Balancing Short-Term and Long-Term Thinking– Part II–Your Health

by Stephen Mills on February 16, 2011

If you haven’t read  Part I please do so before reading Part II.

I’m going to use health as an example to illustrate some principles I think are important in balancing short and long term thinking.  With slight changes these same principles can be applied to almost anything.

I really didn’t even begin to cover the subject.  I had to cut out other really good ideas and compress the explanations.  Such is the problem with blog articles that people will read.  I hope I pique your interest enough to give some of this a try though.

I’m going to assume throughout this article that if you could snap your fingers and ensure a long and very healthy life without any cost, you would.  If you wouldn’t then you aren’t going to agree with much of what I have to say.

The other side of that is that being healthy does incur costs and to have a good life you must balance the ideal whole-life health state with the pain it creates to achieve.  Therein lies the problem for most people.

The future is unknowable.  I am a huge proponent of living and enjoying life now and I refuse to give up life’s pleasures so I can live to be a healthy old curmudgeon.  I say this because there truly are people who take this way too far and they will look upon the rest of us as inferior beings.

On the other hand I also refuse to destroy my long term health for the sake of fleeting and momentary pleasures.  I’m going for the optimal whole-life balance and there are ways to accomplish it.

Most people have a steep discount rate.  Discount rate is an economic term but it basically means we place a much higher value on the present than the future and the farther into the future we go the faster the discount rises.  This factor alone plays heavily into most short-term / long-term balancing decisions; it heavily biases us to short-term thinking.  Our ancestors were just trying to find food and avoid being eaten; they weren’t too concerned about how functional they would be in their 9th decade of life (which very few of them would ever see).  The genes they passed on to us reflect adaptations that made them successful in getting through their prime reproductive years and anything beyond that didn’t matter much.  For some reason knowing this makes me desire long-term benefits more. 

Our natural impulses weren’t designed for the 21st century. Our natural impulses are going to drive us to be sedentary, eat too much of the wrong food, and not be concerned about our old-age.  Since those are our natural impulses and we derive pleasure from them, it is reasonable to expect that there is going to be some discomfort required to avoid them.  That discomfort is highly variable among individuals.  Some people are going to have a much easier time being fit, trim, and healthy than other people.  It’s surely not controversial to state it is much more painful for some people to be healthy than others.

So aside from personality differences, there are going to be dramatic differences in what individual people should give up to achieve greater health.  It’s a highly personal decision and yet in general I think most people for the above reasons take a view that is mistakenly too short-term.

The obvious question then is how can we reduce the pain and discomfort of going against our natural impulses in the short-term?  That’s the only way most people have a chance.  What we really want to do is make the pleasurable bad things more painful and the painful good things more pleasurable.  Here are some of my techniques.

Deep Understanding Changes the Pleasure/Pain Balance. We all know exercise is good for you and it helps your muscles, lungs, and heart.  We know being fat is bad for you and we know too many calories make you fat.  We may know carbohydrates increase insulin which stores fat.  I knew all that stuff and it made very little difference.  Over the years though my natural curiosity led me to study much more in depth how all this fits together and it has had a surprising impact.

Yes, carbohydrates still taste delicious but I know a lot of the dirty details about what they do to me and that has created an offsetting pain that I feel when I’m eating too much of them.  Yes, green leafy vegetables are still bland and have a texture that sucks, but I know a lot in-depth as to what good they are doing in my body and that has created a offsetting pleasure in eating them.  I get uncomfortable when I don’t eat them.  Unbelievable!  I hate exercise but I can almost feel the extra oxygen and the sprouting neurons in my brain (exercise has a dramatic effect on brain health) and that makes a huge difference.  The more you know the bigger the change.  What a wonderful benefit in addition to the good feeling you get from simply being informed about something important.

Short-term pleasures are often very fleeting. Food seems like one of life’s great pleasures but I think if you evaluate it objectively it is mostly a very short-lived pleasure.  I absolutely love sugary deserts, especially those made with a lot of chocolate.  But moments after the last bite is gone it’s pretty much over.  It’s hard to get a long glow from something like that.

Achievement of Goals Provide Long Lasting Pleasure.  While impulsive pleasures fade quickly, achievement does not.  You can make use of this by creating health goals – a lot of them in small increments that you can achieve and reward yourself for conquering.  More than a decade ago I lost 70 lbs. in less than a year (I got quite slim).  It was fairly painful but not excessively so.  I can still feel the pleasure from that accomplishment years later while the pain was quickly forgotten.

Anticipation is often better than the real thing and Peak end experiences matter most.  For more on the importance of the peak end experience click the link.  You can use these two factors to huge advantage in diet.  First plan guilty pleasures rather than eating them on impulse.  Say you will allow yourself a sinful desert twice a week on the same days.  This allows you to anticipate them and research has shown that anticipation is very pleasurable for most people.  Secondly you can almost totally eliminate the bad effects of sinful food by eating very little of it without loss of the experience.  The first and last bites are about all that matters.  I can anticipate that luscious chocolate fudge cake on Saturday.  When the waiter brings it I can cut off three nice size bites and have him take the rest away.  I savor the first bite and then wait a bit before eating the second bite building the anticipation.  I wait until we are ready to leave and then eat the last bite very slowly, letting it dissolve in my mouth.  This might sound ridiculous and silly but it works.  The pleasure is far greater than eating bite after bite and I get almost no ill effect from my small indulgence.

End your exercise routine with the most fun thing you can think of and it will significantly improve the overall experience of your entire workout.  It really does make a lot of difference; it’s the way your brain works.

Participation sports are very good for you and also very fun! If you can get past the inertia of sitting, summon the effort to play a sport with other people you will get incredible social benefit (which keeps your brain healthy) as well as health benefits.  This is something healthy that people enjoy if they will just DO IT!

You can get a lot of bang for small bucks.  For some of us exercise is painful but the good news is that it doesn’t have to last hours.  In fact short, intense, interval type exercise is better for you than long aerobic exercise.  There is plenty of research to back this up and I’m not going to argue it with anyone.  Dr. Sears Pace program is excellent but with some Google searches you can find all kinds of information about this kind of exercise.

I wish I could say a lot more but most of you probably quit before you got this far.  This stuff is pretty basic but most people just don’t stop to think about it.  If you spend time getting creative with these ideas you can significantly change the pleasure / pain scale of healthy living or about any other short-term / long-term problem.


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Offbooze February 20, 2011 at 12:15 am

I’m not so sure it is deep understanding that changes the pleasure/pain balance as much as it is sheer adaptation to new proportions. If you eat McDonalds every day without thinking about it, you adapt and crave it, and think it is fine. But, if for whatever reason you are forced to change your diet, and eat only leafy vegetables, after a year, you’ll probably think leafy vegetables are good and McDonalds will make you sick–and that’s without any new knowledge. Of course, I could be wrong, but it seems that the difficulty is changing the bad habit or pattern first and then letting it get strong to change our tastes, not learning about benefits of changes first, then convincing ourselves that we’re experiencing the benefits so vividly that we are delusional (that said, exercise sure does feel really good). Etc.


Tom Volkar / Delightful Work February 24, 2011 at 11:37 am

Yes short term thinking is often very shortsighted as well. Just by stepping back into a little longer view we can actually respond instead of reacting like we have no brain at all. Awareness is key. I’m grateful for your many excellent examples.
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