How are brains trick us into short-term decision-making at the expense of our future selves

Have you ever done something you knew what a bad idea, but did it anyway?

Do you ever wonder why we continue to do things we know are bad for us—be it eating sugary food, drinking too much booze, spending money we shouldn’t, skipping the gym or falling off fitness routines completely, or staying up too late?

It’s pretty simple: It comes down to choosing the short-term—the instant gratification—over the long term.

If you know you have tendencies that prioritize the now you over the future you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a pretty often-talked about societal problem: Think Easter Island and it’s easy to see that short-term thinking has the potential to be our ultimate demise.

Similarly, this TED talk (​ ript?language=en​) goes into the concept of what he calls “short-termism.” It argues that short-term-ism is the biggest challenge we face that essentially limits both individual and societal success.

In light of this, I did some research about why it’s so hard to consider the future over the now, and I found some pretty dire information. For example, this 2011 study (​ ptions_of_the_future_self_transform_intertemporal_choice​) explains that when you think about the future, your brain does something neurologically that’s actually pretty odd: It stops realizing you’re thinking about yourself and actually thinks you’re thinking about someone else. Specifically, the part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex essentially shuts off. Generally when you’re thinking about yourself it’s firing on all cylinders, and when you’re thinking about something you don’t have anything in common with, it turns off. Weird, right?

All this means is your brain thinks of the future you as a total stranger, so it’s no surprise many of us don’t treat our future selves very well, and no surprise many of us are bad at saving money for the future and making decisions now for our future physical health.

You might think having kids might help you think about the future more. Nope! This survey (​​) of almost 3,000 people showed having children or grandchildren didn’t change a thing. The one thing that did, however, was experiencing a near-death situation. Those who have been through a near-death experience increased their ability to think about their future significantly.

Seeing as waiting for a near-death experience to come your way doesn’t sound all that appealing, here are three things you can do to help you work on your decision-making so it keeps the bigger, longer term in mind:

Let yourself dream

Map out your future. What do you want? What do you look like? What do you feel like?

Often times, people who consider themselves realists have a hard time with this. They don’t want to, or are too scared, to picture an unrealistic future to they don’t do it. Over time, they lose the ability to dream. So let yourself be a kid again and dream big. Even if it doesn’t go exactly as planned, it’ll help you understand the types of decisions you need to make now to have a shot at that dream.

Learn from the past

Go back to decisions you have made that have negatively affected your long-term. Write them down. Remember them. Let yourself feel the pain the actions caused you in the long term, and then write down how things could have been different had you chose another route. Don’t shove your mistakes under a rug: Remember them and learn from them.

Don’t be too judgey

Perfection is impossible: You’re going to forget to brush my teeth once in a blue moon and you’re going to slide from your diet here and there. Accepting this will hopefully allow you to avoid judging and beating yourself up when you do mess up, and also help you start making better decisions more frequently.

If you’re a business owner, check out this article about Amazon’s CEO and how long-term thinking is important in business success, as well as tips for business owners: (​ rove-your-long-term-thinking/​).

And he’s an article about long-term thinking and how it’s better for financial decision-making: (​ -thinking/​).

For those patient, future-thinkers out there, what are your best tips for prioritizing the long-term over the right now?

Leave a Reply