Future Self Journaling: How To, Studies & Examples

Updated 13 February 2020

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by Hugo: Founder of Tracking Happiness, marathon runner, data junkie and happiness tracker for almost 6 years.

Do you know what future self journaling is? Have you ever written a letter to yourself in the future? Or have you ever recorded a video with the sole purpose of having a conversation with yourself?

Future self journaling is not just a fun thing to do. It turns out that there are actual benefits that come with future self journaling. Some of the benefits of future self journaling are that it can help you be accountable, it can increase your self-awareness, and it can help you overcome your fears and conquer your goals. But above all, it can also a lot of fun!

This article is about the benefits of future self journaling. I will show you examples of studies and how I used this tactic myself in order to steer my life in a better direction. Let's get started!

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What is future self journaling exactly?

Future self journaling is the act of communicating with your future self in a conversational style. This can be done via journaling on paper, but also by recording a video of yourself or by recording voice messages.

For example, some people - like me - practice future self journaling by writing letters to the future. For example, these letters can be read 5 years later by yourself. For most people, the goal of future self journaling is to trigger your future self in a way that you might expect to gain from it in the future.

For example, some future self journaling methods are aimed towards amusing yourself in the future. Another example to practice future self journaling is to hold your future-self accountable for things that you currently desire, like personal goals.

Here's an example that shows how fun future self journaling can be:

Later on in this article, I'll share a personal example of how I've used future self journaling to keep me from repeating mistakes.

How to do future self journaling

Here's a really simple way to practice future self journaling:

  1. Open up a journal, a notepad or even a blank text file on your computer. Fun tip: you can even send your future self an email by delaying the delivery of an email in Gmail.
  2. Write yourself a letter about something funny you want to remember, ask yourself about things that are currently bothering you, or remind your future self about why you are currently doing some things that another person might not understand.
  3. Explain to your future self why you are writing this in the first place.
  4. Don't forget to date your letter, journal entry or email and create a reminder in your calendar for when you need to open this message or journal again.

That's it. I personally do this about once a month, where I send my future self an email with some questions that are currently occupying my mind, and when I want to trigger my future self to consider how my mind has changed. For example, these are some questions that I've asked myself in the past:

  • "Are you still happy with your job? When you started working at your job, you liked the fact that you could work on interesting and complex engineering matters, but do these topics still give you the energy and motivation to continue working on it?"

I received this question from my past self a couple of months ago, and the answer was probably not what I would've expected when I initially wrote this email (the answer was no).

  • "Are you still running marathons?"

This is one that I'll be reminded of once I am 40 years old. I wrote this email to myself a couple of years ago, when running was arguably my biggest happiness factor. I was curious if my future self would still be such a fanatic runner, mostly for fun and laughs.

  • "Looking back at the past year, have you been happy?"

This is one I ask myself at the end of every year, as a trigger to consider my life and to take a moment to look at the bigger picture. I write yearly personal recaps because of this.

Here's an example of how I've included future self journaling into my regular journal. I wrote the following in my journal on the 13th of February 2015. At the time, I had just started my career and was working on a project in Kuwait. Throughout this journal entry, I talked about how much I hated my work on this project.

This is what that journal entry turned into:

This is not what I want. I don't want to waste away in some foreign country, working >80 hours a week. This makes me curious...

Dear Hugo, what does my life look like in 5 years? Am I still working at the same company? Am I good at what I do? Do I have what I want? Am I happy? Are you happy, Hugo?

You have no excuses. There's no reason to answer that question with no. I'm healthy, educated, young and smart. Why should I be unhappy? I'm only 21 years old, for fuck's sake. Future Hugo, if you're reading this and you're unhappy, please take control. Fulfill your ambitions and don't limit yourself.

Funnily enough, it's almost exactly 5 years later now, and I'm still working at the same company, I've wasted quite some time working >80-hour weeks in foreign countries, and I'm not that happy at my work...

(Luckily, I've already made plans to change that.)

My point here is that future self journaling is really simple. Just start writing down questions to your future self, and you'll automatically trigger yourself - both in the now and the future - to become a little more self-aware of your actions.

Studies on future self journaling

Let's talk about the things we know about future self journaling. Are there any studies that can tell us how future self journaling influences our lives?

The truth is that there are no studies that directly cover the topic of future self journaling, even though some other articles may claim otherwise. We can only look at studies that share some overlap with the topic of future self journaling, which I'll try to summarize here.

Humans are bad at predicting future emotions

We are not robots. This means that we are influenced by biases that sometimes keep us from making rational decisions or predictions. This sometimes results in rather funny human flaws, that can unconsciously have a negative influence on our lives. One of these flaws is our ability to predict our future emotions.

The ability to accurately predict our future emotional states is called affective forecasting and it turns out that humans are pretty bad at it. We make consistently bad predictions about how we’ll feel:

  • When a relationship ends.
  • When we do well in sports.
  • When we get a good grade.
  • When we graduate from college.
  • When we get a promotion.

And just about anything else.

Thinking about your future self is correlated to caring more about the future

This study is one of the most quoted studies on the subject of a future self. It discusses how people who are triggered to consider the future are more inclined to make decisions that favor long term benefits. The idea is that humans normally find it more difficult to delay rewards.

A famous example of this is the Stanford marshmallow experiment, in which children were offered the choice between one marshmallow right now, or two marshmallows at a later time. A lot of children rather pick an immediate reward, even though it is smaller and less of a reward.

This shares a lot of resemblance to the concept of short-term vs long-term happiness, as discussed in our What Is Happiness blog section:

A lot of people spend their lives not knowing what the difference is between long-term happiness and short-term happiness. You can only lead a truly happy life when you actively pursue both short-term and long-term happiness. I'm not here to tell you that you should focus 50% of your attention on short-term happiness and the other 50% on long-term happiness. No. I'm here to tell you that you should be aware of your own happiness. Every single person on this planet has a different definition of happiness. You need to find out what happiness means to you, and how you want to pursue it.

