Updated on 03.21.16

The Moment Versus the Big Picture

Trent Hamm

Recently, a reader who I’ll call Jenny sent me a very long and thoughtful message, of which one part has left me thinking for quite a while:

It’s not good to be completely directionless in life because you’ll find yourself in a rough spot when the physical and mental abilities you have begin to erode as you grow older. You need to have a plan for that.

At the same time having a big vision and plan that is your guide for every waking moment of your life is depressing, too. It leaves you unable to simply enjoy the moment because you’re always wondering if this moment is helping you to move toward that big vision. It undercuts everything.

It’s not really a surprise for anyone reading The Simple Dollar that I am a “big picture” kind of person. I get a great deal of personal value out of thinking about my long-term future and the life that I want to have down the road and, perhaps most importantly, what I need to do to get from where I’m at now to where I want to be.

Jenny’s right in one big respect: All of that thinking absolutely does impact my life on a day-to-day and even a moment-to-moment basis. I make different small choices all the time as a result of my thinking about the long term.

It’s my long-term thinking that causes me to do things like choose the store brand when I’m shopping.

It’s my long-term thinking that causes me to take my children to the library when they want something to read instead of to the bookstore.

It’s my long-term thinking that causes me to wake up at about 5 a.m. every day in order to get some writing in before everyone else in the house wakes up.

It’s our long-term thinking that causes Sarah and I to bank a hefty portion of our salary each year.

Those things are all long-term thinking expressed in the form of an immediate decision. In each case, I’m choosing what might be the less “fun” route in the moment because there is some long term benefit in choosing that route.

Jenny’s point is essentially this: If you are always choosing the less “fun” route in the moment, aren’t you making your life worse? And that’s a great question.

However, it is my firm belief that simply choosing the less “fun” route does not inherently make your life worse, even in the moment. There are a bunch of reasons for that.

Most of Our Decisions are Unconscious

As mindful as we would like to be about ourselves and our lives, the truth is that most of the choices we make on a daily basis are done unconsciously or at a barely-conscious level. We operate on instinct and rhythm a lot of the time, often without thinking about the consequences of what we’re doing or even thinking much about what we’re doing at all.

This is actually a very smart thing. Our brains are only capable of making so many conscious decisions without rest, so we naturally learn, as we grow up, to save that energy for what we view as more important decisions, and we allow our unconscious selves to run the show a lot. We operate on instinct because it feels like less of a load on our minds.

Most of us have witnessed the consequences of a day full of active decisions: decision fatigue. When we’re tired at the end of the day, sometimes we make very poor decisions that we wouldn’t make at other times, simply because our ability to focus is worn out and our brains are tired. We need some sleep or, at the very least, some time to “zone out.”

Operating without thinking consciously about things is simply a smart tool that we use to save our “decision energy” for more important things.

So why does this matter? What’s the relevance here?

For me, a big part of working toward the future is making those unconscious decisions as “future-thinking” as possible. I want my natural, instinctive decisions – the ones where I’m not actively thinking about what I’m doing – to benefit my long-term future as much as I possibly can.

What that does is it gives me the freedom to sometimes, in the moment, choose to do the thing that’s fun today without really undercutting the future that I’m building, because I know that most of the time I’m naturally choosing the future.

So, for example, when I go to the grocery store, I’ll often grab the familiar “large” version of the store brand without even really thinking about it. It’s an unconscious decision.

But it’s a trained unconscious decision. At some earlier point, I studied the prices in the store and realized that the large store brand version was the best bargain. I also worked hard to break myself of the simple familiarity of name brand purchases, which is something that people who make subconscious decisions in the store often instinctively rely on. When they’re not thinking about it, they’ll grab the name brand they’re familiar with.

How exactly do I train myself when it comes to these kinds of unconscious decisions?

Well, for starters, I think about these kinds of little decisions during “down” moments. I’ll go through them when I’m driving to the store or driving home from the store. I’ll think about them in the shower. I’ll think about them when my mind is still active just before bed.

Mostly, I try to figure out the “best” way of doing these little things, then I imagine myself doing those things that way, over and over again. I visualize myself in the store grabbing the store brand. I visualize myself getting up early to write. I visualize myself taking the kids to the library.

If I’ve done this well, then it’s not even a conscious choice to do the “future-minded” thing in the moment. I just do it automatically.

The ‘Future-Thinking’ Thing Is Often the Fun Thing, Too

Another problem I have is the assumption that there’s always this two-sided choice, where one choice is the one that’s the most fun or enjoyable right now and the other choice is less fun right now but better for the long term.

In my experience, it’s very rare that a choice is presented in a way that’s anything like that.

