I’m on a Southwest Airlines flight right now, heading from DC to San Francisco. The way food works on Southwest is they hold out a big basket full of snacks, and you take whatever you want for free. None of the snacks are healthy; it’s crackers and cookies and chips.
I have to admit, I was really tempted to take a pack of Oreos. The justifications are easy to come up with: I’ve already paid for those Oreos, I’m coming off a long trip where I was off my diet, one small packet of Oreos doesn’t really matter.
No Oreos for me, though. The huge basket was dropped on the middle seat next to me, I saw all the glistening blue packs of Oreos, and I avoided taking them. I don’t always make the disciplined decision, but I make it a lot, and I’m getting better at it all the time. The trick, I’ve found, is to consider the aggregate long term in every decision.
Oreos are a short term play. For a period of thirty seconds or so, I will have the pleasurable biological response of eating something fabricated specifically to elicit that response. It’s not about hunger or nutrition, it’s about very short term pleasure. That by itself isn’t so bad– taking momentary pleasure in the joys of every day life is an excellent practice.
The long term effect of eating one pack of Oreos isn’t so bad, either. Will it really decrease my lifespan? Will it increase my waistline by even a fraction of a millimeter? I don’t know, but I doubt it on both counts.
The thing about decisions is that few are made in total isolation. The decision to eat this single pack of Oreos is representative of a decision I have to make all the time: do I eat junk food for pleasure? Every time I do eat the food, I’m making it more likely that I’ll do so in the future. It’s a snowball effect.
That’s what the aggregate long-term effect is: by making this decision, and assuming I will make future decisions roughly the same way, what will result? In this case, I get many moments of fleeting pleasure at the cost of decreasing my fitness, lifespan, and overall health. Taken in that context, it’s very easy not to eat the Oreos.
On the cruise I was just on, I ate a lot of bad food. I had a couple dinner rolls (usually whole wheat) with lunch and dinner, and I often had dessert (or two, or three). I’m not really sure why I made that decision, but I wish that I didn’t. In the moment it seems like an integral part of the enjoyment of the cruise, but in retrospect it has nothing to do with my memories of the cruise. I remember time spent with my friend Brian, the new people we met, the hijinks and adventures we had, the ports we visited, the work I got done, and the general serenity of being at sea. I also remember some incredible grass-fed lamb chops, but the bread is just a blur.
This long term aggregate lens is useful beyond eating, of course. I used to date girls without really thinking about whether I’d want them in my life down the road. As a result, along with a handful of really awesome girls that I dated, I sometimes found myself in the position of spending time with someone I wasn’t really crazy about, or being in that awkward situation of having to let someone down, or sliding down that slippery slope of boyfriendhood with a girl I didn’t actually want to be my girlfriend. Now I think long term and stop myself before I start anything with anyone I don’t think is pretty great.
I’ve always been really good about saving and investing money, despite never having a budget. I think it comes from this long-term aggregate view. On this flight I can buy wi-fi access for eight bucks. It’s tempting, because I’m addicted to the internet, and justifiable because I have some work that I want to do that would benefit from downloading a copy of a database. What’s the aggregate long term effect of that sort of purchase? Well, I go on a lot of flights that I might start buying wifi on, but beyond that, I’m setting a precedent of paying exorbitant rates for unnecessary convenience.
It’s for the same reason that I will some day buy my own plane, but would never pay extra dollars or miles for a first class seat on a commercial flight. The long-term aggregate effect of paying for first class is that I get to be moderately more comfortable for a tiny fraction of my life, at great hourly expense. The aggregate long term effect of buying a (very efficient) plane is that I can learn to fly, take friends with me, have more flexibility, and in some cases save money.
In trying to improve myself, I’m always trying to find underlying principles that influence large swaths of my behavior. One of those principles is this of optimizing for long-term results. By applying that lens to all decisions I make, I create a compounding effect of most decisions leaving me even better off in the future. It works at the source, motivation, making me want to do the right thing, rather than forcing myself to do the right thing.
Find some area of your life where you’re not satisfied, take an honest look at what decisions have led you there, and make an effort to look at the aggregate long term effects of those decisions while making them. You’ll probably find that fixing the problem is a lot easier and less painful than you might expect.
Photo is the tower of Il Duomo in Florence. What a view!
Just when I was about ready to do the gear post, I order two awesome new things. Happens every year.