Learn From Your Past With Mental Time Travel

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thinking in Bets" by Annie Duke. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is mental time travel? How can it help you make better decisions?

Mental time travel is a decision-making strategy in which you look at the past and imagine the future. It helps you learn from your experiences and keep your vision in mind. Ultimately, it guides you to make better decisions.

Continue reading to learn how to leverage mental time travel.

Mental Time Travel

“Mental time travel” is a strategy where you consider how past decisions turned out and imagine future outcomes when making a decision in the present. You ensure that you’re actively learning from your past. And you keep your long-term goals in mind even when it comes to decisions where possible benefits or consequences might not be immediately obvious, as is the case with many decisions we make. 

We have a tendency to prioritize our immediate desires—our present-day self—over the well-being of our future self. That’s why we tend to do things like avoid working out or neglecting the laundry a little too long.

Research shows that we make more rational decisions when forced to mentally time travel. That rationality arises in part because the same areas of your mind involved in recalling the past or envisioning the future are the areas associated with deliberative thinking. You can mentally time travel into the future, the past, or a combination of the two.

Traveling into the future might involve imagining the consequences of your present decision for your future self, but in detailed and specific ways. What are the positive impacts that working out regularly could have on your life? What could be the negative impacts of not staying fit?

Traveling into the past can involve calling on regrets. Usually, regret isn’t all that helpful, because it occurs after the fact. But if you conjure up the regret of a similar past decision, it can help guide you toward making a more rational choice in the present moment. If you recall what a hassle it was to have to do three loads of laundry in one day because you let it pile up, you’re more likely to get to it sooner this time around. 

The Benefits of Mental Time Travel

Mental time travel helps you regulate your emotions and break bad habits.

Regulating Your Emotions

Mental time travel helps put your feelings in the moment—which can feel intense and all-encompassing—into perspective. When you’re having a bad day at work, the frustration and misery can consume you and drive irrational decisions, like arguing with a colleague over a minor issue that you normally would’ve ignored. If you recall similar events in your past, you’ll likely find that they didn’t have a huge impact on your life over time; the emotions are a lot less significant, in retrospect, than they were in the moment. 

Rather than focusing on the immediate emotions, keep a big-picture view of your life. What decision or series of decisions will make you happier over time? Is that argument with your coworker actually a discussion worth having? If so, are you in the right frame of mind to handle it productively and in a way that won’t permanently damage your relationship? 

Another problem is that, in the moment, the way we feel about a situation (or outcome) is influenced by how we got there. For example, if you regularly stay at work for an extra hour or two because you like to stay ahead on various projects, you won’t be upset that you have less time to cook dinner or watch your favorite shows when you get home. But in the rare instance when you have to stay at work for an extra hour because you made an error you have to correct, that lost time weighs on you a lot more, even though ultimately it’s not much of a change from the norm. That negative outcome might put you in a terrible mood, affecting how you interact with your family when you do get home or even making you more short-tempered with your colleagues the next day. In other words, it’ll put you on tilt.

Poker players use the term “tilt” to describe the state of mind where you make irrational, emotionally driven decisions because of a previous outcome (whether that outcome was good or bad, such as a crushing loss or a euphoric win). Being on tilt can cause you to make decisions you wouldn’t have made if you’d taken a step back and gotten some perspective. 

You can often tell when you’re on tilt: Are you experiencing intense emotions? Is your heart racing? Are you snapping at people? Then you might not be in the best place to make a decision. 

Once you notice you’re on tilt, you can use mental time travel to gain the perspective you’re lacking in the moment. How much will the present event matter later on? If it’s going to matter a lot, then maybe you shouldn’t make a decision until you’ve calmed down. If it won’t matter all that much, then realizing that can help you get your emotions in check more quickly. 

You might not be able to make rational decisions 100% of the time, but the goal is to reduce the amount of emotionally driven decisions—to get better at long-term decision-making.

Breaking Bad Habits

Just as there are emotional and physical signs of tilt, you might start to notice behaviors and thinking patterns that can indicate that you’re not making a good decision, or that you’re drifting away from objectivity. 

When you’re engaging with other people, these signs might include dismissing them with insults and ignoring the points they’re making—for example, with ad hominems or straw-man arguments, which are used to attack the speaker or misrepresent their viewpoint. Or you might begin to notice when you’re trying to influence them toward passive belief, maybe by speaking in absolutes (“That strategy always succeeds”; “You should never do that”) or subtly discouraging feedback by not acknowledging your uncertainty about the topic being discussed.

When you’re alone, a red flag might be when you realize you’re beating yourself up over something that happened, as opposed to constructively focusing on how you could do better in the future. Conversely, you might notice that you’re prone to blaming everything negative that happens to you on bad luck, or being overconfident about your skills, which might be a clue that your outcome fielding needs work. 

Once you’ve practiced identifying the signs that you’re being influenced by your biases, you can get better at overcoming them.

Learn From Your Past With Mental Time Travel

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  • How to evaluate and learn from your past

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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