Episodic Future Thinking

November 8, 2023

Something struck a chord with me as I listened to Cal Newport’s Deep Questions podcast yesterday (this episode). He was talking about how the creator of Duolingo was hoping to make learning so much fun that people would choose a math or language learning game over (for example) TikTok. Cal argued (and I agree) that in the Dopamine Olympics, social media and non-learning games are always going to win gold against something that requires some strain, like Duolingo.

He then mentioned the concept of Episodic Future Thinking (EFT) which he proposes is a more powerful system to help people do the things they WANT to be doing. And I thought about my own Duolingo habit and my daily planning and made a connection between the two. Sitting there in the morning writing out a plan that actually shows what you — idealistic + fresh morning you! — want the day to look like is a powerful way to ensure you engage with that EFT system rather than defaulting to your id/dopaminergic “what seems the most fun right at this very second” sort of a reflex.

I really really like this concept. I found it so interesting that I actually listened to that part of the podcast twice (and I never do that!). He didn’t specifically mention that a writing out a plan for the day can help get this system going, but I do believe it can. Your plan isn’t just there so you don’t forget to do things; it’s also there to remind you of what you really wanted to do with the day.

Having it be on paper (tangible, actual, real) makes it all the more powerful in my experience.

habits. checkboxes for repeated/rote tasks. a space for media (which encourages me to consume content mindfully). reasonable and strategic to do list. I strongly believe writing this out helps put me in EFT mode.

To Do Lists

Tangentially related SIDE NOTE, I wish people would stop saying to do lists are terrible! It was stated outright in the Nir Ayal interview on About Progress — which, by the way, is a podcast I also really enjoy. Monica the host is lovely, real, and relatable.

It is true that some to do lists are terrible, and also true that some people may prefer other strategies. But writing out a daily list has worked really well for me for a long time and I find it both helpful AND freeing (because if it’s not on the list, I’m not going to stress over it).


  • Reply Katie November 8, 2023 at 1:18 pm

    So I listened to that episode of Deep Questions and I have no memory of this section! Oops!

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger November 8, 2023 at 1:19 pm

      It was that whole first section after he talked about dopamine + duolingo. It did go by quickly – hence why I replayed it bc I was very intrigued.

  • Reply Kersti November 8, 2023 at 3:45 pm

    I definitely took note of this part as well and had to read the McGonigal article after. It makes sense and I agree planning helps to avoid discounting the future self. The article notes that McGonigal wrote a book involving this topic called “Imaginable.”

  • Reply omdg November 8, 2023 at 4:00 pm

    Wait… why are to do lists terrible? I feel like I missed something major here…

    • Reply Sarah Hart-Unger November 8, 2023 at 4:39 pm

      I see it a lot in people that say to schedule everything instead. I personally love to do lists. Helps me make use of bits of time …

      • Reply Omdg November 9, 2023 at 2:44 am

        Yeah that only works if you’re able to correctly estimate how long things take and never get interrupted…

  • Reply Joy November 8, 2023 at 4:15 pm

    What an interesting concept. I will go listen to that episode.

    I also like to write down what I want to get done each day–it keeps me on track and I’m so satisfied when I achieve what I set out to do.

    I think a well-curated to do list is helpful. I get overwhelmed by anything over 5-8 things a day though. Maybe they were thinking of out-of-control lists that burden rather than empower?

    Good idea about keeping a written list of media each day.

  • Reply coco November 8, 2023 at 4:45 pm

    fully agree with the idea of planning as a way to sneak peak into the future, give the perception of endless perspective and making trade offs. I don’t do as advance as you do, but I like to plan future travels the most.

  • Reply Chelsea November 9, 2023 at 4:35 am

    I’m guessing others can relate, but I feel like I sometimes swing too far in the direction of EFT… where I get sort of obsessed with doing things for future me to the point that current me always feels tired and unhappy. Yes, it’s great to do things to prepare for the future, but when you feel like you’re literally never doing anything for current you (namely, resting) it can be unhelpful as well.

    • Reply Jackie November 9, 2023 at 8:50 am

      This makes me think of one of my favorite Laura Vanderkam quotes, from an episode with the Lazy Genius I believe – “your future self is not incompetent.” It makes me laugh and reminds me of where the line is on prepping for the future vs living in the present.

  • Reply Elisabeth November 9, 2023 at 12:06 pm

    I live for lists. I make lists of lists. So, obviously, I am cheerleader on Team List.

  • Reply Grateful Kae November 9, 2023 at 3:33 pm

    I’ll have to go back and re-listen to that section. I was listening to this episode while walking puppy the other day and he kept stopping and trying to eat things. So, I was a little distracted. 😅

  • Reply Lisa’s Yarns November 9, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    I honestly kind of live and die by to do lists. I am so busy at work and have so many things coming at me all day that I have to write them down in a list in my planner or something can and will fall threw the cracks. I try to use the flag feature in outlook for things that need attention but a to do list is priceless for me. I don’t have a defined period by which I need to do those tasks. I just keep adding things to that list as they arise. And then when everything is done I usually start a new list. I have so little control over my day so I can’t schedule these tasks. I have to squeeze them in between client meetings and I can’t really block off time for tasks because I need to keep my calendar open for more client meetings. It’s honestly all kind of a bit awful right now and I am so overwhelmed and exhausted but I keep telling myself it will eventually slow down. Maybe around the holidays, I pray! I kind of envy those who have such control of their calendar that they can schedule out time to work on projects/to do list items!

  • Reply San November 11, 2023 at 7:35 pm

    Ugh, it’s one of those most recent “controversial things” – is a to-do list good or bad? I’d say, if it works for you, it’s GOOD, if it doesn’t, you can use other strategies.
    Writing out a plan/list definitely works for me.

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