That original study on future self and delayed rewards shows that people who are more aware of their future selves are more inclined to make better long-term decisions. Therefore, it can be said that people who practice future self journaling are better able to focus on future, sustainable and long-term happiness.

From my personal experience, I can definitely support this statement, as I will show you later on.

Benefits of future self journaling

As you might expect from the studies mentioned above, there are many possible benefits to future self journaling. I'll discuss some of the most significant benefits here, but I highly advise you to just try it out yourself!

1. Future self journaling can keep you from repeating mistakes

Do you ever catch yourself romanticizing some parts of your life?

I do, and when I do, I sometimes realize that I'm conveniently neglecting negative experiences. This is most apparent when talking about past experiences with my friends, because I focus on sharing cool experiences with others in order to leave a positive impression.

For example, in August 2019, I had to work on a project in Russia for about 3 weeks. It was the most stressful period of my life and I absolutely hated it there. But even then, I still recently caught myself romanticizing it when I shared my experience with another colleague.

He asked me how it went, and I told him it was "interesting" and "challenging" and "that I had learned a lot". The hard truth was that I hated my job, I could care less, and I'd rather be fired than to ever go back to such a project again.

This is what I wrote in my journal one day during that stressful time:

The manager of the project and I discussed the planning for the future, and he told me that we'd be working on this project for much longer if it continued like this. That is, if he doesn't have a heart attack before then. He told me that I was put on the planning to come back after my leave for another tour. SAY WHAT NOW? Haha, there is NO WAY in hell that I'll go back to this project.

Dear Hugo, if you're reading this in a couple of weeks, romanticizing this fucking period on the project and if you're actually considering to go back: DON'T!

Let me tell you right now: just quit your job. You're way too young to be "forced" into situations like these. You're too young too feel these amounts of stress. You're too young to experience black flashes in your vision. You're too young to be this fucking unhappy.

Just quit.

I re-read this journal entry every now and then to remind me of exactly how much I disliked this period. This keeps me from:

  • Romanticizing the past.
  • Putting myself into a similar situation ever again.
  • Making the same mistake twice.

For me, personally, these are the biggest benefits of future self journaling.

2. It's simply fun

Future self journaling is one of the most fun ways to journal for self-improvement.

Re-reading (or rewatching) your own messages to yourself can be very awkward, confronting and weird. But above all, it's really funny in a way, to have a conversation with yourself, albeit a slightly different version.

When I re-read my own past messages to myself, I can't help but chuckle. Reading my own words - sometimes from 5 years ago - puts a smile on my face, especially since my life has changed in ways that I couldn't even comprehend when I initially wrote the message.

Future self journaling is one of the most fun ways to learn more about yourself!

writing a letter to your future self journal

3. It increases your self-awareness

Re-reading my own messages to myself is not only funny, but it also triggers me to think about my own development.

The truth is, future self journaling triggers me to consider my personal development in ways that I won't find anywhere else. When rereading my message from 5 years ago, I can't help but notice how much I've developed as a person since then. This really increases my self-awareness.

Future self journaling forces me to think back about my emotions in the past, and how those emotions have transformed into the person that I currently am.

This added sense of self-awareness is beneficial in my daily life, as I can better understand how my personality might change over time. Nothing is certain in life. Being self-aware of the fact that your personal opinions, emotions and even morals can change and transform is a really good skill to have.

4. It can reduce the disappointment when you've not reached your goals

We recently published this article on the Learn How To Be Happy Blog, about how happiness is a journey and not just a destination. The following paragraph is taken from this article:

The ability to accurately predict our future emotional states is called affective forecasting and it turns out that humans are pretty bad at it.

...

This study found that the more people equate goal-achievement with happiness, the more they’re likely to be miserable when they fail to achieve that goal. If there’s a lesson to be learned from poor affective forecasting, it’s that you shouldn’t count on specific events to make you happy.

By practicing future self journaling, you are better able to reflect on what made you set your goals in the first place, instead of just focusing on the results.

For example, on October 28, 2015, I signed up for my second marathon. It was the Rotterdam marathon and I'd be running the entire 42.2 kilometers on the 11th of April 2016. When I signed up, my goal was to finish in 4 hours.

On the day of the marathon, I tried everything I could and gave it my all, but it wasn't enough. I finished the damn race in 4 hours and 5 minutes.

Did I feel bad? No, because I had made a message to my future self when I signed up. It was an email to myself, which I wrote on the day I signed up, and which I would only receive on the day that I ran the marathon. It read:

Dear Hugo, today is the day that you'll (hopefully) have finished the Rotterdam marathon. If so, then that's AWESOME. If you managed to finish within 4 hours, BRAVO. But even if you didn't finish it at all, just remember why you signed up in the first place: to challenge yourself, both physically and mentally.

Just know that you really challenged yourself and did your best, so you should be great either way!

You see what I mean, right?

Future self journaling prevents your human brain from equating your happiness with the achievement of a particular goal. I remembered myself that I should be happy for even trying to run the marathon, instead of focusing too much of my energy on some imaginary goal.

It all comes down to this: Happiness = Expactations minus reality. Future self journaling helps you keep your expectations in check.

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Closing words

Future self journaling is one of the most fun methods of journaling and can be very beneficial for your (future) happiness. I hope the studies and benefits listed in this article have convinced you to try it out sometime!

If there's anything I missed, please let me know. Do you have a personal example of future self journaling that you would like to share? Or maybe you don't agree with some of the points made? I'd love to know in the comments below!

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