When it comes to satisfying our immediate needs and desires versus focusing on important future needs, the here and now usually wins out. And whether it's saving for our future retirement security or taking important, incremental actions now to achieve better, future health security, our innate, psychological tendency is to prioritize the present over the seemingly far-away future. People tend to allocate their limited time, resources and attention to immediate, pressing events, rather than focusing on important things that will happen at some much later point.
What can make wise behavioral health actions even more challenging than saving money is that the hoped-for improvement in our future health outcomes is much less tangible and predictable than, say, the size to which one's retirement fund balance will grow over time.
Here are a few ways that you can motivate yourself to act sooner in your own, long-term interest - whether your goal is a healthier retirement nest egg or achieving better health throughout your retirement years.
Envision the Future
Academics and behavioral psychologists are discovering ways that you can change your point of view and thereby create essential tension you will need to change your behaviors.
In one study, researchers at Stanford University were able to make the future feel more vivid, real and immediate by "age-morphing" photos of study participants into avatars of their older selves. (Just what we all want to view, right?) When those participants stared their future, aging selves in the face, their short-term perspective shifted. They became much more motivated to save for the future.
In another study, one group was simply instructed to imagine retirement coming in 30 years, while a second group was told to think in terms of having only 10,950 days until retirement. By using the seemingly less-permanent label of "days," the future seemed less remote, more pressing. Participants in the days group reported their intentions to begin retirement savings four years (1,460 days) earlier than the years group.
The takeaway: Do whatever you can to change your current, contextual perceptions and to become more future-oriented. Doing so will help you act now on behalf of your current and future health needs.
Break Down Your Goals
The closer we get to a goal, the more motivated we become. It's the reason runners typically pick up the pace as they approach the finish line. Therefore, consider making your goal deadlines more immediate and approachable by dividing your long-term goals into short-term sub-goals that are realistic yet challenging.
Use a Scorecard
Whatever goals you set, don't just write them down once and set them aside. Keep your goals visible all the time. Update them. Underline them. Ponder how you can better work to achieve them. Consistently monitor your progress in relation to your goals, plans and targets. Whether it is regular deposits to your 401(k) retirement account or regular behavioral contributions toward improving your current and future health status, decide what you believe you can do and achieve. Then just do it! Focus more on how well you are achieving each of your planned actions, rather than obsessing over short-term outcome metrics.
Don't forget to reward yourself and to enjoy a well-deserved dose of mental satisfaction whenever you meet/exceed your goals – or come close. If you periodically fall short, don't be too hard on yourself. Maintain perspective. Remember that you are engaged in a marathon – a very important marathon that can literally change your life over the long run!