June 27, 2022

A version of this essay first appeared in Midlife Cues, a weekly newsletter about intentional living in our middle years. Get it in your inbox; you're going to love it.

There are two main reasons why we make bad decisions, according to social psychologist and Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert.

One of the given reasons is our handicap in estimating value. We barely pass the mark on estimating the future value of a thing or experience.

Basically, what we tend to do when evaluating our options is use our past and current experiences as guide.

Which isn’t very smart, according to Gilbert, because, as it happens, we’re also not very good at projecting who we are going to be in the future.🥺

We fail to project how much we — and our preferences — will change in the future.

Think about it. If we’re making decisions that impact us tomorrow, and we’re using past and current experiences as guides, but we’re not good at projecting what our future selves might need or prefer … well, you can see how that’s a recipé for not very smart decisions.

Here’s another way of looking at it: We over-estimate the value of present pleasures and under-estimate the odds of future pains.

Which could explain why we binge-watch the new season of Bridgerton and forget how much that lack of sleep will cost us tomorrow.

Or why we can’t stop ourselves from buying the ridiculously expensive thingamajig and ignore that the credit card bill will come in a month.

Or why today, while feeling well-rested and relaxed, we might say yes to three zoom meetings for next Friday. You can probably guess what you’ll think about that decision when you feel tired and overwhelmed.

How do we counter-balance this typical weakness?

Gilbert suggests that when making decisions that affect us beyond today, we try to imagine a more vivid “future us.” First, we remind ourselves that our preferences and priorities will change. Then try to imagine our decision today in light of our future selves.

Here are a couple of other useful models:

  • Second-Order Thinking. Asking ourselves, “and then what?” can help us make smarter decisions today. “Failing to consider second and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions, and it is especially deadly when the first inferior option confirms your own biases.”
  • Remember projection bias. Our emotional temperature impacts our decisions. “We tend to make decisions based on how we feel right now instead of how we might feel in the future. Another way to think about it is that we tend to make decisions that make sense in the moment, but they don’t always work out the way we anticipated.”


“I think that somehow, we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.” — Eleanor Roosevelt


A former management consultant and IT leader, Lou Blaser is the editor of Midlife Cues and the host of the Second Breaks podcast. She is also the author of Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your career. Lou’s work is focused on exploring how to navigate, thrive, and turn midlife into the best phase in our life.