The perils of thinking short term

We, humans, are bad at thinking long term. Not because we don’t care, but because it’s our nature. Thousands of years ago, when we were living in caves, we didn’t need to plan far into the future. Our necessities were very limited: we needed to eat, sleep, stay safe from predators and keep warm on harsh winters. There was no technology those days that could’ve made our living easier. For example, we didn’t plan our meals, because there was no way to store food. People living in colder climates were more fortunate in that aspect than others, but generally we eat what we hunted and gathered that day.

The wonderful thing about evolution is that every organism living on earth today survived by adapting to the harsh and erratic environment. We are no exception; we survived through everything nature challenged us with, like ice ages, tsunamis, meteorites and giant predators. Even during more recent events like wars, global diseases and economic collapses, we persevered.

Mortality rate in the early days was high not only due to lack of knowledge in medicine, but also because we were always on the move. We had no choice—the only way to keep finding food at that time was to travel in small groups and gather what we could find. Only during the Agricultural Revolution, when foragers settled down and formed small communities, started planting grains and domesticated animals, we finally created an environment for ourselves where future planning was crucial to our survival. It made little sense to keep moving and live forager life when food could be acquired without exposing yourself to the dangers lurking on the other side of the wall.

The world has changed dramatically since then. After emergence of debt, credit and currency, we’ve been adapting to the brave new world: the world of counting, planning and building. It provided us plethora of opportunities to nurture our long term view. It was the only way to function in modern society—investment funds, taxes and retirement plans needed careful planning to work.

We’ve been nurturing our long term view for thousands of years—why we still struggle with it today? If all these things improved our lives so much, shouldn’t we be better at planning for the future?

When first opportunities appeared for us to plan long term, it was literally a matter of life and death. If we hadn’t plan our harvests, anticipate eventual drought and carefully planned our meals, we would’ve perished on the first ecological crisis. However, in modern days having no plan doesn’t mean our end anymore. We have multiple social programs which, while wouldn’t make our lives comfortable, would cover our basic needs so we could survive. In other words, what was considered a death sentence back then is now considered more like a difficult life.

Other explanation is that a few thousand years is not a long period time if you put that on the evolutionary scale. If we count first humanoids, we’ve been living on earth millions of years, in which we went through multiple evolutionary cycles. Only in the last one, when we became homo sapiens, we found ourselves in situations where we needed to nurture our long term perspective in order to survive.

Also it could be encoded in our DNA: our current cognitive abilities might be constrained on a level where long term planning will always be a difficult task for us. When people before us (homo erectus) were living on earth, their cognitive abilities were even more limited. They knew how to make tools out of stone or create fire, but they never went past that. It’s hard to believe that they’ve been around for 2 million years and couldn’t get past stone age, while we had our agricultural, industrial and scientific revolutions in mere 12,000 years.

There’s no question we’ve been spending more time on planning for the future when world has been changing, but slow-pace living wasn’t meant to last: rapid acceleration of innovation in technology space began to push long term view back again. These days, we expect things happen almost instantly: when we buy things on the internet, we expect parcel to arrive tomorrow, and any longer time frame feels like a regression. When we want to chat with our friends, we don’t need to write a letter anymore—all it takes a few seconds tapping on our smartphones.

While every novelty might seem an improvement to our lives, the lack of long term view is detrimental to our happiness. Any meaningful point reached in life is backed by a long term investment. Good things take time, and we’re left disappointed when we put our best work for a week and results are negligible. No wonder why people dropping things quickly. This is why getting-things-fast industry is so huge: gambling, pyramid schemes and short term diets lure many. We all want shortcuts, because we feel that life is too short to wait.

What’s even worse, reaping rewards without putting work is not fulfilling as well. If we could get anything we want without lifting a finger, none of those things would have much meaning. There are many stories about people hitting a jackpot which became their downfall: partly due to inexperience of managing money, but also due to inability to find meaning in things they buy, which feeds into the thought that the next thing will make them happy. It results into buying more stuff to fill that void, which ultimately ends as a personal and financial decline.

We are subject to quick rewards due to hyperbolic discounting—a tendency to prefer smaller rewards now over larger rewards in the future. Sometimes we can suppress our nature and choose to wait for a larger reward, but everyone’s indifference point vary. To make those decisions easier, we need to accept and be grateful for everything we have right now, and remember that tomorrow everything could disappear.

Responsibility of nurturing our long term view has to be taken in our own hands. Playing for the long term means reducing your stake in chance and increasing your investment in growth. There’s no easier way than to fall in love with the progress—to find gratification in the things that we do every day. To enjoy making small steps forward. To see our work compound into something valuable. And eventually, to be proud to say “I made this”.

Rolandas Barysas
Hello, my name is Rolandas Barysas. I write software for a living, splitting my time between freelancing and personal projects.