Pocket of Self-Talk Joy: Present Bias

As many of you know, I am obsessed with my self-talk. I am convinced that fostering productive, compassionate self-talk has been my key to connecting the dots between wanting healthy habits in theory and actually living healthy habits in practice. Self-talk allows me to get from wanting to get on the treadmill to actually getting on and helpfully nudges me to go to bed vs simply knowing I should go to sleep and opting to watch Netflix instead. I have learned (for the most part) how to walk myself through situations so I make decisions based on what will create a happier, healthier me. (For more into on self-talk and mindset read this Huffington Post article).

Recently I read You are Not That Smart and discovered the cognitive distortion “present bias.” This knowledge has totally taken my self-talk “up a notch”!! What a pocket of joy!! Do you need help on your health follow-through? Consider present bias inspired self-talk.

What is present bias?

Present bias is the inability to understand how your future self will feel, to grasp that your preferences change over time, and to know that what you want now is not the same thing you will want later — that how you feel at this moment will not be how you will always feel.

How is this relevant to health?

Present bias often knocks us off our health game — but once we know present bias exists, we can use the knowledge to our advantage.

Being tired in the present is often used as a reason not to go to the gym. When I feel tired, I use the knowledge of present bias to my advantage: “Kathleen, you know you will feel more energized after a run. You feel tired now but you will not always feel tired. Don’t give in to present bias.”

A food example: you make a resolution to not “eat crap” CONVINCED that your future self will feel as motivated as you do now, only to binge when future you is exhausted and frustrated after a long day. The next time you have a resolution, KNOW you will not necessarily feel motivated in the future. Set up systems to save yourself from the future exhausted, less motivated you. For example, get rid of all the junk food in the house.

Note that adopting a healthier lifestyle is all about understanding the relationship between “want,” “should,” “now,” and “later.”  For most of us what we want (dessert, to stay up late, etc.) is often diametrically opposed to what we know we should do (eat vegetables and go to bed early). When possible, work to change your taste buds so you enjoy healthier options — or at least see their value. Changing preferences takes time — to understand the value you often first have to experience the positive effects of the choice. To do that you have to understand that at least at the beginning your future “wants” will be less than heathy and thus “later” is a murky place where anything could go wrong. Set up systems to save yourself from your future self (no junk food in house, exercise bag packed and ready to go, get a fitness buddy).

Understand that there are always two of you — the current you and the future you. Future you will be influenced by different ideas and desires. Future you will have an alternate palette of brain functions to paint reality with. Current you might see the benefits of making the positive health choice, but the “now you” will not be facing those choices. Future you can’t be trusted. Future you might give in and then you will go back to being current you feeling ashamed and frustrated. “Now you” must trick future you into making good choices by making good choices for both parities. Set up systems AND work on fostering a positive, productive inner dialogue that can recognize and name cognitive distortions and call bullshit on any unhelpful negative brain propaganda.

Now, obviously, a positive, productive inner dialogue and strong systems will not guarantee results, BUT they at least open the door for change. A negative outlook and negligible systems set you up for failure.

Which road do you want to take? The road that guarantees shit-health creek or the road that at least has a fork that can lead to healthy creek!!! As always, your choice!!