It's early on a Saturday morning, everyone's asleep, and I just wandered into the kitchen to nuke a bowl of instant oatmeal. But here's the problem: Calling to me from atop the fridge is our early stash of Easter candy. I just want the Peeps. Would my wife even notice?
OK. I'm back upstairs. Those were delicious. And anyway, the microwave might've woken people up. But you know what? I'm feeling a little saccharine-saturated. My teeth are filmy and I think I hear the faint buzzing noise of excess sugar being burned in my brain like Lysol sprayed at a gas burner.
Ack! I should've had the oatmeal. What was I thinking?
The thing is, I know better. Truth be told, I did the same thing yesterday and felt the same filmy-toothed remorse. But in the face of sweet, sweet Peeps, something happens to me. Like Michael J. Fox in the pre-Back to the Future classic, I tend to wolf out a little bit.
And I'm not alone.
For my book, Brain Trust, I interviewed Katherine Milkman, behavioral economist at the Wharton School, who explored how people buy groceries online. Specifically, she looked at what people order when they buy for next-day delivery compared to what the same person buys when he/she orders for three days in advance. First, people spend much more when they buy for immediate consumption. And, "If you buy for rush, you buy junk," says Milkman, as shown by an increased percentage of your total haul.
Your current self buys Twinkies, while imagining what you'll need a couple days down the line puts your future self in charge and leads to the purchase of bulgur wheat and chard and other lovely things like that. (Darn, now I really want another Peeps.)
Milkman brought people into the lab to explore what other than time might influence splurging on junk food. After gathering folks, she explained that subjects would return tomorrow for a movie and a snack. Half the subjects were told what movie they'd be watching and half weren't. What snack did they want to accompany their movie? The uncertain half chose junk food.
Coupling these two experiments shows the power of a certain future self—it's more rational and more temperate than the self who's reading these words right now. (Admit it, you would've eaten the Peeps, too—or maybe the chocolate eggs. OK, I'm going back downstairs.)
The question is, how can you put that certain future self in charge?
First, the more certain the future is, the more power it has. So make lists, set agendas, and plan ahead to make tomorrow and the days after more definite. Second, Milkman recommends the use of a commitment device. If you want your future self to be in charge, you have to give it some leverage. For example, Milkman points to the work of Ian Ayres and Dean Karlan at Yale, who allow your future self to put out a contract on your current self. At stickK (www.stickk.com), you set a goal and bet money you'll achieve it. Then you get e-mail reminders monitoring your progress. If you fail, you lose the bet.
For you, a commitment device might be as contrived as announcing your goals to your social network or as simple as asking WWFSD? As you walk into the grocery store, think about your future self. Does it really want a rotisserie chicken and Ho Hos? What decisions would this future self make for you? If you can punk your psychology with this trick, great. Personally, my future self needs a little more oomph—I hereby give it the power to stash all Easter candy in the high rafters of the garage, where my fear of spiders will keep it safe.