Choose Long-Term Growth Over Short-Term Pleasure

Doing so is a lifelong practice. A few practical strategies can help.

A universal trap — one that affects athletes, artists, students, entrepreneurs, and even entire organizations — is the pursuit of short-term pleasure over long-term growth.

Consider the following examples:

  • The runner who crash-diets and trains at insane intensity so he can run a phenomenal marathon but, as a result, disrupts his hormonal balance, suffers from frequent illness and stress fractures, and is forced to retire early. He burns bright for a day at the expense of a career.
  • The writer who craves validation so she writes endless click-bait articles instead of devoting time to a project that is more meaningful but does not carry an immediate payoff.
  • The student who crams for an exam by memorizing answers or developing absurd mnemonics and gets 100 percent tomorrow only to forget everything he “learned” one month from now.
  • The entrepreneur who changes her business plan to attract a slightly better VC deal rather than sticking to her guns and pursuing what she really believes will work.
  • The company that keeps its stock price inflated but neglects longer-term research and development; it crushes earnings this quarter but is out of business the next.

These examples are analogous to choosing ice-cream and cigarettes. They may make us feel good in the moment, but, generally speaking, are bad for us later on.
 
This isn’t to say runners should never really go for it in a particular race (at times, they should), writers should never file click-bait articles (at times, I have), or that memorizing one’s way to a good exam is never an effective strategy (at times, it can be). But these decisions should be litmus-tested against the pursuit of a longer-term objective and only executed if they work in service of it. Otherwise, the temptation must be resisted.

This practice requires:

  • Defining a long-term goal, or, even better, a path that you want to be on.
  • Reminding yourself of that goal or path frequently.
  • Resisting short-term pleasure and gratification in favor of long-term growth.

2 Practical Strategies to Practice Long-Term Growth

  1. The way in which we evaluate ourselves and our circumstances is often clouded by our emotions, and the allure of pleasure now is a strong one. An effective and evidence-based strategy to overcome the urge for pleasure now is to imagine that a friend is faced with the same decision that you are and then pretend that you are giving advice to your friend. What would you tell him? Called self-distancing, this strategy takes your emotional self out of the picture, allowing you to see and think about it more clearly. (For more on self-distancing, read this article.)
  2. Another way to evaluate short-term/long-term tradeoffs is to pause and ask yourself: “How will I feel about this decision tomorrow, next week, next year, or even a decade from now?” When you answer, don’t just do so in your head, but also in your body and heart. Imagine the embodied and emotional state that accompanies your answer. If you feel upset, disgusted, or regretful, suddenly, the short-term “pleasure” doesn’t seem all that pleasurable any more. (This works great for individuals on diets who are faced with the temptation to binge on unhealthy foods — i.e., how will they feel about this tomorrow morning — but it’s applicable to just about any situation.)
     
    The first of these strategies (pretending you’re giving advice to a friend) turns an emotional decision into a more rational one. The second (feeling the future) changes the in-the-moment emotion associated with the decision. Both encourage long-term growth thinking.

A Recap: Staying on the Path of Long-Term Growth

  • Define your long-term goal or the path on which you want to be.
  • Understand that short-term pleasure often come at the expense of long-term gain.
  • When making decisions, ask yourself if they work in service of your long-term goal/path.
  • If the answer isn’t clear, use one of the two strategies we discussed: pretend you’re giving advice to a friend or feel the future emotional state your decision will elicit.
  • Sometimes you need to opt for what seems like a short-term decision just to survive. These instances are rare, but they do exist. So long as you go through the above framework, you’ll be prepared to make a sound decision — and one that you aren’t likely to regret.
  • When you fully internalize the path of long-term growth, the difference between what feels good in the short-term and what is good in the long-term ceases to exist at all.

Thanks for reading. If you found this interesting and want more…

Follow me on Twitter @Bstulberg and consider reading my new book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.

Brad Stulberg writes about health and the science of human performance. He is a columnist at New York Magazine and Outside Magazine.