Time travel accountability

If there’s anything I learned last year, it’s that keeping a team (and yourself) accountable is hard. People love to have planning meetings and meetings about organizing their next planning meeting. It’s easy to talk and much harder to do. I think the solution to this problem is a form of a time travel.

There’s some cognitive science research around why exactly people don’t do things that will benefit them in the future: most people tend to think of their future selves as strangers rather than friends. In other words, they don’t think of their present selves as being continuous with their future selves. As a result of this cognitive bias, they don’t have an incentive to save money or start on things they’ve been putting off because they forget that they will one day be our future selves.

Hal E. Hershfield, a marketing professor at NYU, explored these ideas last year in an interesting research study:

“We had undergraduates go into a virtual reality room and see themselves as if in a mirror,” he said. “They either saw their current image or an aged image.” When the participants came out of the room, they were asked … what they would do with $1,000 if they were given it right then. Those who had seen the image of themselves as older allocated twice as much to the retirement account as those who did not see themselves as they aged.

How can the average person use this phenomenon to keep teams (or themselves) accountable without having to invest in a fancy virtual reality room? The trick is to force people to confront the person they will be in the immediate future. The more they begin to think of their actions in the present as a gift to their future selves, the less they’ll put off.

The easiest way I can think to do this is with an online email service called FutureMe. Their premise is simple, but brilliant. The only thing you can do on the site is write letters that get sent to yourself in the future. You enter your email address, the date/time you want your message delivered, press send, and it’s off.

In order to hold yourself or a team accountable, you could simply write a letter to the future outlining exactly what you plan to do and how you plan on doing it. The person on the receiving end is yourself or your team—days, weeks, or months later. You or your team could then sit down and review your progress by looking at the letter from the past. This seems to be the cheapest and simplest way to replicate the effect that Hershfield and his team created in the lab.

There’s something powerful about this odd approach. It’s different than writing a post-it note that gets stuck on the wall or setting a reminder on a smartphone. When we write letters, we’re used to thinking about the person we’re writing to. We consider what kinds of things they’d like to hear, what would make them happy, where they’re at in their life. When the recipient of the letter is yourself, you become eerily aware of who you’re going to be when that email is delivered—your thoughts, hopes, dreams. You’re forced to acknowledge that the person you’re going to be is just as much of a person as you are today. And any actions you take now will have a huge impact on him/her.

When you get a letter from yourself in the past, it feels like you’re corresponding with an old friend on an island of time where the mail can only take one-way trips. Few people know you quite as well as past you. Receiving an email from the past with goals or plans for the week, month, or year is a far more powerful experience than receiving plans from a supervisor or a colleague. It’s one thing to let somebody else down, but it’s another thing entirely to see goals you set for yourself that you haven’t accomplished. Letters from the past connect you to the person you were when you first set out to do something. Incidentally, that person is also the one who’d be most disappointed if they knew you were going to give up on a plan.

The emotions that this kind of communication stir are new and sometimes uncomfortable. The further you send a letter in the future, the weirder the experience becomes. Though it sounds strange to say, it’s worth making friends with your future self. It inspires the imagination and allows you to step into a makeshift time machine moments.