Taking the Long Road

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.