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The Present Bias: Why You Keep Sabotaging Your Future—And How to Stop

By | Published on | 6 min read
<span id="hs_cos_wrapper_name" class="hs_cos_wrapper hs_cos_wrapper_meta_field hs_cos_wrapper_type_text" style="" data-hs-cos-general-type="meta_field" data-hs-cos-type="text" >The Present Bias: Why You Keep Sabotaging Your Future—And How to Stop</span>

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Do you ever feel like you’re leading a double life? On the one hand, there’s ‘Future You’ who’s everything you want to be. Future You wakes up early, feeling refreshed and ready. Future You is wealthy, with a hearty savings account and an enviable investment portfolio.

And then, there’s ‘Present You’. Present You indulges in another late-night TV binge, even though the workday starts in six hours. Present You splurges on takeout, even though just $50 saved monthly would be $6,000 in 10 years, or almost $9,000 if invested with an average stock market return of 7%. 

Time and again, Present You saves good behaviors for some other time. “I’ll go to bed early tomorrow night to make up for tonight,” you say. Or, “I have to live now. I can save for my retirement later!”

And time and again, Present You leaves Future You to deal with the consequences.

Here’s the thing: We all do this. And it has a name: present bias.

What Is Present Bias? And How Is It Hurting Your Goals?

Investment research company Morningstar defines present bias as “the tendency to overvalue smaller rewards in the present at the expense of long-term goals.” And according to its May 2021 study, almost everyone has it (at least when it comes to finances). People with medium to high present bias made up 97% of their study sample. 

But, having low present bias pays off. Morningstar’s research concluded: “People with low present bias are 7.5 times more likely to plan ahead for their future than people with high present bias.” They’re also more likely to pay their bills on time, save to invest, and save for emergencies.

Beyond money, present bias might be why there’s a disconnect between Present You and Future You.

How To Overcome Present Bias And Conquer Your Goals

“Present bias, this idea that what happens right now counts fully and what happens in the future counts half, explains this gap between our good intentions and our actions,” Harvard professor David Laibson said in a 2018 University of Washington lecture. “Because when we look into the future, we say, ‘In the future I'll do the right thing.’ But when we get there, we want to go for immediate gratification.” 

So, then, how do we close this gap between our good intentions and our actions? Let’s find out.

1. Make Desired Behaviors Automatic

Research compiled by Professor Laibson found that when employers offer employees the option to save for retirement with a 401(k) plan, only 40% will actually enroll in it. But, when employers automatically enroll employees in a 401(k) (and give them the option to opt out), enrollment skyrockets to 90%.

What does this imply? Often, we know what’s good for us—but the required effort is enough to block us from carrying out that behavior.

So, whatever your goal is, find a way to automate the good decisions that lead to that desired outcome.

  • If you want to contribute to your 401(k) every month, have your employer automatically deduct it from your paycheck. 
  • If you want to eat more nutritious meals, use a meal delivery service to schedule healthy food to arrive at your doorstep every week.
  • If you want to save on your electricity bill, get a programmable thermostat that optimizes usage based on when you’re home and when you’re away.

You get the idea. Don’t count on finding the willpower to do the good behavior; automate it.

2. Use Urgency To Make The Future Feel Like The Present

Present bias gets us because the present feels urgent, while the future feels far away. So, create a sense of urgency for things that matter.

As a freelance writer, I juggle many deadlines with multiple clients. And as a human, I often procrastinate or underestimate how long a task will take me. For years, I’ve used Trello’s Calendar view to help me visually make sense of my writing deadlines. The only problem? I was looking at these Trello cards in the Calendar view, and in my brain, that meant I should start working on that article on that date, which always left me scrambling and kicking myself for not having started earlier.

Here’s how I created a more realistic process for meeting deadlines: I use Advanced Checklists to break tasks up into smaller stages, and I set due dates for each of those smaller tasks, which also show up in Calendar view. This means I gift Future Me the security of knowing that I’ve planned an article properly in advance—so now I can just relax.

3. Keep The Goal In Sight (Literally)

When a tempting reward is right in front of us, it’s easy to let it undermine our long-term objective. So, how can you keep a far-off goal in sight? Try a habit cue. A habit cue is something that triggers a desired behavior, such as leaving floss on your pillow to remind yourself to floss before bed, or keeping your vitamins by your coffee maker to ensure you take them with your morning cup of joe.  

Here’s another way: Put your desired end result somewhere obvious to serve as a daily reminder. You might put a photo of the car you’re saving for inside your wallet so every time you reach for your credit card, you’re reminded of the long-term goal. Or, if you’re trying to pay off debt, you might hang a debt payoff chart above your computer so you constantly see your progress.

4. Instantly Reward Yourself For Behaviors That Benefit Your Long-Term Goal

This trick turns present bias on its head. The reason we fall prey to it is that we want a reward now, not later. But what if you could have it both ways? What I mean is, find a way to immediately reward yourself for behavior that benefits your long-term goal

Take a look at the regular behaviors you’ll need to enact to achieve your long-term goal. Is there a way to make them rewarding in the moment? For example:

  • Can you make sitting down to do work more comfortable by adding a lumbar cushion, laptop stand, and other ergonomic fixes?
  • Can you make daily supplements an easier pill to swallow by taking them in chewable form?
  • Or, if you’re someone who gets a dopamine rush from checking things off a to-do list, how about creating a daily habit tracker in Trello?

If your brain is seeking instantly-rewarding behavior—by all means, give it that! Just make sure it’s instantly-rewarding behavior that’s also tied to a long-term goal.

5. Bind Yourself To A Better Future With A Ulysses Pact

If all else fails, there is one last card to play to beat present bias: Force your own hand by making a Ulysses Pact, also known as a commitment device. This is where you make a commitment that will leave you no other choice than to follow through on it. 

How can you make your own Ulysses Pact? Here are a few ideas:

  • Pay upfront. If you don’t follow through, you lose that money.
  • Volunteer to be the leader. If you’re the leader of a group, and you fail to show up, you let everyone down.
  • Enlist an accountability partner. The idea of having to tell your accountability partner that you didn’t do what you said you’d do is usually enough to compel you to follow through.

Defeating Present Bias Is All About Balance

These past two years have reminded us in so many ways that life is unpredictable. Overcoming the present bias isn’t about making Present You miserable in the hopes that Future You can finally enjoy life. Nor is it about throwing Future You under the bus so Present You can have all the fun now.

It’s about balance. To reach your long-term goals, you will have to make tradeoffs. And by using these hacks, you’ll be able to strike the right balance between living in the moment and preparing for the future.

Because in the end, Present You and Future You are one and the same: you. And you deserve to enjoy life now, and later.


Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!

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