So much of your life revolves around tradeoffs between now and the future. The time you spend in school is an investment in your future career. The hours you spend on the treadmill or exercising at the gym make you healthier in the future. Eating those fruits and vegetables rather than the single-serving carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream helps your future self look her best.
So, why is this all so hard?
Human beings are wired to do the thing that feels right in the short-term. Unfortunately, that wiring was set up for the world our species evolved in, rather than the world as it is now. For example, in that world long ago, fatty food that was full of protein and energy was scarce. So, when you came across it, you ate it right away. Now, we are masters at creating foods that tickle our pleasure centers. There is an abundance of fatty food, but we still eat it like our evolutionary ancestors did (every chance we get).
That wiring for the short-term is with us across all aspects of our lives. It feels better to rest than to work hard. Sex feels good in the moment, but you may regret some of those encounters later. A day at the beach is wonderful, but you may not worry much at the time about how all of that exposure to the sun affects your skin.
So, what can you do to help yourself live for the long-term rather than the short-term? Here are a couple suggestions.
Get some distance. When thinking about whether to give in to a temptation, ask yourself what you would advise someone else to do. By thinking about someone else rather than yourself, you get some distance from the situation. That distance allows you to think about it more abstractly. You are less focused on the details of the temptation when thinking for someone else.
Imagine your future self. We generally focus on the desirability of something right now, but not on its consequences. When faced with a temptation, ask yourself how you will feel about it some time in the future. Jack LaLanne, the fitness guru, was a master at this technique. Through his mottos like “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips,” he encouraged people to focus on those consequences.
Phone a friend. It can be hard to overcome temptation all by yourself. The power of a temptation in the moment gets so strong sometimes, that you just can’t come up with a good reason not to give in. In those moments, call a friend. You can use their strength to help you. And, of course, at some time in the future you can return the favor.
Change your environment. We live in a culture that prizes individual strength. So, when there is a temptation that may call out to you, you may assume that you have to find a way to face it head-on. Not so. The best way to avoid a short-term temptation is to remove it from your environment. I used to have a problem with ice cream. Those pint-sized containers became single-serving treats. But, it turns out that you cannot eat an ice cream that is not in your freezer. So, don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to rely on willpower alone to live for the long-term.
Be kind to yourself. Finally, remember that you are human. That means that—despite your best intentions—there are times when you will give in to temptation. It is a good thing to feel a little guilty about these slips. But, don’t be too hard on yourself. Recognize that you did something you wanted to avoid and move on.
People who focus too much on their mistakes are subject to what is called the “What the Hell” effect. For example, someone trying to keep to a strict diet who eats something they shouldn’t may come to feel that they may as well binge, because they have already broken their diet. Rather then being hard on yourself, treat yourself with some kindness. After all, tomorrow is another day.
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