Chess, Not Checkers: Long-Term Thinkers Make Healthier Choices

We’re faced with a tough choice: To eat the cookie or not to eat the cookie. Part of us is aware that we shouldn’t because it is not conducive to our fitness goals, but another part just wants to taste the deliciousness and experience the enjoyment it brings us in the moment. Alas, you give in and eat the cookie. We give in against our more rational thoughts to enjoy the immediate gratification of eating the cookie. As it turns out, researchers have found that our tendency to think in the short-term, versus long-term thinking, can contribute to our decision to give in against our better judgement (or lack thereof).

What do these terms mean exactly? Simply put, long-term thinking is the process of making a decision based on the context of some future goal. The consequences of this decision may not immediately fulfill this future goal, but will put you closer to the finish line. Short-term thinking, on the other hand, involves making decision based on the immediate context provided in that moment. For example, choosing not to eat dessert in order to get closer to achieving a 6-month weight loss goal (non-immediate, future goal) is a form of long-term thinking, while choosing to eat dessert because you are craving it in the moment (immediate gratification in the context of the momentary craving) is a form of short-term thinking. 

A recent study measuring participants’ tendencies toward long- or short-term thinking found that those who tended toward short-term thinking were more likely to seek immediate gratification, while long-term thinking individuals were more likely to identify the negative consequences of giving in (or the benefits of abstaining) and thus tend toward healthier behaviors.1 Essentially, long-term thinking individuals have better gratification-delaying behaviors—the ability to give up an immediate reward for the promise of a bigger reward at a later time. So, you find that you tend toward short-term thinking and more immediate gratification, how can you change this to improve your gratification-delaying abilities? 

  1. Know your values. Our values are the things we deem important in life. Knowing what’s important to you can help you make better informed choices that align with those values.
  2. Be mindful. Relevant to the above strategy, asking yourself if this is something you REALLY want can make you question whether or not your choice is going to align with your values.
  3. Have a goal. You may deem something important, but without a plan to get there it is nothing but an abstract dream. Have concrete (specific) goals, both short- and long-term, to help keep you on track.
  4. Find other long-term thinkers. You’re out to eat with friends. One friend encourages you to share a dessert with them (or to order your own), while another turns dessert down because she had a big lunch. You are better off sitting next to the long-term thinker than the one who will encourage you to give-in to temptation. Surround yourself with long-term thinkers.
  5. Delay the impulsive action by a small increment of time. You are tempted by a cookie offered at a work party. Tell yourself you will wait ten minutes before eating the cookie. Once ten minutes is up, try another ten. Practicing delaying gratification can help a short-term thinker be more aware of future consequences.

By practicing these long-term thinking behaviors you can position yourself to make healthier choices that better align with your fitness goals.

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