Hyperbolic Discounting: The science behind outsmarting yourself

Psychology and behavioral science hold the keys to creating healthy habits

Have you ever made a plan to go to the gym first thing in the morning? You had the best intentions the night before, but when the alarm clock went off at 5 am, you found a flimsy excuse to avoid your workout?

It’s not just an early morning gym habit that people have a hard time following through on. It might be saving for retirement or avoiding sugar.

Why is it so hard to do things that we know are good for us in the long run but are uncomfortable in the moment? It’s down to a behavioral science principle known as hyperbolic discounting.

What is hyperbolic discounting?

Hyperbolic discounting is a mental model — a way of thinking. This principle describes how humans are hardwired to value immediate rewards — like sleeping in — over long-term rewards, like being fit. That means people have to outwit their own brains to perform temporarily painful tasks that create long term gains.

Hyperbolic discounting means we are hardwired to value immediate rewards like sleeping in, over long-term rewards like being fit.

How to win the battle for Future You

Humans think of their “present self” and their “future self” as two different people. That’s why it’s easier to stay in bed than go for an early morning run.

Not being in shape is Future You’s problem. Present You’s concern is getting out of a warm bed, changing out of your pajamas, and going out in the cold to do something uncomfortable.

Your brain is hardwired to say, “Forget that. Being out of shape is Future Guy’s problem.” And we stay in bed.

Strategies for outsmarting yourself

So how do we outwit Present You so that Future You gets the benefits of your hard work? Here are a few strategies that can help you outsmart yourself.

1. Put “Future You” front and center

The reason hyperbolic discounting often wins is that we have a hard time imagining ourselves aging. To a 20-year-old, 65 feels impossibly far away. So far away that it doesn’t seem real. But research shows that if you can make Future You more tangible now, it will impact your behavior.

For example, The University of Melbourne conducted a study to try and increase savings rates. Researchers gave participants a choice: Get a cash payment now, or get a more significant deposit straight into a savings account one year in the future.

Halfway through the experiment, however, participants saw a digitally aged photo of their faces. Researchers then led them through an exercise to empathize with their future selves.

After connecting with their older selves, 75% of people changed their mind about the payment. Instead of getting cash now, they opted to get more money put into their savings account one year in the future.

How to apply this strategy: 

Download a free face changing app like AgingBooth. Take a photo and age yourself, then print it out. Put it somewhere conspicuous, like on your fridge, next to your bed, or on your treadmill.

As Professor Phil Harris from The University of Melbourne put it: 

“…our research shows that people can be nudged to increase [the quality of ] decisions simply by visualizing the connection between themselves now and in the future more clearly.” 

Next time you’re tempted to let Present You win, take a look at Future You and see if they change your mind. 

2. Raise the stakes with social motivation

Also known as competition, research has shown that social motivation increases adherence to healthy habits, physical effort during a workout and can even improve reaction times.

For example, Peloton — the digitally-connected spin bike — has a community of more than 2 million users that compete for spots on their class leaderboards. Your effort in the class determines your ranking, and competition is fierce.

How to apply this strategy:

Before applying this strategy, ask yourself if you like competition. Some people are more motivated by competition than others, and it causes some people to shut down completely. 

If you’re motivated by competition, try to find ways to compete with others. This might take the form of an app like Strava.

Even a fitness wearable like an Apple Watch or Fitbit can create enough competition to motivate people. A 2019 study found that adding a competitive element to tracking exercise with a wearable increased the amount of time people spent being physically active.

3. Mentally rehearse your process and find places to remove friction

A “friction point” is a concept that originated in usability and product design. Friction points are moments where you’re trying to get something done, but come up against a mental or physical obstacle. If we use the example of an early morning run, the friction points might be: 

  • Getting out of a warm bed

  • Finding and charging your headphones 

  • Deciding where to run and for how long 

  • Changing out of your comfortable pajamas

  • Lacing up your shoes 

If you take a moment to mentally rehearse your process and your common challenges to getting there, then create a plan to overcome them, you’re more likely to succeed when friction points arise in real life. 

Research from Stanford University found that the mental performance of a task can lead to learning and performance improvement. During my career as a professional violinist, I found that mental rehearsal was as important as my physical practice when preparing for a performance.

How to apply this strategy:

Mentally rehearse the moments just before a tough task. Maybe you’re laying in bed after the alarm has gone off, debating with yourself if it’s worth losing that $15 you spent on that early morning yoga class. 

Notice your friction points — the places where Present You is objecting, and the list of things you need to do that you’re dreading. 

Now let’s remove those friction points. 

  • Think about which steps you can combine or eliminate entirely. For example, if you hate changing out of your comfy pajamas, can you sleep in your yoga pants, sports bra, and a t-shirt? 

  • Create counterarguments or prepare solutions for common excuses. Maybe you won’t have time to make coffee before class, and that throws off your whole routine. Try packing some cold brew the night before, to drink on your drive to your yoga class. 

Once you’ve created solutions and strategies, mentally rehearse yourself hearing those same excuses, but overcoming them. Desensitize your mind to these friction points — research shows that we can actually rewire our brains’ reactions to challenging situations through mental rehearsal. 

The bottom line 

Research says that the more connected we feel to our future self, the easier it is to overcome hyperbolic discounting. So try out some of the applications in this article and see what works for you - and remember the words of Charles Duhiggg, author of the Power of Habit:

“Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them.”