Most of us learn about “the future” — that mysterious land full of possibility, wonder, uncertainty and challenges — as young children. It’s often framed for us as a place we are told we should be thinking about and making plans to work toward achieving it. Still, many go through life with only a vague image of what our future — especially our financial future — might hold.

I often ask people what they are hoping to accomplish with their finances. The vast majority are optimistic about their future, even if they have had to weather financial challenges recently. Imagining a future where you are more financially resilient and can find more security in your finances is really the first step. If the long-term view is squishy or feels vague that’s ok, you can shift your focus to the visible horizon.

Your Future Self: Good News and Bad News

Being able to empathize with your future self isn’t exactly natural. Brain imaging shows that a specific part of our brain (the medial prefrontal cortex, or MPFC, for you anatomy buffs) lights up when we think about ourselves and powers down when we think about others. When thinking of our future selves, the MPFC doesn’t fire up. In other words, our brains perceive our future selves to be different people, making it more challenging to actually identify with our future needs.

The good news? Overcoming this biological barrier is possible — and powerful. Having a psychological connection with our future selves can lead to making better financial decisions. When people understand what the outcomes of their decisions could be and feel tied to their future selves, they may be more likely to save rather than spend.

4 Simple Steps to Connect With Your Future Self

It’s important to realize that you aren’t trying to predict the future. You don’t have to know who will win the 2032 presidential election, when the stock market will peak or even when your car might break down. Instead, what you want to do is determine what you might want for the future.

Step 1: Paint yourself a picture

The first step is to exert a little imagination. We aren’t talking about daydreaming — yukking it up with Jeff Bezos in the Secret Club for Billionaires isn’t the starting point. The same goes for finding a winning lottery ticket in a gutter on the same day you find out you are an heir to a fortune you didn’t know existed.

Imagine what a little more financial security looks like. Or, what a rainy day fund would look like in your situation. A close future where you have a little more control of your finances. It’s most important to imagine an attainable future.

Step 2: Imagine what you did to get there

Once you have a good idea of the vision, put yourself in the shoes of your future self. Think about what you did to get you there. What had to happen, what choices did you make? What did you have to do on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? What obstacles got in your way and how did you overcome them?

Step 3: Determine your next step

At this point, you have a pretty good idea of what you need to do, but it isn’t always easy to get started. Sometimes the first step is the hardest one to take. But here’s the thing, you can usually look at your current situation and identify four or five things that you have already done along this path. Recognizing that you have already made progress toward the future you want can help you recognize what the next step you can make that is merely an extension of your current path heading in the direction of your destination.

Here’s a trick: your next step should be easy enough for you to do almost immediately: today, tomorrow, or at least the next business day. If the task you selected as your next step would take you longer than that, you should break it up.

Here’s another tip: If the task is something that you keep putting off. Tell yourself that you are only going to spend ten minutes on it. Ten minutes is doable. Don’t try to do the whole thing at once, just spend ten minutes.

Step 4: Monitor progress and adjust on the fly

Nothing can undermine your pursuit for your hopeful future like stalled progress. If you keep trying and you are not getting anywhere, you need to think about what could be getting in your way.

Are your “next steps” moving you forward? Are you performing the same first step over and over again? Are you failing to get past the initial phase? If this is what is happening, you need to reassess your “next step.” You are picking the wrong thing.

Maybe genuine obstacles and setbacks are erasing your efforts, and that’s important to acknowledge. Give yourself permission to focus on something different or make changes in the moment that keep you moving forward in a productive manner. Having a little empathy for your future self goes a long way.

Your Future Self is Waiting

Staying close to the idea of your future self is a critical element of any financial planning journey. The more you feel psychologically and emotionally linked to the you that you see in the future, the more likely you are to stick with your plan and follow through to achieve your goals. And if you are ready to get started and want help with some tips and ideas, take our Money Mindfulness quiz.