Updated on 10.27.11

Shifting from Short Term to Long Term Thinking

Trent Hamm

When I stand in a bookstore (or a clothing store or whatever it is that excites you) and ask myself what I want right now, that’s short term thinking.

When I stand in a bookstore and ask myself what I want for my life over the next five years, that’s long term thinking.

Short term thinking leads to a better moment. Long term thinking leads to a better life.

One of my biggest personal goals over the past few years has been to try to shift as much of my thinking as possible toward the long term. If I’m in the bookstore, what’s the best move to make with the long term future in mind? If I’m spending time with my family, what’s the best move to make with the long term future in mind?

Here are some specific tactics I’ve found during this process.

I mostly stick to entertainment that makes me think or improves my health. When I’m trying to decide if I’ll watch a movie or read a book, I’ll look at reviews and see if it can make me think along the way.

This doesn’t mean that I’m sacrificing entertainment for that sake. It means that I’m looking for things that can both entertain and engross me while also making my mind work and grow in some fashion.

On the other hand, I also like to look for leisure activities that improve my health. A hike in the woods can do that, as can playing at the park with my children.

Simply put, I look for things that will provide some long-term benefit beyond just providing enjoyment in the short term. I have fun now and build a better person for later.

I try to look for items and activities that have a lower cost. If you’ve been reading this site, that’s not surprising. That doesn’t mean, however, that I just buy the cheapest thing. I usually try to identify a good version of something using resources like Consumer Reports, then I strive to minimize the cost of it.

Cost, however, doesn’t just mean money. Is there a space cost associated with this? Is there a time cost, both in actively using it and in maintaining it?

Take buying a DVD, for example. It might cost $10 at the store. However, I have to have a spot for it in my home. I also have to maintain it – take it in and out of the DVD player, put it in its case, keep it on the shelf, keep the shelf clean, and eventually deal with selling it or donating it. Money. Time. Space.

I’d much prefer to pay $2 to stream that movie once to my home. The only way I would actually be behind in terms of money is if I watched it more than five times, which I can name only a few movies or programs I would ever do that with. The storage space is almost nonexistent (there’d have to be some sort of multipurpose device for viewing) and the maintenance time and effort is extremely small, too.

Focused family time is invaluable. There are many times when I’d rather engage in an adult activity than play with my kids or engage in a solitary activity. Yet, I find that time spent with the family tends to pay off again and again due to the deeper bonds that are built.

I can see the many hours spent doing family things in the behaviors and relationships I see in my home. My children aren’t constantly clamoring for attention because they’re confident in the relationships they have. Everyone seems happy, comfortable, and unafraid at home. Our children ask questions of all kinds and aren’t afraid to dig deep into what they’re curious about. Will this always remain in place? Probably not, but we have a good foundation and things are going well so far.

Everything we do today builds toward the future in either a positive way or a negative way. How we spend our money. How we spend our time. The things we bring into our home. How we interact with the people around us. All of these things sow seeds for the future. Either those seeds will grow a beautiful garden or they’ll grow weeds. It’s up to you to decide what to plant.

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  1. Steven says:

    Always delaying gratification into the future will lead to an unfulfilled life. There has to be a balance between enjoying the moment, and preparing for the future. It’s okay to spend money, it’s okay to buy things you don’t need but really want. It’s okay to go on an international vacation of your dreams, it’s okay to eat out at fancy restaurants. But it’s not okay to do these things to the detriment of your future. It’s also not okay to live a life of asceticism thinking that “someday” you’ll have “enough” to enjoy it.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people who are older say things like “Do it while you’re young and healthy. I wish I had.” This is why I do as much traveling as I can now, while I’m young, because I love hiking and camping, rock climbing, traveling around Europe with my backpack, etc. I’m doing it now, because I know that when I retire, I might not be in good enough health to summit Half Dome, or Kilimanjaro. I might not have the knees to walk the steps at Machu Picchu.

    Again, it’s about balance.

  2. One of the most facinating things about a close analysis of how we manage our money is that it causes us to evaluate how we manage our lives. Often in the process we discover that we can and want to make many improvements. This can be the greatest challenge and end up being the greatest benefit of the American Economic Crisis. We can whine it away or we can rebuild on a rock once our house on the sand has been swept away.

  3. jackie.n says:

    i agree with steven (#1) and i love his blog too.

  4. Troy says:

    Steven is right.

    The problem with this post (and this blog many times) is that that author has simply swung the pendulum from one extreme to the other.

    Both are bad.

    Trent states “Short term thinking leads to a better moment. Long term thinking leads to a better life.”

    This is completely wrong ONCE you have achieved balance. The first stage is not knowing. The second stage is compensating by trying to know everything. The third stage is acceptance that the first two are not healthy and that all you need to know, you already do.

    Trent is in the second stage. And it shows with great clarity with the past years posts.

    Many times short term thinking leads to a better moment, and many times to a better life as well. And many times it leads to neither.

    But life is a series of moments and short term decisions.

    Continually putting this off for tomorrow or sacrificing for this dream future will never lead anywhere, because there is always a tomorrow, so when do your realize that today is the day?

  5. valleycat1 says:

    I didn’t read this post as putting enjoyment off to ‘tomorrow’, but rather, when faced with options, considering which might have the more lasting benefit. Maybe sometimes the short-term pleasure of the one outweighs the long-term of the other. Sometimes it goes the other way.

  6. graytham says:

    I like intelligent movies, books, etc. too. But sometimes I’m in the mood for something stupid and mindless, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Every second of our life doesn’t need to be spent on self-improvement. Sometimes I don’t want to watch anything more cerebral than “Bridezillas”.

  7. Lisa says:

    Echoing what others have already said…

    I like this post and think Trent makes some good points, but I think the post misses the point that a balanced and healthy life requires a mix of both short-term and long-term thinking.

    Too often, it seems that we assume short and long-term thinking are mutually exclusive, that you can’t have one if you have the other, and that long-term thinking is always superior and prefarable. To have one without the other is not healthy. I think the goal should be to reach a balance and integrate our short and long-term thinking into a healthy whole. We need to be able to focus clearly on the task at hand, have spontaneous fun, appreciate and take advantage of unexpected opportunities, perform spontaneous acts of kindness without thoughts of long-term payback, etc. We also need to be able to put our short-term decisions and behaviors in the context of the long-term…not just our lifetime. I think being able to balance both short and long-term thinking is a mark of maturity (and maturity is not necessarily directly related to age).

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