For starters, there are usually a lot of options when you’re faced with a decision. When I’m at the store, there are often dozens of options for a specific purchase. When I’m deciding what to do with my kids, I can usually brainstorm hundreds of options.

The thing is, we often unconsciously filter that multitude of options down to just a handful very quickly. For me, the real power of long-term decision making comes from this quick filtering, not from the final decision I make.

For instance, I’ll immediately decide to not buy any of the small containers of dish soap at the store because doing so means I’ll just be buying dish soap again in a few weeks and it’s also virtually always cheaper per use to buy the big bottle. I’ll also unconsciously filter out the name brands. This pretty quickly leaves me with a choice between only a few big bottles of dish soap.

Another example: I’ll immediately eliminate any activities with my kids that involve spending money. This still leaves a lot of choices, but I can filter those even further almost immediately simply due to the weather and the time we have together. This leaves us with just a few options, of which we can choose the option that’s the most fun.

The part of those decisions that’s really future-oriented is done in the unconscious filtering.

Again, I build that up through training. I think through these kinds of decisions when I’m outside of the moment so that I know the drawbacks of many of the possible outcomes and I instinctively know which ones I can eliminate without thinking about it.

The key thing to remember is that I’m not left with a bunch of un-fun choices. Often, the idea of “fun” has little to do with it. There’s nothing “fun” about buying dish soap, for example. In other cases, the “fun” is going to largely be present no matter what we do. I have fun with my children whether we go to an amusement park or we go on a hike through a state park or we spend the afternoon playing soccer. These aren’t un-fun options.

Future-Oriented Projects Are Often Fun and Fulfilling

Yes, some choices that are oriented toward the long term are hard. They involve work. They involve doing something that’s pretty challenging. They might involve turning down other things that are fun in a more straightforward way.

That doesn’t mean that such choices are devoid of “fun” or personal enjoyment.

Take my own situation, for example. I deeply enjoy learning new things. Sure, it’s not as straightforward or as immediately fun as, say, hanging out with friends while we watch a movie or something like that, but it is still pretty enjoyable for me and quite fulfilling.

I deeply enjoy working on something big, something that takes many hours of time to complete. It’s not going to be done all at once, but when it is complete, it’s going to be great. Not only is the feeling of completion of a big project quite enjoyable, the actual process and individual steps can be very enjoyable, too. It feels like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is a little bit of your effort and you can slowly see the thing coming together.

That, to me, is “fun.”

For other people, that might not be fun, and that’s fine. Different people are oriented differently in terms of what they find to be enjoyable. However, it is certainly true for at least some people that working on a large project and making progress on it feels very fun, indeed.

The ‘Going to Bed’ Feeling Is Vital, Too

Whenever I spend a day working on projects, being productive, and building for the future, I go to bed feeling great about how I spent the day.

Whenever I spend a day not doing anything particularly productive and just doing what seems like the most “fun” thing at the moment, I usually go to bed without anything approaching that kind of positive feeling about the day.

The thing to remember is that, as I described above, I usually do have fun when I’m choosing the future-oriented tasks. Sure, there are days when I really don’t want to exercise. There are days when curling up with a book or playing Factorio for hours seems like fun, and every once in a while I’ll do that.

Most of the time, though, I judge a day by that “just before bed” feeling, and a day filled with idle things generally is not a day that leaves me feeling good about myself.

Sure, in that very moment, the idea of working on something productive might not seem as much fun as playing an idle game with a friend, but, at the same time, I don’t have to wait very long to feel good about what I spent the day doing. I feel really good when I go to bed that evening, and keeping that in mind is often more than enough to tip the scales toward a less-fun project.

In truth, I often use that “just before bed” feeling as a reminder during the day to make more long-term choices. I ask myself which choice I’ll reflect upon better when I’m going to bed tonight and, usually, it’s the one that builds for the long term. That’s often enough for me to make the “big picture” choice.

There Is a Major Reduction in Stress When You Know Your Future Is As Secure As You Can Make It

One added feature of doing things for the long term instead of living purely in the moment is that the amount of worry you have about the future virtually disappears.

To put it simply, I am far less worried about the future today than I have been at any point in my adult life up to now. Stress about the future really doesn’t happen in my life. I’m not worried about paying bills. I’m not worried about retirement. I’m not worried about that funny noise the car was making. I’m not worried about replacing the car, either. All of that stuff is taken care of – I have money set aside for all of it.

As a result, I don’t worry as much about my job as I once did. I want to do good work because I enjoy it, but I don’t worry about negative consequences from taking a risk or from standing up for myself or from taking on an interesting challenge. I still want the income, of course, but I don’t need it.

