What keeps you going?

“brown fountain pen on notebook” by David Travis on Unsplash

Recently I quit my job to study for a competitive exam and I have noticed something quite unique about what keeps me going daily towards a goal which is 2 years ahead of me.

Its the story I tell myself that after these 2 years of pain, there is a reward waiting for you — as simple as a reward of not having to study anymore to much more materialistic reward of buying a new smartphone or bike.

But more often than not, these long term rewards are not enough to keep one motivated. It takes short term doses of reward which are more important. For me it means getting a positive review on a monthly test I give or an essay I wrote.

A much more short term reward is getting positive feedback on answers that I write on some platform for preparation. These short bursts of adrenaline keep me going and keep me motivated more than I would be, had I not resorted to these techniques.

This put me to think about other aspects of short term satisfaction. Think about why do people wait for short tea/coffee/smoke breaks, check Facebook multiple times a day, work hard on week-days. Its all because of the reward waiting for them at the end of the tunnel. The reward of satisfaction, weekends.

People work hard for 4 hours keeping in mind that they will be rewarded by a smoke break at the end of it. They work hard the whole week, for there is weekend awaiting. They work the whole month to get the momentary happiness to see their account get credit with the month’s salary and maybe a vacation. They work for a year for bonus, vacation, promotion….and the list goes on.

Taking things to a new direction. Why do you think companies release Quarterly statements when an Annual statement would do just fine? Its because investors want to know how the company is doing in the short term — even if it paints the wrong and partial picture of the year.

“Management is all about managing in the short term, while developing the plans for the long term.” Jack Welch

Schools conduct regular tests, sometimes too often, to keep children in the competitive spirit and give the star students a kick every time he/she tops.

It all boils down to one simple fact — that humans are intrinsically oriented towards short term thinking. And it has an evolutionary underpinning.

For millenniums, early human beings had to live on day to day basis. They didn’t think to save a sweet fruit when they saw one, they ate it then and there. This was because there was no security of the future. Present was the only sure thing and future a mystery.

This mentality of short term had been embedded deep into human psyche and wants us to continuously look for temporary and short pleasures. And there is nothing wrong with it. In the end, it has made us survive for so long as a species.

Almost all the acts we commit, all the planning we and companies and governments do has a short term and a long term plan. It is because of our inner desire to get short term satisfaction that we seek these temporary pleasures.

While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with short term, often at times it leads to catastrophe and leads to decisions which are actually harmful for the goal one set out to achieve. History is replete with examples of failure due to short term thinking — 2008 financial crisis, ignoring climate change for decades until it became a disaster.

What is needed to solve this is never keeping your eye off the goal even while making short term decisions. We must, whether in private or professional life, aim to fulfill short term objectives in the framework of long term success.

Coming back to the exam example, if one gets too much into daily ins and out of the feedback from peers and teachers and gets either too confident or too de-motivated — then the goal at the end of the year might somewhere get lost in the clutter of your mind.

It is necessary, hence, to keep one foot on either pedals so that you don’t loose the forest for the trees.