Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose Across the Lifespan

Counting the days: How to start preparing for the future

By Janina Steinmetz, Brittany Christian

 

In our busy, sometimes hectic, everyday lives, we try hard to manage our daily tasks. Too often, this does not leave us with enough time and energy to think about the future. However, purpose is often found in striving towards something, and we cannot grow and find meaning if we only live in the present and do not prepare for the future that is coming. Although most of us know they should start saving for their children’s education, or exercise more to get in better shape, the future often feels so far away that they justify leaving these things for later. Is there a way that can help us realize how close the future really is?

Image ©: Susana Fernandez 2007

New fascinating research from Neil Lewis from the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman from the University of Southern California suggest a simple metric trick that can make our future feel closer: counting days instead of months, and counting months instead of years. In one study, the researchers asked participants to imagine that they just had a newborn baby that would be ready for college either 18 years from now, or 6570 days from now. The time frame itself is the same, but participants think about that time either in years (as we normally do) or in days. Participants were then asked when they would start saving towards their child’s college education. Simply asking people to think about the number of days (instead of the number of years) left until they needed to provide their child with college funds lead people to intend to start saving four times sooner. Another similar study showed why this is the case: Thinking about the future in more fine-grained metrics (i.e., days instead of months or years) makes people feel more connected to their future selves. The more connected people feel to their future selves, the more likely they are to start preparing for the future now.

These fascinating findings suggest a simple and easy way to motivate people to think about their future: simply use smaller units of time. This work resonates well with findings from New Paths to Purpose member Yaacov Trope: His work shows that time subjectively moves faster when people adopt a more concrete mindset (e.g., thinking about details, or small units), compared to when thinking more abstractly (e.g., thinking about large units). So, the next time you think the future is far away and you can deal with preparing for it later, you might want to ask yourself how many days away you actually are from your child’s 18th birthday or from your retirement. The future might come sooner than we think, and we should get ready for it now.

 

 

Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose Across the Lifespan

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