Mental time travel, or how to get motivation from your future self

I am a time traveler.

A mental time traveler. (Okay, that sounded way cooler in my head.) And you can be one, too! But first, let’s start with the basics…

To use the wiki definition, mental time travel “is the capacity to mentally reconstruct personal events from the past (episodic memory) as well as to imagine possible scenarios in the future (episodic foresight/episodic future thinking).” If you’ve never heard of this term before, that’s fine – it’s only been around since 1997, and it’s not very widespread. (I’m a huge fan of this concept, and even I didn’t learn the official term until a few days ago.)

In a nutshell, mental time travel is being able imagine a future scenario that will guide your current actions. For example, when our evolutionary cousins, Homo erectus, made bifacial handaxes a couple of million years ago, that was probably the first known case of mental time travel in humans: it requires a fair deal of thinking to imagine the end result of your work before creating that sort of sophisticated tool. Incidentally, it’s not just humans: research shows that other species (great apes, crows, ravens, and western scrub jays) are also capable of mental time travel. Not everyone agrees with that conclusion (as that would mean humans are just another animal, and not the magic gift to the universe), but meh, that’s science for you.

But let’s say you’re not a Homo erectus working on a shiny new axe, and you’re not even a raven, and probably not even a great ape (most of us are very average apes) – what can mental time travel do for you? Well, you already use it all the time – you just do that on autopilot as part of your regular decision-making process. Picking an outfit for tomorrow, or planning your shopping trip, or making vacation plans so you won’t just stumble into an airport with your passport and a wad of cash. (If you do, though, that might make for a more fun vacation.)

Time travel is trippy business!

There are other, more interesting applications, though… Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the best-selling book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. (Full disclosure: that’s an affiliate link: they help run this blog.) The book spawned a few sequels, all of which seem to share the same message: visualize your success, build a vision board (like Instagram, only offline and with fewer ads), and manifest opportunities into your life. That’s very nice and very inspirational, and I’m sure it helped quite a few people, but that’s also not quite my favourite aspect of mental time travel.

I’m a nerd – I view the world in mathematical terms. (Also, I am a time traveler. Heh.) I remember working at a warehouse in Reno, in Northern Nevada (it gets chilly there in the winter), bringing home just $8/hour after all the taxes, car insurance, and gas (my commute was 35 miles each way), treating myself to a cheap all-you-can-eat buffet at a local casino, and then getting my temporary groove ruined when the piercing November wind would go through me as I got back into my car. I remember thinking that no matter how much my life sucked right then and there, I’d find a way to transfer to a warmer city, one where it never snows. Soon after, I learned that it is, in fact, possible to transfer to Las Vegas, and with that as my guiding star, I did all I could to get there. (And it worked!) There is supreme irony in the fact that my journey took me to Quebec City, which is known for its cold winters – but that’s just temporary until I can become a snowbird, eh.

Another example: when living in Vegas, I was in a pretty shady neighbourhood in Northern Vegas. On weekends, I’d wake up to the sounds of domestic violence from my neighbours. There was a police cruiser parked outside the apartment complex almost 24/7. Local banks got robbed almost daily. Well, you get the picture. Things were pretty bad at work: I’d made a manager feel like an idiot (to be fair, he kind of was), and he punished me by assigning me to pick returned (and possibly used) sex toys off the warehouse shelves. For three months straight. He also told Loss Prevention I might be a thief (it was fun bumping into them around every shelf corner) and tried to get me fired via a drug test (the joke was on him: I’m too nerdy for drugs.) Ahhh, Amazon…

All in all, the summer of 2012 was not very fun for me, personally or professionally. I wasn’t in the best headspace. When someone tried and failed to break the steering stick on my little old car, they ended up jamming its lock, so I couldn’t unlock it either. I remember sawing through my own steering wheel with a handsaw as the sun was rising, knowing that I couldn’t afford to skip even a day of work, and also pretty sure that that was the absolute lowest point of my life – sawing my own steering wheel to drive the almost-carjacked car to work to pick used sex toys off the shelf. (Don’t worry, I went through about 10 new pairs of gloves each day to return the favour.) I remember doing a lot of thinking the following evening…

It occurred to me that out of all the infinite potential futures ahead of me, there were some pretty good ones. I imagined myself, someway, somehow, living someplace fun and sunny and tropical, sitting on the beach, sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it. I imagined not having a shitty boss, or any kind of boss. I imagined not having to worry about money. I knew that sort of future was possible, and I anchored it in my mind as my eventual destination point. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how, I didn’t know where – but I knew it was theoretically possible, and that was when I redoubled my efforts to earn more, spend less, and invest the rest. Without that rock bottom, without having to saw through my own car or having to pick used sex toys, I’m not sure if I would’ve had just as much fiery motivation. (But still, Tim, I hope you experience just as much misery in your own life at some point.)

On a lighter note, it helps to document your journey. This borders on the whole “manifesting” theme from The Secret, but it helped me keep myself accountable, and maybe it will help you too. In November 2016, I made a five-year plan: by November 2021, I would move to another country, I would become a permanent resident in that country, and I would squirrel away enough money to afford the most basic lean-FIRE retirement. I put all that in writing in a fancy leather-bound notebook that I had acquired from my twice-undead pothead roommate. (But that’s a different story.) I made both my goals and my timeline very clear: a five-year plan to drastically change my life. (You can take a boy out of the Soviet Union…)

That was on November 15th, 2016. Every three months afterwards, on the 15th of February, May, August, and November, I would update the log with “Day 1 of Q2” (or some such), list the grand total of my financial accounts (401k, Roth IRA, taxable investing account, my bank account, etc), and write a few paragraphs about where I was in life, what happened that quarter, and what I thought the future might bring. It felt goofy at times. There were times when I didn’t have the motivation to spend 10 minutes writing. I did it nonetheless. Being able to flip through the pages and see that yes, I was, in fact, making progress – that was an oddly empowering feeling. No matter what was happening around me, I could always look at my previous entries and see that I was a little closer to my goal (I had a specific $ amount in mind) than I had been three months ago, and much closer than a year ago.

I am a time traveler. And a nerd. And a mathematician. I love to write things down, too, or else this blog would never exist. This particular recipe for mental time travel – math and record-keeping – worked for me on multiple occasions, over pretty long timespans. Some people plan what they’ll have for lunch tomorrow. I plan what my next decade will look like. (Not entirely sure yet what I’ll do in my 50s, but there’ll definitely be wild parties and adventures involved.) The anniversary of my 2016 five-year plan will be in just five days. That younger version of me would never have been able to imagine just how wildly successful that plan was – and I wouldn’t be here without that younger self. (Be kind to your future and past selves, and also to your present self.)

In more down-to-earth and less Dickensian developments, I’ve also been using mental time travel to set up more mundane goals. I imagine the future where I’m a published sci-fi writer (in an actual publication, not on Kindle), so I’m slowly but surely reading different books on the art of crafting, and someday soon I hope to draft my first short story. I imagine the future where I finally develop my artsy side, and someday soon I’ll finally tackle that giant bag of art supplies I got last year. 

As with everything else, it’s not enough to merely imagine a goal: you must also work toward it. Your end result will be determined by how much time and energy you want to dedicate to your project.

I don’t guarantee that this will work for you – I’m merely describing how things worked out for me, though there was a lot of luck and (no doubt) privilege involved along the way, too. But still, give it a chance. Start a five-year plan of your own. Maintain it. See where it takes you. I am a time traveler. You can be too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.