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Psychologists say this simple exercise can help you retire and get healthy faster: 'Now is the best time to do it'

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It's much easier to make decisions that offer immediate satisfaction, rather than decisions that offer satisfaction decades from now.

Why is that?

After years of studying what separates high performers from everyone else, I've found that one reason is that many people feel emotionally disconnected from the person they will become in 20 to 40 years. They think of their future self as another person — a stranger or, at best, a distant relative.

This might explain why a lot of people don't save enough for retirement, make poor ethical decisions or indulge in unhealthy behaviors, even though they are aware of the long-term consequences.

So how do you create a bond with your future self so that you're more likely to do things that will boost your chances of achieving happiness, health and financial success later on in life?

The power of 'seeing' your future self

Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, studies how thinking about time transforms the emotions and alters the judgments and decisions people make. 

In one experiment, he took photographs of people and digitally altered them into older versions of themselves. When he showed them what they might look like in 20 or more years, they said they wanted to set aside 6.2% of their salary for retirement, while people who saw photographs of their current selves set aside 4.4%.

In a second study, he created "aged avatars" of college students. Not only did the students see what they would look like in roughly 45 years, but they also got to interact with other people in a virtual environment through immersive VR technology.

After taking on the form of their future selves, Hershfield told them to imagine receiving an unexpected $1,000. He asked them how much of that money they'd use to set aside for a checking account, buy something nice, plan an extravagant event or invest in a retirement fund.

Compared to the group who saw an avatar depicting their current selves, students who took on the role of their older selves set aside more than twice as much for retirement.

Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted several variations of Hershfield's studies, and said her experiments all yielded similar results.

"It's fascinating," she said in an interview with NPR. "When people can really connect to themselves and say, 'That person at age 70, that's me, actually,' they tend to want to take care of that person more."

A simple exercise to help you achieve your retirement and health goals

There are several smartphone photo apps and computer software tools designed to tweak selfies and make you look older.

Or, you can put your drawing skills to test by printing out a picture of yourself and adding some touches to depict what you might look like decades from today. (As people get older, their faces tend to get longer, facial features become more defined, their hairline recedes and age spots appear.)

Do this and spend some time connecting and interacting with that image. Where do you see yourself? What are your hobbies? What have you achieved? Are you retired? Financially secure? How is your health? What and who are important to you? How has your personality changed?

Then think about the actions you can take today to get there in the future.

...with the pandemic triggering many people to make major life changes, from new jobs to new routines to new financial plans, now is the best time to do it.

As Hershfield writes: "Whether it is the choice between spending and saving, eating a tempting dessert versus maintaining one's diet, or sinning rather than acting in a less exciting but more morally upstanding way, many decisions require making tradeoffs between the present and the future."

While it can be jarring to see an image of your older self, it can also be an eye-opening exercise. And with the pandemic triggering many people to make major life changes, from new jobs to new routines to new financial plans, now is the best time to do it.

Dr. Kumar Mehta, Ph.D., is the author of "The Innovation Biome" and "The Exceptionals" and founder of Bridges Insight, a think tank focused on researching sustained excellence and innovation. Dr. Mehta is also a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future, and a board member for the Committee for Children, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the well-being of children through social-emotional learning and development. Follow him on Twitter @mehtakumar.

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