a cool mental trick to help make you more creative (…and totally hot and fit and rich…)



I’m in freaking Scotland.

(Edinburgh is stunning, but Mike Myers is in my head, shouting “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” Over and over again. Help me.)

I joined my boyfriend at TEDGlobal and he told me something interesting he picked up in one of the presentations — I’m assuming it was by Keith Chen — about how your weight and money problems might be to blame on your grammar.

It goes something like this. Different languages have different ways of talking about the future. Some languages, like English, use a future tense (“They will have wild animal sex”) to indicate that the action hasn’t happened yet, while other languages, like Mandarin, mostly use present tense (“They have wild animal sex”) and depend not on grammar but context (“next Wednesday at midnight while swinging from the neighbor’s trapeze”) to establish that the action hasn’t happened yet.

Chen, an economist, divides countries into those with a future tense and those without and discovers an intriguing correlation. Countries that speak a language with a future tense — like English — tend to smoke more, save less, exercise less, and be more overweight.

Language structures our way of thinking, and the future tense serves to distance us from the future — the future is happening somewhere out there — while the present tense keeps the future close to us — the future is happening here and now.

While correlation is not causation, we do think about things more abstractly the more we remove ourselves from them. If I ask you what you’ll be doing tomorrow, chances are you’ll tell me about your kid’s playdate and the report due at work and how you need to buy a new dress for that wedding you’re forced to go to on Friday because your girlfriend ignored all your advice and is marrying the fool. If I ask you what you’ll be doing ten years from now, chances are you’ll tell me about dreams, hopes and goals.

One of the things you learn as a writer is how important it is to take what’s abstract and ground it in the specific and concrete in order to make it real for the reader.

When something is real (ie: you can see, touch, taste, feel, hear it) the reader cares. The reader feels a sense of urgency.

When something is abstract, it remains a vague intellectual notion that the reader might appreciate, but can’t embrace emotionally.

Here’s the thing: to truly move a person, to get a person to change their behavior, you have to reach them emotionally as well as intellectually. Reason alone won’t cut it. I know that smoking causes cancer. So long as cancer remains this vague abstract notion — because it exists somewhere out there in the ether of the future (“I will have lung cancer if I don’t stop smoking”) — it doesn’t seem relevant to what I need in the here and now, to ease the craving and relieve the stress and, hey, I can always quit tomorrow. If, on the other hand, a diagnosis of cancer were to push itself right in my face (“I have lung cancer”) what I need in the ‘here and now’ suddenly changes.

(This was actually one of the ways I managed to quit smoking: by imagining that I was creating cancer in my body every time I puffed on a cigarette.)

In my last post I talked about how your vision for the future can act as context for your present. You can pull your future close to you in a way that influences your subconscious to guide your actions away from something (cancer, poverty) or toward something (a fit, vibrant, drop-dead body, a million dollars in the bank). You can find ways to turn the abstract into something concrete and real. Wanting to get a better body is one thing; wanting to get a better body in time for your wedding is something else. The closer that wedding gets, the more real it seems, the more motivated you are to make your workout instead of excuses.

It can work the other way, too. If you’re stuck on a problem, put some mental space between it and you. Imagine the problem is happening ten years from now. Or in Alaska. Or China. Or Mars. The more distance you can get on it, the more abstractly — and creatively — you can think on it. When the problem or issue no longer seems so in your (mental) face, you shift to a different part of your brain, you can see the forest for the trees, you can examine that forest from different angles and find new pathways in.

It’s why, by the way, a change in location can be a surprisingly effective way to blast through a creative block or solve that pesky plot problem or come to a decision about your love life. A shift in time and space (either real or imagined) can bring a shift in perspective, and sometimes that’s just what we need.

Jun 29, 2012

14 comments · Add Yours

very interesting theory – and a great tip no matter what – but isn’t this also because the languages that have a future tense (Germanic, Romanic, Slavic etc.) are spoken mostly in Western or countries where the lifestyle is very different? As far as I know, most (but not all – Japanaese e.g. has a future tense) South-East Asian and a bunch of African countries don’t use a future tense, and they also tend to be poorer countries.


Language really does affect the way you behave. I’ve found that thinking about the goals I have for the future in the present tense have been really effective in motivating me to get them done. It is easier to do the things that are required to accomplish them. Thanks for the great post.


Very interesting! I had similar success by imagining my blood chemistry changing when I went on a diet – it got me through the roughest first days when I’d crave a mid-afternoon snack. As I’d make a healthier choice, I’d imagine the inside of my body responding. Since willpower is so easily depleted when we are hungry or tired, trying to keep the future closer seems to be a good way to do this.
And now, I will go tackle the project I’ve been postponing. :)


What?! That is so cool! I want to manifest that million dollars in the bank for sure. But before that I have to decide where to live. Can I use this technique to help narrow down where to move? How? I am lucky that I can live anywhere, but how do you decide?


It’s not about manifesting — I’m kinda dubious about that — so much as guiding your subconscious to guide your actions and your focus in ways that help you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve.

