What does the fiscal cliff and New Year’s resolutions have in common?
Our relationship to the future.
Our New Year’s resolution and the fiscal cliff are responses to a debt . We gambled on a future moment that has now come due.
Debt is not just about money, though that’s where we focus most of our attention. We spend more than money: we spend time, attention and focus, food and drink, energy and emotions.
And the central question behind our spending it habits is our relationship to the future.
When we give something more focus and attention, or more energy or time than we currently have, we borrow it from the future. We gamble on our future state of fitness and ability. If we’re tired, and we push past our limits, and grab a double espresso, we are borrowing energy from our future self (and from the caffeine) and betting that we can handle the tiredness and the caffeine “crash” later.
Every time we spend more attention or energy, money or emotions than we can actually afford, we are sending our future self a bill that covers the cost of the expenditure , plus interest. And what is that interest? The interest we pay is the amplification of the problem we didn’t solve. If I don’t have the energy to talk on the phone, but I do it anyway, I take the energy from my future self – So I just doubled my expense, taking up energy now and taking it away from the future. That is the interest on that loan. If I have a problem I don’t solve today, and push it into the future, I will pay interest on that problem, because the problem will have amplified and will “cost” more to solve in terms of extra work, emotional difficulty, relationship conflict, or whatever. We privilege the needs of the present against the workload of the future.
So far, this may be basic. But, the key is our relationship with the future. How we view the future is evident in how we spend now. And the fact is, we don’t accurately see our future. We tend to think that things will stay the same. A recent New York Times interview with Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard professor of psychology, shows that people tend to underestimate how they will change in the future. They are wildly inaccurate. No surprise there.
We need to improve our relationship to the future. We need to develop our clairvoyance because the health of ourselves, our planet, and our communities depend on it. And let’s face it, our lack of relationship to the future, racking up huge debts, financial and otherwise, are being exploited by the banks and financial institutions who delight in our inaccuracy. Our credit ratings are based not on our current assets, but on our future earning potential. Paying off a credit card debt in one payment does less for our credit rating than paying it off in regular payments over time because financial institutions value our earning capacity (an evaluation of your future) more than they do our current assets (evaluation of the present). The same is true in the reverse, that investing in your future (education, career development, house) is a sounder investment than investing in assets that lose value through use.
And in terms of health, the measurement of fitness is not strength, speed, weight, or BMI, but recovery: how well we recover from exertion. Psychologically, optimism, a positive feeling about the future, predicts better health outcomes on a number of dimensions.
Making decisions that include the point of view of your older and wiser self, is always a good idea. Before we go into debt, or push something off into the future, we need to get consensus from that future self.
So it’s time to get to know our future self, and before we rack up another debt, we should ask him or her whether or not they can, or want to, handle it. Ask yourself
- What are you putting off for your future self to deal with?
- Can she or he deal with it? Will she or he be up to it? Does she or he want to?
- What is so difficult about your current state that causes you to stress your future you? Is there some other solution to make the present better?
How else do you relate to your future self?