“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future…”  – Steve Jobs

Everyone must sometimes resist present temptations to stay focused on a future goal. Students in particular must often work hard now to achieve some future end. For example, a student might forgo a video game marathon to study for a test, sacrificing their present desires to benefit their future self.  Because students must often reign in present impulses to achieve future goals, parents, educators, and counselors sometimes encourage students to envision their future selves, perhaps imagining themselves graduating from college or working in a desirable career, hoping that thinking about the future will motivate the students to work on behalf of that imagined “future self.”

High school teachers and counselors sometimes even ask students to write a letter to their future selves as if they are writing to a pen pal they’ve never met. Does this activity—which requires students to imagine what their future self might be like and what they have achieved—really promote academic and career motivation? This popular activity has been shown to affect decisions in domains such as delinquency and exercise, but until recently it was unknown whether it works in a school setting.  

It is easy to see how writing to one’s future self might be helpful. For example, by imagining a successful future self, students may become more motivated to overcome challenges along the way. On the other hand, it is not a given that writing a letter to a future self will always motivate goal-directed action today. Some studies have shown that fantasizing about an ideal future does not really help people reach their goals. People must be able to imagine a plausible future self and identify concrete strategies to attain it.  We reasoned that a letter-writing intervention might be more effective if students are nudged into envisioning a realistic pathway between the present and their future selves. We thought that building a psychological connection between present and future selves may be a key to promoting students’ future-oriented behaviors.

Based on this logic, we added a step to the typical letter-writing activity, which usually involves writing a letter only to one’s future self. After writing to their future self, students were asked to put themselves in that future self’s shoes and write a reply back to the present self. This modification in the activity was inspired by the “empty chair technique” used in Gestalt therapy. This procedure involves trying to understand how another person feels by imagining a discussion with that other person as if he or she were in an empty chair nearby. Participants may even move back and forth between chairs and act out two sides of a discussion. In our research, then, students wrote a two-letter exchange between their present and future selves rather than only a single letter.

We conducted our research in a high school in Japan. We chose a vocational-bound school in which most students were headed to jobs rather than to university because students in such schools often feel disconnected from the future and do not always plan for it in great detail.  In our first study, students wrote a letter to the self they thought they would be in three years and then role-played the future self and wrote a letter back to the present self. The procedure took about 30 minutes. As we expected, students felt more connected to their future selves after these sessions than they had before writing these letters.

To see how much this new connection to the future self depended on writing the reply letter from the future self, we conducted a follow-up study.  In this study, we assigned some students to write only a letter to their future self and assigned others to write both a letter to their future self and a reply letter from their future self.  

Our results showed that students who both wrote to their future self—and then stepped into the future self’s shoes to write a reply—increased their sense of connection to the future self right after the sessions. Students who wrote only the letter to the future self did not show this change. When we followed up a month later, students who had engaged in the two-way letter exchange reported more intensive career planning and a greater willingness to study hard at school even when temptations beckon. No such change occurred for students who wrote only the single letter. 

In school career education, students are often encouraged to think about their future after graduation. However, our studies suggest that it is not enough simply to send a message to the future. Getting a reply may be essential.  This conversational exchange across time was not difficult for students to do, making it a feasible activity in school settings. Although more research should be done, we encourage teachers and counselors who employ the letter-writing approach to consider adopting this expanded exchange. Of course, because this research took place in Japan, it will be important to be certain that the same finding holds up in other cultures.  But if our results from Japan are any indication, students elsewhere in the world could learn a lot from their future selves.

For Further Reading

Chishima & Wilson, A. E. (2020). Conversation with a future self: A letter-exchange exercise enhances student self-continuity, career planning and academic thinking. Self & Identity. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2020.1754283

Yuta Chishima is a postdoctoral researcher at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies temporally-expanded identities. 

Anne Wilson is a social psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies individual and collective identities across time and goal-pursuit motivation.