The Short and Long Term Choices

Short Term Parking.  Photo by whatleydude.For many people, junk food is a serious temptation. It helps them feel a sense of comfort. It provides a quick burst of flavor. It helps them de-stress. It provides an energy boost at an opportune moment. In the short term, it’s a big gain.

In the long term, though, it’s a different story. It causes weight gain and other health problems. It can cause a negative body image and make people feel worse about themselves. Those effects cause an overall negative emotional sense, so they turn to the things that comfort them.

Many things in modern life follow that same structure: they’re nice in the short term, but incredibly painful in the long term. Credit card debt – you get what you want in the short term, but you wind up paying a ton of debt over the long term. Diapers – we use the convenient disposables for now, but later we lament filling up landfills with things that will take many, many years to biodegrade. A home mortgage – you get to move into a home, but you make huge interest payments for many years.

Again and again, humans choose to value the short term over the long term. We do it with countless daily actions each day, from the food we eat to the activities we choose to fill our time with. Our focus is on the now, not on the five years from now.

This is natural, though. Throughout the course of human history, humans have spent most of their time living a true hand-to-mouth existence. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors constantly benefitted by keeping their eyes on the immediate prize – the food in their stomach today and this winter, nothing else. Agriculture took many, many millennia to take off, and it’s easy to see why – you have to see some real success at agriculture to see it beating the benefits of picking a bunch of wild berries.

Today, though, we live in a different world. Food will be available tomorrow, but many of us still behave as though it might not be. There are thousands of apartments and rentals in most areas, but we buy a home because it fits our needs better – but our biggest “need” is simply a false sense of stability.

I do this myself all the time.

My focus is always on the short term with The Simple Dollar. I obsess mostly over the posts for the next week or so, without often worrying about anything beyond that. On the occasions when I do focus on the long term (like writing books, writing and preparing downloadables, working on projects with other bloggers, and so on), I usually find that over a longer period, I’m glad I did it.

I often try to put off meals that take a long time to prepare because, in the short term, I don’t want to make that time investment. Over the long haul, though, the great meals I enjoy and remember are often the ones I spend a long time on – the pasta made from scratch, the coq au vin cooked slowly and carefully, and so on.

Some days, I do not want to go exercise at all. It seems like a short term gain to just relax and kick back. I could read a book, after all, instead of going out there, getting out of breath, getting all sweaty, and having my legs feel like lead. If I don’t do it regularly, though, my daily life goes down in quality. I have less energy. I have less motivation to do … well, anything. I gain weight and my body image goes downhill, as does my appearance to others.

Sometimes I’m tempted to go the easy route when with my kids. Why don’t we just play in the backyard instead of loading up and going to a state park? It’s rainy – let’s just watch a movie instead of getting out all of the art supplies. In five years, though, what will have built a stronger bond with my kids? Time spent doing something adventurous and creative with their father, or time spent sitting on the couch or playing on the backyard slide?

In each case, the simple choice in the short term is far from the most enjoyable choice in the long term. However, the pain in the long term from the “easy” choice is far, far worse than the short term disadvantage.

Here’s an interesting exercise to highlight how much the phenomenon impacts your life. Spend a day thinking about what this activity will be worth to you in five years. If you eat that junk food, will the impact on you be positive or negative five years down the road? What about if you eat spinach instead? What will be the impact on you if you buy that DVD five years down the road? What if you put that cash towards your debt instead?

You make the little choices every single day to build your future. The better your choices, the better your life will be.

So, today, eat a little broccoli and save a few pennies. Over the long term, big dividends will be paid out.

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