I have a bunch of unread books on my Kindle and many books that I’m on the reserve list for at several different libraries, yet when I come across an interesting new release, I want to read it.
I have shelves full of board games in my office, but when I try a new game at game night that I can imagine my family enjoying, I want to add it to my collection.
I have the materials for several really interesting projects in the garage and in the closet, but I often find myself thinking about other projects beyond those.
When I smell something delicious, I want to eat it, even if I’m not hungry in the least.
When I am trying to focus, part of my brain always wants to check out and do something else that’s fun.
In short, I often find my internal life is full of a long string of fleeting wants and desires. They feel really, really urgent in the moment and sometimes I take them up, but they almost always guide me down a path that is actually unhelpful in the long term. It leaves me with work undone at the end of the day, with less money than I should otherwise have, with more calories consumed that I should have consumed.
The thing is, when I step back and reflect on almost all of those desires, they seem absolutely foolish from the longer term perspective.
I don’t need to buy another book, not when I have a bunch on my Kindle to read and a bunch on reserve at the library.
I don’t need to buy another game, not with a shelf full of games, many of which haven’t received nearly enough plays.
I don’t need to eat that tasty treat, not with no hunger in my belly and more weight than I should be carrying.
I don’t need to play that silly computer game, not with this list of things left undone for the day.
Not only that, if I just wait for a while, those desires tend to fade pretty quickly. They often fade within moments. They virtually always fade within a week or two.
Those fleeting desires – and many others – are obvious poor choices from the long term perspective, but in the short term, they shout with urgency.
I think of it as being like a campfire that’s burnt down to the coals, which are glowing red. Those are my long term plans and desires. Now, imagine throwing a piece of paper into that fire. It will burn incredibly brightly, far overshadowing the coals, but it burns only for a little while, fading away to nothing, leaving me with just the glowing long-term coals again.
It is a struggle to ignore that burning paper, to skip past the short term urgent desires, and focus on my long term plans and goals. It is a struggle that never really seems to fully go away.
Yet, at some point, I have gained at least some control in that battle. My wife and I have zero debts, a fully-paid-for house with no mortgage, and an extremely healthy retirement savings account. I weigh about 50 pounds less than I did at my heaviest. I essentially never miss a work deadline.
Let’s dig into this a little.
The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good
The absolute first lesson I learned in the struggle against fleeting wants and desires is that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
If I make ten good choices that face the long term in a day and one bad choice, I should not beat myself up over it. I am doing well, and I need to recognize that. I may have made a mis-step, but when it’s a matter of ten steps forward and one step back, then I’m heading in the right direction still.
A bad choice does not mean the end of things. It does mean that the destination might be a little further off, but that’s okay. It also means that I have something to reflect on a little, which is also a good thing.
So, here’s what you should do. If you make a mistake, do not start believing you are a failure. That’s a huge error, and all it does is give you “permission” to start making tons of “mistakes.”
Instead, think about that mistake in the context of all of the good moves you’ve made. For example, perhaps you’ve eaten within your calorie limits for five days in a row, so eating an unhealthy meal with some friends is just one step back following several steps forward. You’ve done well, and one mistake doesn’t undo that progress.
Then, think about the mistake itself, and ask yourself what you can do to avoid repeating it. How can you avoid making that mistake again? Give it some serious thought. It might be that it was a fleeting thing, but it also might be a situation that you regularly find yourself in. What’s a better approach in that situation?
After that, move on. Leave the mistake in the past, where it belongs. Don’t buy into the idea that a mistake means the end of your progress. Perfection is unobtainable, and if perfection is all you can accept, you will never achieve lasting success.
Reflect Often on the Big Picture
Let’s go back to that campfire analogy again. As I described it earlier, our long term plans and goals are like a mellow campfire, a bed of coals glowing orange, whereas a strong short term desire is like throwing a sheet of paper in there. It glows brightly for a few moments, far overshadowing the coals, but then it burns out and you see the coals again.
One approach to solving this problem is to just regularly feed the coals with fresh wood. In other words, give yourself time on a very regular basis – ideally daily – to think about your long term goals and plans.
For example, if you’re trying to improve your financial state, give that some thought every day. Think about why you’re trying to improve your state and where you want to go. Do you want to be free from the shackles of debt? Reflect on how the thought of that makes you feel and what you need to do to get there. Maybe you want to own your own home – visualize that home that you desire, then reflect on the little steps you need to take to get there as soon as possible.
This is the equivalent of putting fresh wood on the coals and blowing on them. You’re keeping the fire going and perhaps making it a little hotter for a while. The thought of throwing a piece of paper in there won’t seem quite so appealing and it won’t burn quite so bright in comparison.
I do this kind of reflection as part of a daily routine. At the start and end of most days, I spend a bit of time reflecting on what my big goals are in life and what I’m going to do today to really hammer them home (in the morning) or how well I did at it and what my plans are for tomorrow (in the evening). It helps me to simply keep my eyes on the prize. It’s akin to throwing another log on the fire so that I don’t need paper for a fire to burn bright in my belly. (Am I carrying the analogy too far?)
