When I was coaching a client last month, I brought up the notion of “the future self” as a way to provide a different sort of motivation for writing. Our future self is the one waiting for us next month or next year or 10 years from now. It’s who we will eventually be, in time.
We know that too much thinking about the past and future can wreak havoc with our experience of the present moment, since we often regret things from the past that we can’t change or we long for something in the future that we wish would hurry up and get here. But you can have a healthy relationship with the past and future, too. The path is through gratitude.
The notion of the future self involves first thinking of some point in the future, whether six months from now, one year, or five or ten years. Then think of something you’d like to finish–a writing project you’re in the midst of, or a state of mind you’d like to experience, or maybe even a different physical place you’d like to find yourself in. Imagine the moment in the future exactly as you’d like it to be, really picture it. But rather than forming an image the ideal moment you’d like to attain, as you might do in a visioning or manifesting exercise, instead embody the moment with gratitude for yourself; thank yourself for something you did in the past to get yourself to this point. Let your future self say, “Thank you past self for doing X to allow me to be here.”
If you’re familiar with reverse goal setting, in which you picture your chosen goal and work backwards from the finished goal through all the steps required to reach that goal, this is a little like that, except it’s a bit more right-brained than left-brained. And it serves to enhance the relationship you have with your creative self.
When reverse planning for goals, you picture the goal you want to achieve and work backwards through the steps that will get you from here to there. For example, if your goal is to complete your novel manuscript, picture that moment. It’s all done, printed out, and you’re holding the manuscript in your hands. What happens right before that moment? It probably goes through a proofread. Before that, a copy edit and a developmental edit. Before that, the rough draft needs to be complete. To finish the rough draft you need to follow a writing schedule to get those words written. You might create an outline or do some research before this. You might brainstorm novel ideas to decide what to write about. Working in reverse, you have a different perspective of all that’s required to reach your goal, and with this perspective you can break down a large project into manageable chunks and create a realistic schedule to get it done (the trouble always comes with sticking to the schedule, but that’s another story…).
When thinking about your future self, you approach this reverse planning process a little differently.
Let’s say you’ve given yourself six months to write the rough draft of your novel. Picture your future self six months from now holding a completed first draft in your hands. Step into that future self and thank your past self for writing 1,000 words a day for five days a week to get you there. Really imagine yourself swelling with gratitude for your past self. You know it wasn’t easy for her every day. You know she lost her faith in the project many times along the way, but she persevered, and because of that you’re holding a completed manuscript in your hands, and that feels amazing. You can now take your next step toward your dream.
You could even do something helpful for your very near future self. My client says she sets out her dental floss by the sink in the morning so that it’s there when she brushes her teeth in the evening. She’s made this small task slightly easier for her future self, and it’s a small gesture of self-kindness.
Such small gestures of self-kindness can lead us toward our chosen goals just as well, and probably better, than the self-flagellating ones. You can practice building this relationship with your future self by being that self right now.
Think of something you appreciate about your life today. Did you get an article published in a local magazine? Thank your past self writing that article and sending out a query. If you’re part of a great writing group, thank yourself for having the courage to go to the first meeting. Now extend this beyond your writing life. If you’re happily married and starting a family, thank yourself for saying “I do” once upon a time. If you love your job in a faraway city, thank yourself for taking the risk of moving away to give the opportunity a try.
The key is to really take some time nurturing this feeling of gratitude and self-appreciation. Our minds tend to hone in on all that’s “not right” with our situations and so we tend to diminish the impressive things we’ve done. We might think, “It’s not the perfect marriage, or job, or article, so why dwell on it?” But each of those choices was a creative act that led to new manifestations—something from nothing—and that deserves to be appreciated.
So take a moment to stay to yourself, “Past me, thank you for trying X, because it got me to Y.” And when you sit down to write today, dedicate the effort to your future self. One day she’ll thank you for it.