Save More Tomorrow: How to Trick People Into Eating Better, Saving More Money, and Getting Things Done

by Site Author

There are things we should do. We should eat healthier. We should exercise. We should actually get some goddamn work done. But we don’t. In the moment, that cheeseburger is just too tempting, the couch is more enticing than the gym, and facebook is more compelling than Microsoft Word.

What if we could get someone else to do those things for us? What if we could force a different person to eat healthier, exercise, and do their job, but then we would enjoy the benefits? Through the miracle of modern-day behavioral economics, that is now possible.

Behavioral economists have a very peculiar model that they apply to these kinds of problems. They think of every person as really composed of two selves. There’s the Present Self, who is in charge right now. And then there’s the Future Self, who isn’t around now, but takes over later on.

The Present Self is a huge jerk. He’s the one who eats the cheeseburger, making the Future Self look like Jabba the Hutt. When it comes to cheeseburgers, saving money, facebook, it’s the Present Self that’s the problem.

Being a huge jerk, however, the Present Self is happy to offload all of the difficult work onto the Future Self. And that’s where things get interesting. Behavioral economists have found a way to get people to do the right thing. The trick is to get the Present Self to force the job onto the Future Self.

The idea goes something like this. The Present Self hates saving money. He would rather spend the money right now on candy and cigarettes then put it away in a boring, retirement account. So behavioral economists offer the Present Self a deal: the next time your boss gives you a raise—in the future—you save a portion of that raise in a retirement account.

The genius of this plan is that it doesn’t force the Present Self to give up any candy or cigarettes today. Instead, the program only forces the Present Self to stick that hard trade-off on the Future Self. And the program works. When offered that “Save More Tomorrow” deal, 18 percent of people take it up, and the program raises savings by 2 percent.

This trick applies to more than just savings. A recent study tested a similar program with a question people face daily: what should I eat for lunch? When the Present Self chooses lunch, he can’t help but order greasy food, soda, and dessert. But when the Present Self orders lunch for the Future Self, he chooses healthier options. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently asked a group of study participants to either order lunch to be served immediately or hours in advance. When the participants ordered hours in advance they ordered ten percent fewer calories.

There are other ways to apply this same method to trick our Present Selves into doing the right thing. We can pre-commit to working out at the gym by writing down the workout we’ll do once we get there or by making appointments with personal trainers far in advance. We can seek out deadlines for our work, deadlines that will force our Future Selves to actually get things done. And we can write “commitment contracts” that will force our Future Selves to lose weight or quit smoking or do, well, anything that we think our Future Selves ought to do.

These ideas are emerging from decades of research in behavioral economics and psychology. They all recognize that human nature is deeply flawed, but once we understand those flaws, we can overcome them.