Updated on 04.16.11

Great Pieces of Advice – and Why We Fail at Them

Trent Hamm

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” – Thomas Jefferson

The world is loaded with great little pieces of advice from people who have accomplished great things in their lives. Usually, these quotes point to some specific virtue that a person can have, and often to the same virtues: proactivity, frugality, temperance, focus, goal-orientation, industriousness.

I write about the virtue of such things on The Simple Dollar, often through times in my own life where I see the value of these virtues at work.

The question I have in mind is if these virtues are so worthwhile, why do I (and so many others) so often fail at achieving them?

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius

Rather than handling a piece of correspondence right now, I’ll toss it off to the side to deal with later because it just doesn’t seem interesting at the moment.

Rather than making a homemade meal on Friday night, I’ll let the children talk me into eating out at their favorite restaurant.

Rather than spending a free afternoon focused on a personal goal, I’ll spend half of it reading a fun book and the other half debating people on a messageboard.

Rather than bearing down on the task at hand, I’ll drum my fingers and eventually find myself playing a game.

Rather than minimizing my grocery bill, I’ll end up buying a fresh pineapple, just because it looks tasty and I know it’ll be a big hit with the family.

“Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship.” – Benjamin Franklin

Even if I know that practicing a certain virtue will lead to a better life in the long run, why is it often so easy to go against that virtue in the short term?

We know frugality has great long term benefits, but we spend money foolishly in the short term.

We know that being proactive is incredibly valuable, yet we still choose to procrastinate.

We know that devoting time to goals can lead to great things, but we’ll still choose to blow off an afternoon.

I see this pattern over and over again, both in my own life and in the actions of others. Why does it happen?

I think it comes down to a handful of things.

First, most human beings are naturally short-term thinkers. The future is often hazy and uncertain to us. We might visualize the future, but when we’re making immediate choices, the present is often what really matters to us. What’s the best thing to do right now in terms of benefits and drawbacks?

In my own experience, the best solution to that problem is to simply practice looking ahead at the future more. I’ve witnessed in my own life where stopping for a moment and looking at future consequences of this decision not only helps with that decision in the moment, but it helps to make looking at the future for all decisions much more natural and much quicker, too. It takes practice and repetition, but it pays off.

Second, the poor choice is often the low-hanging fruit. Most of the time, humans look for the path of least resistance when it comes to which decision to make. Which choice is easier right now?

The best solution here is to make the more “virtuous” fruit hang a little lower. Set out your exercise gear or running shoes right by the door so that it’s easier to just go and do it. Cut up some fruit and wash it so that it’s a convenient finger food. Automate your savings through an automatic savings plan at your bank.

At the same time, strive to make the poorer choices a bit more difficult. Leave your credit and debit cards at home, and delete those numbers from online accounts. Throw away the junk food and alcohol in your cupboards. Delete your account on a messageboard or social networking site you visit too much.

Another factor is that we often put our personal immediate needs and desires first. Most of the virtues described above require us to put the needs of others – or the needs of our future self – first. That can be a very difficult thing to do consistently.

The solution to this problem is just like the first: practice. The more time you spend solely putting others first (yes, that includes your future self), the more natural it becomes. Time and time again, you’ll find that the rewards for not putting yourself first are quite abundant.

It’s hard to be the virtuous person we often want to be, but with preparation and practice, we can accomplish great things in life.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Steven says:

    Don’t spend all your time in the future or you’ll miss the present. That’s my bit of advice.

    Live is meant for living, not always planning for living later. A person shouldn’t sacrifice all the time in order to build a better tomorrow because that means not enjoying today. If you continue deferring your life, you’re not really living, in my opinion.

    There is a balance that needs to be struck, just like so many things in life. If a person is only focused on this moment and fails to plan for the future, when they finally do realize that they’ve ignored their future self, things are going to be an uphill battle for them. But if a person is only looking to the future, and living a life that is not personally gratifying or enjoyable, what’s the point? They’ll continue to defer moments or opportunities because the timing isn’t right (or whatever other reason.)

    Do both. Enjoy life, plan (and hope) for a long one, and make every day meaningful and special.

  2. valleycat1 says:

    Great pieces of advice only inspire me if they’re something I’m not doing (or at least, not 100%) when I hear them. If it’s something I’m already doing, they don’t strike me as inspirational. I take the great ideas as inspiration & something to aspire to, but don’t feel I’m a failure if I don’t live up to them 100%. We’re all entitled to be human & fall short, and to take a break or be spontaneous from time to time.

  3. Amy says:

    “Never put off until tomorrow anything you can put off until the day after tomorrow.”
    Mark Twain

  4. Jen says:

    The answer also may be that people are not machines. a person is not designed to maximize profit. We are meant to wander a little.

  5. Nicole says:

    I agree when it comes to things that need to get done, either immediately or eventually. My personal motto seems to be “There’s no time like the last minute” (of course, if I can get something done almost as well at the last minute, I often don’t see the point of spending a lot of time getting it perfect — not always, but usually).

    On the other hand, Steven is right. All work and no play DOES make Jack a dull boy. ;)

  6. I think it comes down to life’s little ‘impulse’ attractions and they usually come in the form of being rewarded earlier rather than later, but doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be more attentive to our immediate needs.

    Dwight Anthony
    Financially Elite Blog dot Com

  7. Mike says:

    Actually the reason we give in is that self control or will power is actually not unlimited. When used too much it breaks/fails. You can only deny impulses to a point at which time we cave or give in. I am not sure if it can be strengthened like a muscle but I would think so as monks eventually develop incredible self control. So do not be to hard on oneself when you do buy that latte once in while as this decreases the strain on your will power.

  8. christine a says:

    I love the idea that your future self is a significant other to be put first.

  9. 8sml says:

    I heard an interesting NPR podcast recently that discussed this topic. Negative feelings now (getting off the couch to exercise, not smoking that cigarette) are apparently much more powerful than negative feelings later, so one useful tip is to add a negative that occurs *in the present* rather than in the future. In the podcast, a woman who had been having trouble quitting smoking decided that if she ever smoked a cigarette, she would immediately donate $5000 to the KKK. Since the thought of writing that cheque gave her powerful negative feelings, she never smoked again.

    I tried this myself recently: I’d tried many times over the years to stop biting my nails, using many techniques, but never succeeded. This time, I said to myself, “Every time I bite my nails, I have to do 30 pushups.” I really didn’t want to do the pushups right away, so the technique has worked for me.

  10. Earth MaMa Jo says:

    Good topic and I like what Steven had to share. Right now, my family lives in day to day misery – we aren’t enjoying anything. We’ve been in this rut for 4 years, and it just keeps getting deeper and deeper. It’s very depressing. It just seems like no matter what we do to keep our financial status in good standing, outside influences keep chipping away at it. We’ve cut back so much, and tightened the belt so far that we feel strangled. All we can do is hope that things get better. It’s hard to be surrounded by people who seem to have endless supplies of money (but they don’t – these folks aren’t planning for their futures at all) and be told how stupid we are – constantly.

  11. dagny says:

    Pollard’s Law: We do what we must, then what’s easy, then what’s fun.

    My dad has a list of these advice snippets called his rule of life. Over time I came to realize that most of these had real value.

  12. I’ve had read, aim, fire on my wishlist for some time now, but may just go with Masterson’s The Pledge. Sounds like a good read.

    Dwight Anthony
    Financially Elite Blog dot Com

  13. TigerLily says:

    Trent, you are an inspiration. Great article – thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *