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Wait for It: Future Thinking for Healthy Habits

Good things are worth the wait

Remember the viral marshmallow videos? A famous research study promised children they could have two marshmallows if they didn’t eat the one in front of them for 15 minutes. It was a simple study based on delayed gratification or resisting what feels good now in the hope of something better in the future. Following its release, parents everywhere tested their children on video and laughed as many kids gobbled up the marshmallow the instant adults left the room. However, children are not the only ones who struggle with delaying future benefits. Research shows weight loss requires saying no to the immediate pleasures of food and sedentary activity for the future reward of weight loss. The ability to hold onto future thinking to create good habits has been identified as one of the most essential concepts for healthy living today.

Rather than testing one’s aptitude for delayed gratification, new research measures how to build up the ability to wait for delayed gratification. Investigators call this “Episodic Future Thinking (EFT).” They define this thinking strategy as holding a future situation in your mind to help you resist instant gratification or stick to a habit.

Taking time to spend with family and to read provide stress relief

For example, imagine your alarm clock goes off for your morning walk. You think about staying in bed. It’s dark, you’re comfortable, and soon you’re talking yourself into how much sleep you need. Someone using EFT might name his alarm clock, “For my grandkids!” As he goes to hit snooze, the alarm name helps him hold the idea of playing tag with grandkids or sitting on the floor with them in his mind. Keeping this mental image of future health can help a person resist the moment’s pleasure for future gain.

In one research study, investigators used an online training program where participants were taught to use EFT to resist poor health choices even during difficult circumstances. The study encouraged using goal-oriented future thinking regularly and prepared participants for situations like income shock. In one example, investigators had participants consider the loss of a job and how they would react. Situations like income loss increase one’s likelihood of discounting the future and may lead to poor dietary choices. But by helping participants mentally prepare for healthy choices in potential hardship, they were able to keep future goals in mind despite their circumstances.

So, in what situations do you find yourself believing “now” is more important than your future goals? Does a difficult week at work or a disappointing situation have you living for the moment and throwing in the towel on your new habits? Can you find new ways to find joy or reward yourself in the short term while keeping your goals at the forefront of your mind?

Here are a few tips for using “Episodic Future Thinking (EFT):” 

Tape your top 3 goals with specific dates to your bathroom mirror where you start the day seeing them.

Put pictures on the fridge of the people holding you accountable.

Find enjoyable replacements for habitual instant gratifications - Drink seltzers rather than a glass of wine, take a walk rather than meeting at an ice cream shop, or update your workout gear, so it’s fun to put on when you don’t feel like it.

Believing in and seeing the future is critical in making it a reality! 



Bleak Present, Bright Future: Online Episodic Future Thinking, Scarcity, Delay Discounting, and Food Demand

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