The effect that has on one’s daily life is actually quite large.

Back in 2005, I was in the opposite situation. I was worried about money constantly. I was absolutely scared to death to rock the boat at work, which meant I was often stuck doing things that I deeply questioned at times and felt were completely useless at other times. My daily life was chock-full of stress, and not only can I remember it, I can read it in virtually every page of my journals from back then. Take a look at my journal entry from September 23 of that year if you’d like a taste.

I was scared. I was frustrated. I felt trapped. I was not in a good place, and it was because I spent most of my time living solely in the moment without any sense of the long term. Eventually – unsurprisingly – the walls closed in and it filled every moment with an underlying sense of stress and hopelessness.

Without at least some long-term thinking and planning, even the decisions purely in the moment eventually become poisoned. Your options become reduced. The blackness of stress and worry taints everything. Even the joyful decisions in the moment are brought down.

It is the “big picture” choices that help fix this problem. “Big picture” choices are the ones that improve your financial state. “Big picture” choices are the ones that improve job security. “Big picture” choices are the ones that improve your relationships. “Big picture” choices are the ones that put you on the path to raises and promotions.

All of those things are part of the foundation that you rest upon when you choose to do something purely fun in the moment. The more stable your life is, the more worry-free and joyful all of your choices become, whether they’re “in the moment” choices or “big picture” choices.

The ‘Fun in the Moment’ Choices Are Protected by the ‘Big Picture’ Choices

Obviously, sometimes I do choose the “fun in the moment” choices. I spend an afternoon playing games with my friends. I’ll curl up for an hour or two with a book that’s purely fun. I’ll watch a superhero movie with my wife.

Those things are purely fun and I don’t feel guilty about it. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that such choices are protected by the fact that I make a lot of “big picture” choices.

If I didn’t make the “big picture” choice to work hard at my career most of the time, we wouldn’t have a steady income and resources to spend money easily. If I didn’t make the “big picture” choice to be careful with my money most of the time, I wouldn’t have the extra money laying around for the times when I do want to do something fun in the moment. If I didn’t make the “big picture” choice to invest my time and effort into building relationships, I wouldn’t have the friendships and acquaintances that make many activities fun. If I didn’t make the “big picture” choice to invest time and effort into being a good parent and a good husband, I wouldn’t have such wonderful relationships with my wife and children.

All of the things that make my “in the moment” choices so wonderful are protected and built by “big picture” choices.

Knowing that makes the decision to take on the “big picture” choice a lot less difficult, because I know that the more often I choose that “big picture” route, the more wonderful the “in the moment” choices will be. They’ll be protected by financial security and surrounded by the wonderful people in my life.

But What About Regret?

In the end, though, a big part of Jenny’s question is about regret. If I choose to live in the moment, am I stuck with regret over the fact that I didn’t make a big picture choice?

The truth is that the only time I feel regret because of such a choice is when I do it all the time. Sometimes, for example, I’ll fall into a routine of burning significant time each day playing a computer game, or I’ll end up getting sucked into some new hobby and spend too much time on it.

In those situations, I do start regretting it, not because of the choice itself, but because I start to see the negative impact on the things I’ve built up through my “big picture” choices. I can see a hint of strain in a personal relationship. I can see that I’ve overshot my hobby spending budget for the month. I can see that some of my writing quality has fallen.

My regret doesn’t come from the momentary decision. My regret comes from the impact of making too many momentary decisions, to the point that I can see the negative impact on the things I’ve built in my life with a long series of “big picture” decisions.

When this happens, my response is usually a sense that I need to “wake up” and then is followed by a few days of almost pure “big picture” decisions that put things back on the right track. I’ll get back on track with my writing. I’ll take care of some undone tasks around the house. I’ll spend as much quality time with my loved ones and close friends as I can.

Final Thoughts

Over the years, I’ve come to realize over the years that the best place to be is in a sort of balance. If I make nothing but “big picture” choices, I never get to experience living in the moment of the life I’ve built. If I make nothing but “in the moment” choices, I never get to build up to a great life that can support truly wonderful moments.

It’s balance that makes us healthy. It’s balance that gives us the platform to live our best life on, but also the space to actually live that life.

The exact balance is different for everyone. For me, I think it leans a little towards “long term,” for the reasons I describe in this article, but for others, it might lean more toward “in the moment.”

Regardless, it’s all about finding balance. If you’re finding yourself stressed about work, about money, about your relationships, the lack of “big picture” actions is poisoning your “in the moment” actions. If you’re finding yourself secure but also without a sense of feeling any spontaneous joy, you may need some more “in the moment” actions.

Good luck.

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