Have you ever done something you knew was a bad idea, but did it anyway?
Do you ever wonder why we continue to do things we know are bad for us—be it eating sugary food, drinking too much booze, skipping the gym or falling off fitness routines completely, or staying up too late?
I was camping this weekend with the McCaig's in the super smokey Birch Bay, and something about being in nature gets me feeling reflective. In short, these past 12 months or so for me have been filled with particularly questionable choices. And it has been eating me up as to why I did this to myself. Needless to say, I realized this weekend that most of the poor choices I have made in my life in general have a common thread. And, in fact when I consider why most people make poor food choices, or fall of their workout routines, they’re likely also rooted in this same reason.
The reason: Choosing the short-term over the long term.
In the moment, one more drink sounds pretty good. In the moment, hitting the snooze button trumps the idea of peeling yourself out of bed to get to the gym. Short term temptation or gratification often wins.
Needless to say, this has been a trend in my life that I absolutely want to break. I keep thinking to myself, 'Imagine how much money I could have saved for my future in the last eight years!' And while I have always known this about myself (There’s a reason one of my nicknames is Rose—the analogy being that at the end of the Titanic movie, Rose is short-sighted and a little greedy by hogging the entire raft and letting Leo wade in the water around her, to eventually freeze to death and sink to the bottom of the Atlantic), it really hit me this weekend.
Obviously I’m not the only one that struggles with this. In fact, it’s a pretty often-talked about societal problem: Think Easter Island and it’s easy to see that short-term thinking has the potential to be our ultimate demise.
Similarly, this TED talk goes into the concept of what he calls “short-termism.” He argues that short-term-ism is the biggest challenge we face that essentially limits both individual and societal success, and I think he's right.
Truth is, when I dug deeper into the science behind why it's so hard to consider the future over the now, I found some pretty dire information. For example, this 2011 study explains that when you think about the future, your brain actually does something neurologically that’s pretty messed up: It stops realizing you’re thinking about yourself and actually thinks you’re thinking about someone else. Specifically, the part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex essentially shuts off. Generally when you’re thinking about yourself it’s firing on all cylinders, and when you’re thinking about something you don’t have anything in common with, it turns off. Weird, right?
All this means is your brain thinks of the future you as a total stranger, so it’s no surprise many of us don’t treat our future selves very well, and no surprise many of us are bad at saving money for the future and making decisions now for our future physical health.
You might think having kids might help you think about the future more. Nope! This survey of almost 3,000 people showed having children or grandchildren didn’t change a thing. The one thing that did, however, was experiencing a near-death situation. Those who have been through a near-death experience increased their ability to think about their future significantly.
Because I’d prefer not to have to go through another near-death experience a la Haiti 2016 to get me to make better decisions, I started searching for ways to train yourself to think more long-term. To be honest, most of the information I came across was pretty sparse and cliche, but the bottom line is to have a chance to become a long-term thinker, you need to build awareness and then consciously make an effort to change your decision-making. Three tips to get me going in the right direction that I came across include:
3. Let yourself dream
Map out your future. What do you want? What does it look like etc…
When I sat down to do this, I realized I was afraid to, almost as though I had lost the ability to dream. I am a realist, so my desire to be realistic overtook my desire to really picture the future I really wanted anymore. Or in other words, the self-limiting beliefs I have developed over the years had crippled my ability to dream, and crippled what I have been getting in the now. Be a kid again and F**** dream big!
2. Learn from the past
Go back to decisions you have made that have negatively affected your long-term. Write them down. Remember them. Let yourself feel the pain the actions caused you in the long term, and then write down how things could have been different had you chose another route.
I realized when I did this that there are a lot of lessons I can learn moving forward. In fact, I put one in action today. I was back squatting and wanted to go a little heavier, but my back still isn’t 100 percent better, and I remember what happened the last time I let the ego get the best of me in the moment because I wanted to lift heavy. What happened was my rib slipped and I was out for a week. Today, I didn’t add more weight to the bar. It affected my ego for all of 10 seconds and then I forgot about it, and left the gym feeling healthier.
3. Don’t judge yourself too hard
A few days ago, I forgot to put on deodorant. While I felt bad for the people I coached that morning (and Dexter working out with me), I didn’t beat myself up about it for days, or even hours. It became more of an, ‘Oh, well’ moment.
The point is with small slip ups, we don’t tend to judge ourselves too harshly. We let them go and move forward. But with the bigger ones, we beat ourselves up to death. I know I do!
Perfection, though, is impossible: You’re going to forget to brush your teeth once in a blue moon and you’re going to slide from your diet here and there. Accepting this will hopefully allow you to be OK about yourself when you do mess up, and also start making better decisions more frequently. Like the 80-20 diet rule.
That's all I have got for now, but I'd love to hear from you patient, future-thinkers out there. What are your best tips for prioritizing the long-term over the right now?