Saturday, March 1, 2008

To My Future Selves: Get With The Program!

I've been away from my proper home for an extended stay, and when I got back, I got on my scale. Just as I'd expected: I've gained five pounds. It reminded me that I'd been sort of pondering hiring a personal trainer.

I can't decide whether having paying for a personal trainer is a sort of normal, healthy thing for a middle-aged, professional woman to do, or whether it's wasteful, stupid, and narcissistic. Also I can't really afford it. So it's been in the realm of pondering only.

After I got off the scale I was thinking about celebrities who lose lots of weight, like Janet Jackson, and I was thinking about the ways people lose weight, and the training thing, and I got to wondering about the power of systems. You know, why is it so much more appealing to have a salad for dinner if it's part of some giant intense life-changing plan, and so much harder to just have a salad for dinner if, you know, you've gained a bit of weight and want to eat sensibly?

Because it is, right? It's so much easier to make a choice like that as part of a dramatic plan and so hard to make a choice like that out of common sense. Well, it is for me anyway.

I'm sure, psychologically, there are lots of reasons. But the funny answer I came up with is that without the plan, you have no reason to think your future selves aren't going to just undermine your efforts -- gorge themselves on cake, eat a box of girl scout cookies, make you look like an idiot for your meaningless sacrifice.

It's like the same problem you have in collective action -- how do I know everyone will do their bit to achieve our goal? Because if I do my part, and no one else does theirs, the goal isn't acheived and I feel a chump. It's the same for planning, only there the "collective" is you, you-tomorrow, you-the-day-after-tomorrow, etc. If these people screw up and have chocolate cake for breakfast, your having had salad for dinner does nothing. You don't lose five pounds, and your salad-eating self feels like a chump.

I like thinking of my future selves in this weird, only semi-identified way . . . I mean, they're you, but they're not, too, and they could screw you over if you can't find a way to keep them in line. The dramatic life-changing plan at least gives you a feeling that the future selves can be whipped into shape, aren't going to show you up, aren't going to make you wish that you, too, had ordered the creme-brulee.

The big difference, I figure, is the way we feel about "free riders." In collective action, it's really annoying if one person signs on, and does nothing, but shares in the pleasure of the goal achieved. This is even called the "problem" of free riders.

But when it comes to you and your future selves, you're only too thrilled if there are free riders. If the goal gets acheived, and you lose the five pounds, and still a couple of your future selves got to have the creme-brulee, well, good for them! Hooray! Knock yourselves out, gals!

The latest thing new thing in the keep-your-future-selves-in-line business is the commitment device thing. You give some company 500 dollars, or whetever, and promise they can keep it if you don't acheive your goal. Since presumably all your future selves want to get back the 500 dollars, they behave themselves.

I'll probably never do something like this: failing to lose the weight and then losing the 500 dollars would kill me. When I have an extra 500 dollars lying around, I'll use it to hire a trainer. I'd rather pay someone to nag me than risk losing both the money and my self-respect.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating idea, of future selves getting with the program (or not). I have an alternate scenario, borrowed from Roman comedy, of "the drunken slave in the basement," who is often also the guiding brilliant mind behind the plot, but who inevitably, when the master's back is turned, heads down for the mind-bending binge, sort of as the necessary yin to the 'getting-with-the-program' yang. Almost inevitable, maybe, that excess virtue leads to . . . whatever .
Maybe learning just to eat the damn salad because we want to, that day, has to be good enough, and grandiosity has to be seen as dangerous? who knows.

Noko Marie said...

Ha ha, yeah. If I could trust my future selves to use their powers of disruption only for good I'd be all over that.

Unfortunately my future selves tend to be a little too much like me.