To be more specific, I actually keep a list of a couple big picture things of what I want out of life in the ten major areas of my life. Physical, mental, spiritual, marital, professional, parental, avocational, intellectual, emotional, and social. What do I want in each of those areas of life? I have some big picture things for each area, and I keep them written down in a single place that I review at least once a day, and more often than that on a typical day. I ask myself what I’m doing today to move toward those things, and whether what I did yesterday was enough. If you take this practice seriously, it can be incredibly powerful.
Avoid Situations Where You Can Act on Fleeting Wants
Where am I at if I’m likely to buy an unplanned book for my Kindle? I’m on Amazon’s website.
Where am I at if I’m likely to buy an unplanned board game? I’m in my local game shop, wandering without a purpose, or I’m on a game retailer site.
Where am I at if I’m likely to buy expensive foods I don’t need? I’m at a grocer, wandering the aisles without a clear purpose.
Noticing a theme here? The places where I consistently act on fleeting wants are places like e-commerce websites, convenience stores, and other stores where I go without having a specific plan. Those are situations where I am extremely likely to just give in to a fleeting want or desire, open up my wallet, and buy something.
So, how do I fix that problem? Obviously, I minimize my opportunities to go to those places.
Use site blocking software on my computer to block e-commerce sites. Although I can obviously undo such software, this just creates another step that I have to jump through before I visit such a site. It generally stops idle visits, but if I have a plan, I’ll jump through the hoops to undo it. My preferred software is StayFocusd.
Don’t save passwords for e-commerce sites. Instead, if I want to use the site, I have to remember and type in my password. That takes a bit of additional time and, again, adds another hoop to jump through.
Don’t save payment information, either. It’s the same logic as above. If it’s a bit more difficult to make an online purchase, I’m a lot less likely to do it.
Pay at the pump when getting gas. That way, I have no reason to pay inside, which makes it far easier to just not go inside, or to skip the checkout if I have to go inside to use the restroom.
Don’t go to stores without a specific purpose in mind. I used to go to stores for a variety of reasons. I’d go for pure entertainment, to kill an hour or so. I’d go for social reasons. I’d go solely to browse. The thing is, all of those choices led to situations where I would often act on fleeting wants and desires, buying things I really didn’t need to buy. So, I simply cut them out. I don’t go into a store unless I specifically intend to buy something there and I have a strong idea of exactly what I want before I walk in the door.
Those simple strategies keep me from acting on fleeting wants and desires, but what can I do to keep those fleeting desires from ever developing?
Minimize Situations Where Fleeting Wants Appear in Your Head At All
Fleeting desires don’t appear out of thin air. They’re introduced into our brains by the things we see and interact with every day. They’re slipped into our consciousness by media, by friends, by advertisements – things we’re constantly exposed to in the modern world. What can we do about the impact of those things?
Cut back on your mass media diet. It’s simple. Spend less time each day reading websites, flipping through magazines, and watching television. Replace it with actually doing things – or, at the very least, with more carefully selected media options. Instead of reading a website, settle in with a book on a topic you’ve been thinking about. Instead of flipping through a magazine, do some brainstorming related to your life or your work. Instead of watching whatever’s on television, go on a walk or play a game. Those activities vastly reduce the sheer number of suggestions of fleeting desires tossed into your mental stream.
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness means simply being aware of what you’re doing and what you’re thinking in the moment. Without mindfulness, it’s easy to let our minds go down a rabbit hole of obsession about something we don’t need and barely want.
There are a lot of ways to practice mindfulness. Getting enough sleep is one. Eating healthy foods is another. Getting some regular exercise is another. Simply taking a “time out” a few times a day to clear your mind is yet another. I like the practice of mindfulness meditation – basically stopping to focus on nothing but your breathing for several minutes. Adding those things to your life puts you more in control of your thoughts, which makes it easier to tame the beast of fleeting wants and desires.
Use Those Old Standbys, The Ten Second Rule and the Thirty Day Rule
One final approach, one that I’ve been using for many years, is to simply think twice about any situation in which you’re about to spend money for any reason.
In the heat of the moment, I apply the ten second rule, which I’ve written about before. The ten second rule is simple: whenever you’re about to make a purchase of any kind, or about to add something to a shopping list, or add something unplanned to your cart, stop and think about that purchase for ten seconds. Seriously. It’s that easy.
That simple practice cuts right through a lot of the nonsense when it comes to buying things as the result of a fleeting desire. It’s just enough time to see that fleeting desire for what it is, laugh at yourself a little for almost falling for it, and putting that item back on the shelf.
What if that’s still not enough? In those situations, I apply the thirty day rule. The thirty day rule is also simple: whenever you’re impulsively tempted to buy an item costing more than $10, give it thirty days before making that purchase. If you still want that item thirty days from now, then shop around for it, find a good price, and then buy it.
I keep a “wishlist” of things that pop up like this, using Evernote. Whenever I have that kind of strong fleeting desire, I have this need to take some kind of action on it, and when I do, the urgency of that desire deflates. I’ve found that the action of adding that item to a wishlist is usually enough to make it deflate. Once every few months, I scrub that wishlist down to just a few items, ones that I realize that I still actually want, and then I buy those items with hobby money that I’ve budgeted for.
A Final Note
Let me just leave you with this, which shows that this struggle isn’t a new one, but one that is as timeless as the length of human history.
1 I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,”I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly — my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.