I received a hand-addressed letter in the mail last week—pretty rare these days. The return address was my church’s, so I assumed Brooklyn’s Unitarians were trying to drum up some end-of-year contributions, but what floated out of the envelope instead was a single sheet of crisply folded typing paper bearing a message scrawled in my own hand. “Dear You,” it began. And after a few sentences: “Best, You.”
Oh, right. I forgot about that.
At the end of 2019—an impossibly long time ago—one of the Sunday services at First U included an invitation to write a letter to our future selves: our selves of 2020, a year I assumed couldn’t help but be better than the one I was finishing. (Pause for ironic laughter.)
If the me of 2019 was clueless about what the next 12 months would bring, his words still gave me some measure of comfort when read in the cold light of a pandemic December afternoon. “2019 was difficult, and a lot changed,” he wrote. But he had hope “that the passing of another year means you have found the courage to make a positive change in your life. But even if you haven’t…every new day is a new chance.”
I’m not sure how much I’d chalk up to courage, but a hell of a lot is different in December 2020. And I had one thing right: Every day is a new chance, and I appreciate the gift of perspective from 2019 me. Which is why I plan to pay it forward to December 2021, and write again to a self who doesn’t yet exist.
You should do the same. You’ll appreciate it, I promise.
Can you mail a letter to the future?
The benefit of receiving my own letter to myself was both that I forgot I wrote it and that someone else sent it for me, which made receiving it a trip. Unfortunately, sans a lot of organization, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious way to mail a physical letter to yourself in the future (I certainly cannot vouch for the method Doc Brown used at the end of Back to the Future II.) The U.S. Post Office won’t hold a letter for you that long, though it has written on its own website of a program in China that promises to do exactly that.
Some googling revealed a few services that promise to hold letters to mail on a date weeks or years in the future, but I wouldn’t put much stock in them actually, uh, delivering. Letter2Future swears $5.99 is enough to ensure your letter will be sent in one month or 10 years, but the site doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2014. Gifts to the Future, which is based in Romania, bills itself as a “time capsule for emotions” and makes a lot of hefty promises on its About Us page (“Our plans involve creating a network of Ambassadors and Safe Houses all around the world so that more and more individuals will be able to send their emotions to the future”) but won’t tell you how much anything costs until you complete the rather significant registration process (to save you the trouble of possibly falling for a phishing scam, it’ll run you €136 to have a letter delivered a year from today.)
The sheer uncertainty involved makes it obvious why no credible company offers to do this for you, so minus a liberal, inclusive religious community to manage the process, your best bet is to handle it yourself.
How to send a letter to your future self
I have already extolled the virtues of writing a physical letter to Future You, and you can do this without actually mailing it. You should still treat it like a real letter and seal it in an envelope, but instead of dropping it in a mailbox, hide it somewhere in your home, and then schedule delivery of an email to Future You reminding you where you put it. Google makes this really easy to do in Gmail, and as there is always a chance you’ll miss that missive in your inbox, you can set a calendar reminder, too. It’s not quite as romantic, but it will work.
While also not as evocative, emailing the future is much simpler. We’ve already written about FutureMe, a tool designed with this purpose in mind. It has been around since 2002 (or, in internet years, forever). The process of writing and scheduling a note to yourself is pretty simple—make sure to use a personal email address you’ll likely still be able to access—with the added bonus that you can choose to make the letter public on the site once delivered.
What to write
If you google “letter to my future self,” you’ll get a wide range of advice, ranging from self-help mantras to career goals, but I don’t think you need to be programmatic about it. Think about what you’d like to tell the you of last year—about what it feels like to live through hardship, and what you’ve learned by doing so—and put it in a letter to yourself. Because though we’d like to think 2021 will be a better year than 2020, the future offers no guarantees.