Your Future Self of Sleep
Sleep matters. And while we all know this on a deeper, felt level, many of us tend to ignore our need for healthy sleep. There will be different reasons for this depending on personality and circumstances. But I also wonder if this ignorance of sleep’s benefits for our health is because the negative health consequences of insufficient sleep aren’t always readily noticeable. In other words, sleep is ignored because the future self feels to abstract.
Lack of sleep increase the risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, it affects mood paving the way for mood disorders, and it might increase the risk of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases to name but a few conditions. These disorders develop quietly and over some time and are less noticeable in everyday life (at least in the beginning). And maybe it is precisely the fact that we only become fully aware of the ill effects of insufficient sleep at some future time, that makes it so difficult to prioritise our sleep health now.
Cognitive performance is also impaired, but even if we notice that we struggle with our concentration and thinking, we often “manage” by working longer hours. Generally speaking, humans often find it difficult to consider their future. But it is not just the future, it is our future self that many of us fail to consider when it comes to our (health) behaviours in the present.
What is the ‘future self’?
Your future self refers to the person you will become in the future, at a later stage in your life.1 It represents the potential and possibilities for personal health, growth, development, and change. Your future self is influenced by your choices, actions, and experiences in the present and the intervening time leading up to that future point. In other words, your future self is not predetermined.
The same is true for your future self of sleep. It refers to the state of your sleep and sleep-related habits and how they may affect your well-being and health in the future. It represents the long-term impact of your current sleep patterns, quality, and practices on your overall health, cognitive function, emotional wellbeing, and productivity.
Let’s slow it down for a moment. What you do now impacts your future.
To me this sounds empowering because it provides an opportunity for proactively and intentionally shaping your future self!
However, there are two hurdles you may need to overcome first. Many of us struggle to think about our future in a personally meaningful way. We simply don’t feel close to our future self. On the contrary, it can seem to us like a stranger. Recent studies back this up. When thinking of the future self there’s lower brain activity in the same brain areas as when thinking about a celebrity, i.e. a stranger, while an entirely different picture emerges when we thinking about our current self. Add to that It then makes sense that we are less likely to take proactive action and care for our future self.
Old biological programming looks to the short-term future
Another reason why taking action to look after your future self in the now can be hard might stem from humans having evolved to discount delayed rewards, i.e. reward that will only be obtain at some distant point in the future, in favour of more immediate rewards.2 Our ancestors lived in high-risk, uncertain environments, and life could end very suddenly so planning for the future wasn’t helpful for moment-to-moment survival. And although the former has changed for us (there’s no pride of lions walking around which could suddenly pounce on you for example), we still have our old biological programming telling us to focus on benefits in the now.
After a long, intense working day what is more likely to happen: You go to a spinning class or collapse on the sofa with a take-away? Most likely it will be the latter. And yet, we all know that regular exercise and a consistently healthy lifestyle will over time lead to and maintain good health. But these benefits lie in the long-term, with your future self. And self we feel little connected to.
So, is there a way to change this?
Luckily, there is!
The power of writing a letter
Some people do feel connected to their future self, they report a sense of continuity between their current and future selves. For those of you who don’t know that you can build that connection. Research has shown that when we build an emotional connection with our future self, we start taking action in the here-and-now with the intention to look after our future self’s health.3 Why? Because it has become a friend we care about.
Through a simple, 2-minute letter writing exercise to your self several years in the future, you can feel more empathy for your future self.3 Or you could try talking to your future self or using virtual reality programmes that help visualise your aged future self. Or imagine your 85th birthday and review your life – having done more of what makes you smile?
There are many ways to befriend your future self, different things work for different people. The key is to intentionally engage with your future self.
Once you have a sense of connection between your present and future selves use it as your motivation for making a plan how to look after your self now and in the future.
How does caring for your sleep fit into this?
Now, here’s a wonderful and unique thing about sleep compared to many other health behaviours. And that is that you don’t have to wait to reap sleep’s benefits at some distant time in the future! The goodness of sleep is felt both in the present and in the future! Cognitive performance, such as your ability to concentrate, direct your attention and thinking creatively, and your mood are directly and acutely impacted by the quality and quantity of your sleep the night before. You wake up feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep. These are just some examples of sleep’s immediate rewards. Keeping down the risk for cardiovascular or metabolic diseases however will be long-term benefits.
So, irrespective of immediate or long-term reward, how you value your sleep tonight matters!
It is the single-most important health behaviour we all engage in.
And it is time to treat it like that. Every day of your life.
Ask yourself what you will do today to look after your sleep. Maybe it is going for a walk or going to bed on time or not having a third cup of coffee. Maybe it is writing your future self a letter setting out your personal sleep plan. Just choose one thing and start doing it.
If you want help with looking after your sleep, email me or book an initial call with me. Together we’ll work out what changes to make to improve your sleep so that you feel good.
1RHershfield, & Daniel Bartels, 2018: “The Future Self”, In Oettingen, Sevincer, & Gollwitzer (eds). The Psychology of Thinking about the Future. The Guilford Press, 89-109.
2Hershfield, 2011: Future self-continuity: how conceptions of the future self transform intertemporal choice. Ann N Y Acad Sci., 1235: 30–43.
3Rutchick et al., 2018: Future Self-Continuity Is Associated With Improved Health and Increases Exercise Behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 72–80.