zen habits : breathe

Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves

By Leo Babauta

There’s a conflict that often happens when we try to be disciplined about something: I want that cinnamon roll right now, but I know I’ll regret it later.

Which interest should win out: your future self, who doesn’t want you to get fat and unhealthy … or your present self, who doesn’t care so much about that and just wants to taste something delicious?

There’s no right answer. The present self usually wins, because he controls the action and so his interests are more important. But the future self actually has a stronger case: he’s actually a bunch of future selves (you in 10 minutes from now, an hour from now, a day from now, three days from now, a year later, and so on). So shouldn’t a thousand future selves outweigh the current self’s interest?

Well, we usually just say, “Screw it, I don’t care what future me wants … I’m going for the cinnamon roll.”

Today, I’d like to share a simple method for avoiding the junk food. And finding discipline across the board: exercise, meditate, eat healthily, write your book, find focus instead of distraction.

We do this by merging the two interests. Imagine you were going to lunch with your friend, and you had to decide where to eat. You each have different preferences. Choosing one over the other — going to Japanese food (your friend’s preference) instead vegan Mexican (yours) — isn’t fair. So maybe you pick a third choice that you both like (a place that serves sushi burritos, perhaps). Or maybe you choose this time, and your friend chooses the next time. Either way, both are happy.

So how do we merge the interests of future and present selves? I call it Savor Discipline.

It’s three short steps:

  1. First, consider future you. Take a few seconds to consider what future you would want. In the case of the cinnamon roll, your future self would prefer that you not eat the roll. It will contribute to his weight problem and make his health worse (in conjunction with other similar eating choices), but not give him any benefit. You know this because your present self can look back on similar choices in the past — and you can see that you wish you hadn’t eaten all that junk. Future self will have similar feelings about what you do right now.
  2. Second, consider present you. The interests of your present self might seem obvious — you want to eat the pastry! But actually, present self has other interests. For example: present self would like to be healthy and fit, and perhaps present self would also like to learn, be mindful, grateful, successful, and more. The taste of the cinnamon roll is just one interest of many.
  3. Now merge your interests. If future and present you were two friends, with different interests … how could they make it work? One idea is to take turns — present self eats the pastry this time, future self gets the carrot next time. After all, why should just one of you get the choice all the time? It would be no fun if you only ate vegetables, but it would not be healthy if you only ate the pastries. Another way to merge the interests is to find something that both would be happy with. Not a compromise as much as a third option that both would like. I call that option Savor Discipline.

What’s Savor Discipline? It’s basically not choosing the pastry (only present self would like that), and it’s not sacrificing and being unhappy (future self might be cool with that but present self wouldn’t) … it’s finding something to savor in the present moment.

An example: skip the junk food and savor some berries, slowly and mindfully. Or take a walk and enjoy the fresh air and beautiful sunlight. Or read a book and enjoy the quiet time alone. Or learn something, dance to music, do something good for someone else, create something cool. And for each of these activities, savor the activity as if it were the most amazing thing in the world.

Because it can be. If you eat a berry with the fresh eyes of a two-year-old, you stop taking it for granted and start seeing how much of a miracle it is. You can savor its deliciousness, just as much as you could enjoy the junk food.

You can savor many things in the present moment, and your present self can enjoy the living daylights out of it. Your future self will be thrilled.

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