For making decisions — there’s a great book out by Jonah Lehrer called ‘The Decisive Moment’ about how the brain makes up its mind. Intuition (which is a form of nonverbal intelligence) and conscious logic work together (and apart) and Jonah’s book discusses when to lean more on one instead of the other.

The way I would approach it would be
a) pay attention to all the places I felt drawn to and research them exhaustively

b) let my mind mull it all over for a bit while I did something entirely unrelated

c) start telling myself things like “I live in Austin” or “I live in Los Angeles” to see what kind of feelings start to surface, if my body feels heavy or light.

Feelings — as Lehrer explains — are the mind’s way of distilling and conveying information that we otherwise don’t have access to. They don’t impede rational thought, they actually enable it, by enabling us to weigh certain alternatives as more urgent or more positive than others. Just make sure those feelings are as informed as you can make them. :)


Very cool, Justine! I like this as it’s so much more active than vision-ing (or creating a vision board). I love the idea of imagining (or perhaps really being conscious of) changes in one’s body as one changes actions/activities. (Congrats on quitting smoking, by the way!)

Re: Scotland: lucky you! I have family there and have visited often. It’s a beautiful country and the people are really great. Be sure to try the Scotch and visit a distillery if you can.



@Margaret The Scotch? Is awesome.


@The Queer Nomad Oh yeah, absolutely, and in any case I don’t see how you could parse the situation clearly and precisely enough to isolate one factor, like language, and say that’s the reason, or that it’s a Theory that Explains Everything. It’s just a really interesting correlation, especially when and where it maps onto stuff we’re discovering or already know about how language structures thought + perception.


Are you out of you mind?
You’re in Edinburgh? Now? Jesus Christ. Do you know what happens today?
Justine. Nobody can save you now.

As a last service, I think it’s my duty to present a brief inform:

First of all you must know that there is a non-written cultural exchange between Britain and Spain. They have Gibraltar, we borrow Edinburgh. They steal our wine, we carry off their beer. We fill their language schools and they do the same with our beaches. They abuse on our Free Health System and we run away from their tax-payers.
(I can go forever with this, and I sure that a lot of people will like to make their own contributions…)

So, if you are thinking about admiring the Freudian combination of towers, monoliths, bridges and mountains, which inspired so many writers. Not good idea.

In one hour or so, the Spanish football (soccer) team “have the European cup”, at least we hope so, and the Spanish community “will celebrate” it, oh shit yes, they “will”.

Remember a few rules:

Try to conceal yourself, famous people are first targets and I’m sorry to say this but I probably will be patrolling. Sorry, really sorry, for whatever I “will” do.

Consider to get into a quiet pub an impossible mission. It just won’t happen.

Locking yourself in a car won’t help much, but if you make the claxon sound as required, the mob will let you go, to chase another car.

If you get surrounded by them, do whatever they ask or required, most of the times, you will satiate them by jumping or getting your face painted.

Lastly, nothing of this happened, I’ve never being here and I’ve never said this.
I’m sorry; you are on your own now.

But If you make it alive, you can have a visit to the charming people in the city that lies underneath the Royal Mile. http://www.realmarykingsclose.com/
or check-out the guillotine and the giant-swords of the Museum of Scotland. Don’t play with them. Don’t do it.


@John C.’s Shadow Fret not, for I am now somewhere in the very beautiful north where I am more likely to have an unpleasant encounter with an escaped wild boar (there are boars here) than the kind that you have described. Or more likely still to discover that one of the roughly dozen or so people with whom I am enclosed in this remote lodge, is secretly a murderer, discreetly and elegantly knocking us off one by one until there are none….


Aside from pursuing the making art and writing books dream, I teach ESL to pay the bills. It is a great job, and I meet students from all over the world and see how different languages are translated into English. I can’t speak all those languages, but I learn some structures and think about vocabulary from a different point of view. Students from different countries think about English differently, use it differently. I worry about making assumptions and projecting ideas onto my students, but the use of language and their way of thinking about things do seem to reflect each other.

The way we use language, the way we write, the words we choose, they seems as if they must be bound up together.


No doubt about this: how many conversations have I had with mon petit ami about the difference sense of time I have when I’m talking in French vs. when I’m talking in English? I think that one of the reasons that the future feels more abstract to me in English is the way it’s conjugated: “I’m going to… I will be…” the verb itself remains in the present, but an axillary “am” or “will” or “shall” separates the subject from the verb, whereas in French, “je regarderai” (I will watch) the future is, physically in the sentence, closer to me… giving it an increased sense of certain-ness. Very, very interesting post.


In the country to which I just moved, there is no verb: ‘to be’. Instead, the Latvians use the dative construction: ‘to me, is’ (man ir). I’m still grasping the fundamental shift this must make to their culture.


RE: Justine’s Decision Making Tips

This also works for diet. If you pay attention to the subtleties of how your body responds when you propose certain meals you’ll be much more likely to avoid sodas and other junk foods that burn your insides.

If everybody considered their body in this way nobody would ever get cosmetic surgery. My body has no desire to be sliced open, thankyouverymuch.


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