Updated on 06.02.11

Taking the Long Road

Trent Hamm

When I woke up this morning, the biggest thing I wanted to do was to just curl up in a comfortable chair somewhere and finish the novel that I’ve been reading for the past several days (A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin, for those of you who enjoy knowing what other people are reading … like I do).

As I sat down to work this morning, a little voice in my head kept whispering Don’t you want to find out what happens next? You’ve only got a few chapters left. Just go take a break, kick back in that chair, and finish off that book.

It would have been very easy to do just that, to just walk away from my responsibilities for the day and just read. It would have been easy to give in to those voices in my head.

Something inside me said “no,” and instead I worked on a reader mailbag column and answered some emails.

Ten years ago, when I was still a college student who thought it was a badge of honor to get an A in sociology by only showing up five times during the whole semester, I would have absolutely put aside what I was supposed to be doing to read something purely fun. It’ll get done in the future, I’d tell myself. I’d let those little voices in my head have their way and I’d find myself doing something that was really fun in the short term.

Those little voices drove me for most of my life.
Sitting in the basement playing Mario Kart all afternoon sounds a lot better than mowing the yard.
I’m still a few hundred dollars away from my credit limit, so let’s go out to that expensive steakhouse.
I’ll toss these slides together real quick and then go golfing.
I could work on that novel I’ve been dreaming of writing… or I could go to the bookstore and buy three of them.

Every single time, those ideas would drive me away from the thing that would benefit me in the long term and drive me straight toward the short term pleasure.

Every single time, I had a brief blip of fun.

Every single time, I wound up with a plate full of regret. I had let another chance to do something great slip by me. I had a bigger stack of papers in my inbox. I had a larger pile of debt to face. I had people around me that were quietly disappointed in me because they knew I was capable of more than that.

My wife. My parents. My boss. And, most importantly, me.

Over time, I started to shift my choices. The existence of The Simple Dollar is owed to two of those shifts. My shift toward long term thinking in terms of my finances created the source material for the site, and my shift toward long term thinking about my writing created the site itself.

Instead of looking at the short term – at the thing I would enjoy most right now – I started looking at the long term. That shift transformed my life. It gave me a new career. It gave me countless amazing opportunities. It gave me a sense of freedom I’ve never had before.

Ten years ago, when I had a choice between a short-term pleasure and a long-term one, I virtually always chose the short-term one. Now, when I have that same choice, I virtually always choose the long-term one.

A great example of this is the spring cleaning project in our garage. I really didn’t want to do it at all, but I knew a cleaned-out garage would be incredibly useful and enjoyable on a daily basis for the rest of the spring and summer. In other words, a hard day’s work would transform into some steady enjoyment over the next several months. On the other hand, I could have just skipped out on it, read a book or played a game, and let the garage go. That single day would have been more enjoyable, but each subsequent day for the rest of the year would have been worse because of the disastrous state of the garage.

I chose to clean it, and what I found was that not only was I glad the garage was cleaned, I felt quite good afterwards. I had that great physical sense of true tiredness that comes after a day of physical work. When I went to bed that night, I felt as though I’d genuinely accomplished something that day, and I slept really deeply. The next day – and every day after it – I got to enjoy the clean garage.

As is almost always the case, the long-term choice wins again.

That’s not to say, of course, that there isn’t joy and value in making the “short term” choice. Even then, though, there’s no reason not to keep an eye on the long term.

When you’re going to hang out with friends, hang out with people that you think will be a part of your life for the long haul, not the people who will drop you at the first chance.

When you choose to spend some money frivolously, do it when you’re aware that you’re not sacrificing your future by going into further debt for that spending – and try to spend it on something memorable or something that will provide value consistently to you.

A final note: <if you make enough long-term choices, you eventually find that your entire life has a higher quality than before. You don’t have debt stressing you out. You have a series of great relationships, not hangers-on that you don’t really like all that well. You have possessions that have real meaning and real use to you. You have a job that you actually enjoy.

All of this comes from making the long-term choice consistently. Sure, it won’t maximize your fun today, but it will make every day better on down the road.

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  1. Debbie M says:

    Maybe you SHOULD hang out with people who will drop you at their first chance. You have very few such opportunities left!

  2. Danna says:

    We have been living without flooring in our living room for over 2 years. Just concrete…last night my hubby stained the concrete for about $35 and an hour of time. Why didn’t we do that sooner????

  3. Steven says:

    I’d really love to read an article about the short road. So many articles on TSD are about planning for the long-term and delaying gratification. What do you do for fun and excitement? Are you ever frivolous with your money? That’d make for a great article!!!

  4. Tanya says:

    Excellent, excellent article. I’d also add that, like Danna, I’ve discovered that sometimes those things we’ve been putting off in favor of short-term fun don’t always take that long – and we’re so relieved when we finally just do them! As far as balancing short and long term, I imagine it’s something like “do the hard work first, and then you can go to the ball!”

  5. lurker carl says:

    When everything is viewed as long-term gratifications, you’ll forget to enjoy them when the time comes to reap the rewards. Over indulging in short-term gratifications will leave you bored with what excites and enchants the rest of the world.

    Life shouldn’t be lived by bouncing from one extreme to another.

  6. David says:

    In the interests of leavening the loaf of frugality with the yeast of frivolity: I read Danna’s comment #2 in my usual half-asleep frame of mind, and was reminded of one of my favourite limericks:

    I wish that my room had a floor.
    I don’t care so much for a door,
    But this walking around
    Without touching the ground
    Is getting to be such a bore.

  7. Gretchen says:

    You can read the book *and* write the paper.

    There’s no sense in making long term decisions if you are miserable* short term.

    *this is probably not the best example of miserable-ness, not a word,

  8. valleycat1 says:

    One of the perks I granted myself during the 3 years I worked at home was to be able to flex my work hours. [Actually, I integrated my work into my life, rather than having work hours set in stone just like in the regular work world.] So, if I wanted to spend another hour or two to finish a compelling book (or work outside, or go sit by the lake, attend our child’s school event, or …), I could find time elsewhere in the next 24-48 hours to make it up (if necessary).

  9. Michele says:

    Just wanted to tell you I LOVE George RR Martin and all his books!

  10. deRuiter says:

    It’s all choices, isn’t it? Shall I eat this pie and then moan that I don’t lose weight? Shall I stand on the street corner selling drugs or go to the library and study so I graduate from school? Shall I have unprotected sex with a series of men and crank out a brood of fatherless children and live on welfare, or work and produce fewer children whom I can support, after I marry a stable working man? Shall I buy this dress for a date tonight and not have enough money to pay the rent? Shall I cook at home producing a healthy meal with leftovers for another meal, or shall I blow a large amount of money at the restaurant? Every single day offers numerous choices which lead to financial security or financial disaster. Pick up your socks, make the correct choices, and you will have a better quality of life.

  11. Justin says:

    Geez- there have been SO many times these last 2 weeks when I chose the shorter term…. and then I regret it that night.

    While its good to have a break every once in a while, I have responsibilites to take care of first!

  12. I can relate, I used to spend so much time on the couch watching tv, I would waste away my free time doing nothing much and then feel bad about it. I spent a long year teaching my self to actually ‘work’ in my free time (had to with the side art biz I started). For awhile the pendulum swung too far the other way and I would work all day on various projects and then get into bed and beat my self up about what I didn’t get done. I had to equalize a bit, now I have my to do lists which mostly get done and I allow my self time to relax to with a movie or book when needed. I feel much better about my self now, and I am impressed with just how much you can do by trying a little bit harder!

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