Almost everyone plans for the future - and almost everyone is lousy at it, according to psychologists. I09 is reporting on scholarly research which indicates that we overestimate our ability to get things done in a certain amount of time; we overestimate our willpower and agency in the future; we underestimate unforeseen problems; and we don't really clearly understand what we will have to do in the future anyway:
The article does not talk about the impact of procrastination and of the Internet on attention spans to see if the environment of the past ten years has made it more difficult for people to achieve goals.1) There's the "planning fallacy," which has been written about a lot. As Jennifer Whitson, a professor of Management at University of Texas, Austin explains it, this theory says that "people generally think they can accomplish more in a certain period of time than they actually can." And it's also possible, says Whitson, that the planning fallacy may intensify the further into the future you're planning ahead.
2) But also, some new not-yet-published research by Cornell University's Thomas Gilovich and Erik Helzer shows that the more you think about the future, the less clearly you're likely to be thinking.
In particular, there's the study called "Whatever is willed will be," which shows that people tend to overstate how effective their willpower will be in the future. Helzer and Gilovich did a whopping seven studies to show that people "consider the will to be a more potent determinant of future events than events that happened in the past." ...
3) And then finally, there's Construal Level Theory, which shows that the further away something is (either in space, or in time) the more abstract it appears. So if you're thinking about a goal that's a few years ahead, you can easily fall into woolly thinking, instead of focusing on the concrete steps that will allow you to get there ... .
According to the article (read further details here), the best way to plan for the future is to imagine how long a given future task would take someone else, not oneself. That of course, discounts individual differences.
In addition, one is supposed to break down the anticipated task into many small tasks, and then estimate how much time and effort all the smaller tasks will take: "There's a ton of research on the subject of 'Implementation Intentions,' which is basically the science of making plans that are focused on contingencies and detailed steps, rather than wishful thinking." This is true. I have a friend who is a master at this approach. He accomplishes in one year what would take most people ten - or twenty - years.
One thing the researchers (and my friend) do not mention with regard to futuristic to-do lists is the role of fate. When estimating timing for smaller tasks, add on extra time for possible future circumstances which may cause delays (for example, a monster multi-year recession? or other kinds of ill fortune?). Most people do not factor these concerns into their timelines at all because no one wants to consider that they will experience bad luck - or, for that matter, time-consuming good luck.
It is also recommended that we look at how we fared in the past in order to estimate how we will respond to planning and executing of goals in the future. The researchers do not seem to consider that future problems could be beyond the scope of past experience.
Despite all this practical advice, researchers laud the future precisely for its abstraction. Deferred gratification, they argue, cultivates self-control, stronger character, psychological resilience, willpower, physical endurance: "if you focus your future thought on controlling your present behavior, and focus on future needs instead of current wants, you can take your innate tendency to loose thinking about the future and turn it to your advantage."
All this sensible advice is correct, albeit prosaic and joyless. It is hard to let go of the notion that the future is the preserve of hopes and dreams. While these fantastical elements are undoubtedly self-defeating if one cannot translate them into a to-do list, that very self-defeat, the refusal to abandon the abstract, can be grand and tragic. Future hopes can also overcome circumstances that no to-do list can manage, such as wars, revolutions, the Great Recession, or the crisis in Fukushima. This sentiment was captured in F. Scott Fitzgerald's character, Jay Gatsby: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Just around the corner, even in the minds of some - beyond death itself - we always get a second chance.
And now, for that to-do list...