long-term, we begin to favor delayed gratification. If we already have to wait a year for something, a few more weeks is no big deal. 

In other words, if we’re forced to think long-term, we put less value on short-term rewards.

Over the short term, we tend to be shortsighted and impulsive, a fact that has huge implications for our health. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling said, “People behave sometimes as if they had two selves, one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and another who wants dessert.”

Many studies have shown that our predictable impulsiveness underlies a host of self-destructive behaviours, including substance abuse, pathological gambling, risky sexual behaviour, and most notably for us, obesity, disordered eating, and an inability to commit to health-promoting habits like working out.

While hyperbolic discounting might seem like an evolutionary liability, it—like all cognitive biases—is a decision-making shortcut that our brains developed over thousands of years, because it served us well more often than not.

If your primitive forebears were offered an opportunity to reproduce or stumbled across a free meal, they didn’t hesitate to capitalize on the situation. After all, the longer you took to make decisions on opportunities like these, the greater the likelihood they would be lost. 

What’s more, our Neanderthal ancestors didn’t know if they’d make it until tomorrow, so the idea of choosing the immediate, going for the guaranteed reward made a lot more sense than waiting for a greater reward in the future that we may not survive long enough to get.

Our world, however, is more complex, predictable, and safe than that of our ancestors. 

We know that food will be available for months and years to come, that we won’t have to risk being beaten to death in order to secure a mate, and that a little money, time, or effort invested now will generally pay off down the road.

Hyperbolic discounting was useful for thousands of years, but it’s recently begun to get in the way of our goals. 

Instead of worrying over whether we’ll have enough food to make it through the winter, we now worry if we’ll have time to diet off enough body fat in time for a beach vacation.

We want to look good and feel confident in our swimsuit at the beach, but the short-term pleasures of sugary temptations and warm, couch-bound laziness become almost impossible to resist.  

Does this mean our long-term goals of being lean and healthy will be forever frustrated by our genetic programming? 

Not necessarily. 

There’s a way to stop hyperbolic discounting from sabotaging your goals.

The best way to keep your inner lazy, impulsive, pleasure-seeking Neanderthal at bay is to practice what’s called episodic future thinking.

Summary: Humans are evolutionarily adapted to sacrifice future rewards for present rewards, and this hyperbolic discounting encourages us to make impulsive, poor decisions about how we eat and exercise that can sabotage our long-term health goals. We can counter this natural inclination, though, by using a technique called episodic future thinking.

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How Episodic Future Thinking Helps You Make Better Decisions 

mind tricks test

 

Hyperbolic discounting tricks us into shortsighted, impulsive decision-making.

Given the choice of a syrup-soaked waffle or a workout, it’s very normal to choose the former, even when we fully understand the health implications of each. Most people lose sight of their long-term weight loss goals with a plate of waffles staring them in the face.

You can counteract this pernicious aspect of your personality with what scientists call episodic future thinking (EFT), which you can think of as a kind of productive daydreaming.

Research shows we spend approximately one-third of each waking day simulating various aspects of our lives in our heads. Removing ourselves from our current reality and imagining hypothetical situations is associated with a wide variety of outcomes, both positive and negative, though the benefits include helping us confront future challenges, solve problems, and analyze our concerns, relationships, and feelings.

With a little bit of tweaking, it might also stop you feeling compelled to snack when you’re just bored and not actually hungry, or motivate you to go to the gym when working out is the last thing you want to do. 

All that’s required is that you mentally project yourself into the future through the vivid imagining of a specific, personal, and detailed future event, that’s preferably linked to a personal goal.

EFT has been shown in the lab to help obese and non-obese adults, adolescents, and children take control of their impulses. What’s more, it’s been proven to be effective in real-life settings, too—not just in the lab. 

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, researchers took 29 overweight or obese women who wanted to lose weight, and split them into two groups. Both groups were given the opportunity to eat whatever they wanted in a food court full of deliberately tempting—and thoroughly unhealthy—food. 

The day before they were given access to the food court, though, the researchers split everyone into two groups: 

  1. Group one used the episodic future thinking (EFT) protocol.
  2. Group two used the episodic recent thinking (ERT) protocol.

