Long-Term vs. Short-Term Thinking

I was teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class tonight and for the umpteenth time, I was trying to introduce some basic prehab work to the curriculum. Things like the deep squat test, the couch stretch and other Kelly Starrett inspired material. Let’s just say it hasn’t really hit home yet… I mean, the white belts all dutifully did what I told them. And to be fair, there was one guy who even approached me after training confiding an interest in mobility stuff. But most of the regulars just looked at me like “WTF is this all about? Let’s just train and go balls to the wall!”

I’m not complaining. I too was 23 once, and I would probably also not have understood. But being in my mid thirties now, and after 26 years of martial arts and several injuries and surgeries later, I can say one thing with absolute certainty: No matter how important you think the next upcoming competition is, it’s not. Investing in long-term prehab is ALWAYS more important, and should always take priority.

It’s easy to laugh this off as the rantings of an older guy who has lost his competitive edge. But I have seen enough very competitive guys who had to quit the sport they love, because they could not wrap their head around the idea that long-term thinking always beats short-term thinking. And you know what? I’m still on the mats.

This is not an article about BJJ though. It’s just one of the many areas in my life where the discrepancy between long-term and short-term thinking manifests itself.

Health in general is another one. I mean, this is arguably the most important area of anyone’s life. It’s simply basis for everything else – without health, every other oh so important project goes right out the window. Without health, you have nothing. And yet, how many people do you know who sleep their eight hours, who eat their veggies, who skip the carbs, who do their push ups, who walk for at least an hour – every day, without exception? Probably none.

I understand that there is something inherently unsexy about a long-term focused lifestyle. You chip away at all these health, wealth, and relationship related habits every day, and you are not seeing any immediate results. You might even stick to these habits for quite a while, like 4-8 weeks, and you are still hardly able to notice a difference. It is very hard to stand that, and for once, I’m not mocking. It really is difficult to go on and keep doing something solely based on the rational knowledge you should be doing that because it will pay off in the long run. This is not how we work – we are deeply emotional creatures and as such, we crave an emotional feedback loop. We want to do something right and then want to be rewarded for it right away. If the pat on the head doesn’t happen, we lose interest really quick.

You might have heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a psychological study in instant and delayed gratification from the 1960s. They would give a child a choice between a sweet right now, or, two sweets 15 minutes later. Some children would go with the low hanging fruit, some would wait; but the really interesting thing occurred several years later: When researchers looked at different success indicators in their now grown up test subjects, they found that the “delayers” had better SAT scores, better college degrees, better BMIs, better everything.

This completely mirrors my own anecdotal experience. As a result, I have come to look at the ability of people to think long term as the ultimate measurement for applied intelligence. Long-term thinking draws both on the rational aspect of ourselves (being able to project into the future), as well as on the emotional maturity of a person (being able to forego instant gratification). To put it differently: Being smart comes down to being aware of the compound effect of your everyday actions, and to act accordingly.

How many people can actually pull that off? I’d guess less than 5%, so almost none. In contrast, you WILL be ridiculed if you decide to stray from the herd and to do what is right. So you will not only have to fight your own inbuilt laziness by doing the right things every day for a far off future outcome – you will also have to withstand the laughter and commentary of the meatheads.

The problem is, for a relatively long time, your life’s trajectory will not look that much different from the life trajectory of the meathead. In fact, despite you sticking to your weird habits, your lives might almost look the same. The compound interest of habit building usually kicks in much later, but then it does so in an exponential way. So you “suddenly” move all the way up while the meathead “suddenly” falls all the way down (it works the other way around too).

If you are still on the brink when it comes to a long term focused lifestyle: It’s not as bad as it all sounds. It may or may not take 10.000 hours to mastery, but in my experience, 3-5 years of doing something every day for a short amount of time (maybe half an hour to an hour) will get you pretty damn impressive results; even if you account for the occasional days where your practice time is more like 5-10 min. From my personal experience, you will even able to start a business off a skill that you acquired this way; it’s enough to do your thing better than most people – that means you will have customers. And no one is preventing you from investing more time in your skillset and coming closer to mastery as you go.

I realize I’m coming off rather preachy again… But as usual with this blog, I’m really talking to myself. I’m only so passionate about this stuff as it took me such a long time to figure it out: I was the meathead myself at various times in my life. If I could go back in time and talk to my younger self, god would I give him a lecture…

But there is nothing to do about it and than to get started with long-term thinking – or pay for the consequences eventually.