Affective forecasting: Why you keep giving “future you” too much work

When you think about it, it’s probably safe to say that “past you” is a little bit of a jerk. Just think of all those times they procrastinated and piled on extra work for “present you” instead of doing it then?

Didn’t they know you’d be just as exhausted and unmotivated in the future? Unfortunately not. But it’s not all their (your?) fault.

No one has a crystal ball, especially when it comes to knowing how we’ll feel in the future. So why do we think we can predict the future when we schedule our time and our tasks?

Most of us treat time management like packing boxes into a truck. As long as there’s space in the back you can continue to cram things in. But our mind and bodies aren’t made of steel and rubber. Our constraints aren’t only physical. They’re emotional.

In fact, one of the biggest errors all of us make when scheduling our time is what psychologists call affective forecasting—underestimating just how much our emotional and physical states will affect our future decisions and ability to do the things we want to do.

What is affective forecasting and how does it impact our ability to manage time?

Affective forecasting is a bit of a strange concept, so here’s a simple exercise to help understand it:

Let’s say you’re at the end of your workday and are ready to go have dinner with your family. But, you still have a few emails to get through before tomorrow morning. All of a sudden you’re faced with two options:

  1. Stay at work, finish the emails, and miss family dinner
  2. Go home, eat dinner with the family, and get through the emails before bed

Now, let’s say you pick option two (because who wouldn’t want to spend more time with their loved ones?) You get home, have a great evening, but then when it’s time to hit the inbox… you’re absolutely wiped.

Getting through your inbox is the last thing you’d want to do right now. Yet, “past you” who scheduled your email time wasn’t thinking about the emotional or physical state you’d be in after dinner.

They saw the problem as simply a matter of finding the time. Not finding the right time.

As Psychology Today writes:

“Our feelings in the present blind us to how we’ll make decisions in the future when we might be feeling very differently.”

Here’s another example from a real-world study. A group of smokers was asked to predict how much they would pay for a lit cigarette in the future. Later, when actually presented with the cigarette, they ended up willing to pay significantly more.

They’d assumed they would be in the same emotional and physical state in the future as they were when they made their predictions. The same thing happens when we’re scheduling our work time. As the team at ideas42 writes:

“When workers are predicting how productive they will be in a future period, they similarly may be unlikely to incorporate the effects of their future cognitive or emotional state on their productivity.”

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Why we’re so terrible at imagining ourselves in the future

affective forecasting - future

Knowing how productive you’re likely to be in the future is a key part of time management. Yet few of us think that way at all. We believe our productivity, motivation, and focus will stay pretty much steady throughout the day.

But as we’ve written before, our bodies and minds go through natural ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day. Not to mention all the external things that can cause us to lose energy, become unmotivated, and not want to do what we said we would.

Time management expert Laura Vanderkam calls this our “three selves”. Rather than just a single, unchanging self, there are actually three distinct ways we experience life:

  1. The “Anticipating Self” schedules and looks forward to things on their calendar
  2. The “Experiencing Self” is here in the present
  3. The “Remembering Self” thinks back on events in the past

The problem, as philosopher Robert Grudin once wrote, is that we “pamper the present like a spoiled child.”

As Vanderkam explains:

“The anticipating self thought it would be fun to go to the art museum on Friday night when there’s live music and a bar, and the remembering self will look back fondly on the experience.

“But the experiencing self just got home from work. She is the one who has to brave the rain and the Friday night traffic. So she throws a tantrum, and we wind up indulging her whim to spend hours scrolling through Facebook posts from people we didn’t like in high school anyway.”

There are all sorts of other names for this action. The ancient Greeks called it Akrasia—acting against one’s better judgment. While behavioral economists might say this is an example of Hyperbolic discounting—our inability to delay gratification, which causes us to choose a smaller reward now over a bigger one down the road.

Whatever you want to call it, we make decisions about our future based on how we want to feel.

Or, as Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

“I’ve experimented with countless time-management techniques, but the results leave me forced to agree: by far the biggest predictor of whether something gets done is whether it’s fun to do. The secret of productivity is simple: just do what you enjoy.

If productivity is about doing things we enjoy, why don’t we?

“Do what you love” is a phrase best suited for throw pillows and dorm room motivational posters. Not time management. One of the main reasons is that we consistently over- and under-estimate how future events will make us feel.

First, there’s a cognitive bias called “time discounting”—our tendency to weigh present events over future events. For example, giving yourself time off now thinking you’ll be more rested and ready to work later.

There’s also the “projection bias”—when we falsely project current preferences onto a future event. For example, if you’re in a good mood now, you’re more likely to assume future events will also make you feel the same (and vice versa).

And then there’s the “impact bias”—where we overestimate the emotional impact of a future event, whether in terms of intensity or duration. For example, believing that if we “just get that raise” we’ll finally be happy (instead of saddled with more work and more stress).

As Gilbert and Wilson write:

“Whether people overestimate how good or bad they will feel, overestimate how quickly those feelings will arise, or underestimate how quickly they will dissipate, the important point is that they overestimate how powerfully the event will impact their emotional lives.”

How to bring emotions into your time management and stop piling work on “future you”

affective forecasting - emotions

Not many people talk about their emotions when it comes to time management. Yet as we’ve written before, procrastination and motivations are emotional problems. Not scheduling ones.

While we all fall victim to affective forecasting, there are a few ways to lessen its impact on our schedules.

One solution proposed by researchers from Kent University is to practice mindfulness.

During mindfulness exercises, you learn to observe your current emotional state without being swept away by it. This way, you’re less likely to overestimate your future emotional state and can be more realistic with your schedule. As the researchers wrote in their study:

“One facet of mindfulness, observing one’s internal state, was associated with more moderate affective forecasts as well as a decreased susceptibility to the impact bias.”

Another option is to use what professional forecaster Paul Saffo calls a “cone of uncertainty”. While Saffo is talking about forecasting market trends, the same technique may help predict your future emotional state.

Before scheduling work for “future you”, take a second to consider future events that will impact how you’re feeling—the commute home, that afternoon conference call that always goes late, your performance review tomorrow morning. Just acknowledging these events can help you be more realistic with your scheduling.

In our previous example of doing email outside of work hours, you might take a moment to think about making dinner, putting the kids to sleep, and doing dishes and then realize that your emotional state is more likely to be drained than energized.

Finally, you might just have to give yourself a mental push. Going back to Vanderkam’s idea of the “pampered present,” it’s all too easy to give in to your current emotional state when you know you’ll look back fondly on your choices. As Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

“When you’re just beginning a session of challenging work, you often need to give yourself a push, reminding yourself you don’t need to ‘feel like’ starting in order to start. But after that, it’s enjoyment that’ll sustain your motivation, not productivity techniques.”

No one can be absolutely sure how they’ll feel in the future. But ignoring the impact of your emotional state is simply setting yourself up for failure.

Next time you catch yourself putting important work off for later take a second to consider how you’ll feel when the time comes. Your future self will thank you.

How do you stop from piling on too much work for “future you?” Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter. 

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


  1. This is a great post, with so much to consider!
    The way I avoid giving “future me” too much work is thinking of her as someone I need to protect. I remind myself that if I get something done now I’ll be very grateful later. Then, when “later” comes, and I can relax or do something fun without feeling guilty or pressured, I take a minute to congratulate “past me” on planning ahead and really earning the reward.

    1. Thanks Amanda! I think that’s a great way to approach this issue. Perspective is important, especially when “later” comes and you allow yourself to be grateful and take the rest you need.

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