In group one, the researchers asked the participants to think of five future health goals they would like to complete in the next three weeks, and five future events they had planned or anticipated would happen in the next three weeks. The researchers also helped participants to pair their goals with the events and encouraged them to imagine the events vividly. Their final goals ended up looking something like this:

“In three weeks, I will go to the concert with my friend. We will sit near the back so we can chat more easily. I will be feeling strong and proud of myself after having achieved my goal of going to the gym three times per week. I will be feeling excited and happy to see the band play for the first time.” 

This encouraged the participants to think into the future.

In group two, the researchers asked the participants to list five things they did regularly and enjoyed and rate their importance. They also asked them to think of five events that had happened in the past 24 hours, again remembering them in terms of vividness, emotions, and context. 

This encouraged the participants to think about the recent past.

All participants recorded themselves reading each of their goals or memories on an mp3 player, and on the following day, played the recordings back to themselves while they ate at the food court. 

Not only did group one consume healthier food options, they also chose foods containing less fat and more protein than the ERT group, without any prior guidance about food choices from the research team.

Thus, simply getting people to think about the future, even if the mental exercise isn’t directly diet-related, helped them make better eating decisions in the present. 

Summary: If you want to look your best at an upcoming event, vividly imagine yourself there while you decide what to eat—research shows it’ll greatly improve your chances of choosing healthier food, even when you’re tempted to do otherwise.

How to Use EFT to Stick to Your Diet and Exercise Plan

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While the participants in the study you just learned about used an MP3 player to pre-record a personal pep-talk, you don’t need to do this.

Plenty of research shows EFT is effective using imagination alone.

Taking a second to imagine something in the future might be oversimplifying things, however.

In order for EFT to be successful, you must imagine a future event vividly—the more real, the better. The event must be specific, personal, and detailed. It also greatly helps to link the event to a personal goal. 

For example, let’s say you’re getting ready for your wedding, and you want to make sure you fit nicely into your dress or suit for the big day. Every time you’re tempted to snack on junk food or skip a gym session, take a second to think of the following:

  • Where you’ll be on your wedding day.
  • How excited you’ll be to celebrate your special day with the people you love.
  • How happy you’ll be to see your special friends and family sitting in the front row.
  • How proud you’ll be that you’re getting married.
  • How pleased you’ll be with the event, including the room decorations, the entire wedding party, and your dress or suit.
  • How satisfied you‘ll be for sticking to your diet and exercise plan, and how confident you’ll feel standing in front of all those people. 
  • How comfortable you’ll feel having your picture taken, knowing you achieved the body you wanted.
  • How gratified you’ll be as you smell the food coming out of the kitchen, knowing all the people most important to you will be served a delicious menu that you chose.
  • How delighted you’ll be when everyone joins you on the dance floor after you share your first dance with your new husband or wife.

It’s emotional, concrete details like these that will help to build a tangible picture of a future event. If it helps, you could write down three events like these that are going to happen in the next three months, along with all the details you can imagine. Make sure the events are personally or emotionally relevant, though—your wedding or a friend’s, a family vacation, a big birthday party, an important work presentation or interview, a sporting event like a long distance race or endurance event—are all good examples of things you can use for EFT.

Whenever you find that you’re close to deviating from your diet or exercise plan, take a second to read the notes you made about the future event or run through everything in your head. Do this for as long as it takes to feel that day—taste the flavours and smell the smells—and your desire for immediate gratification at the expense of your goals will fade.

Summary: For EFT to work, you must vividly imagine an upcoming event and make your thoughts as realistic as possible—including what you expect to see, smell, and feel—and think of it every time you’re close to falling off the wagon. 

The Bottom Line on Episodic Future Thinking

Sticking with a diet or exercise plan can be tough, especially at the beginning.

Luckily, EFT offers a simple, free, and scientifically-proven method to help us prioritize big future goals over small immediate ones.

So, next time you find yourself torn between skipping the gym or doing a tough workout, or fighting an internal battle between eating a cookie and sticking to your macros, simply imagine your future “you” in as much detail as you possibly can.

“Future you” is driven, focused on health, and looks fantastic, and would really appreciate it if “present you” would stick to the program, rather than letting that little bit of immediate gratification get in the way.

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What do you think of this simple mind trick? Have anything else to add? Lemme know in the comments below!

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