How do you feel about Past You?

Are you a huge fan, or are Past You and Present You not even on speaking terms?

Personally, I have mixed feelings about Past Jonathan. He did a lot of things right, and his heart was in a good place most of the time. But he also did some dumb stuff, and it mostly had to do with failing to think long-term. Even last year, the guy spent $1,000 at Jimmy John’s. What a dope!

A simple truth that’s hard to swallow: while some events are out of our control, our current life circumstances are largely due to our past decisions.

Let me acknowledge right off the bat that many folks have advantages others don’t have. As a society, we’re nowhere near ensuring equality of opportunity, and some of us are born on third base while others aren’t even in the stadium. But wherever we are at the present moment, the role our decisions play in our future success can’t be understated.

Let’s consider a few examples of how our past decisions manifest themselves in our lives.

  • Career: Once we’ve been in the workforce for a while, our career circumstances are largely due to our past decisions about where to work, how hard to work, what skills to develop, and how comfortable we are with new situations and challenges. Won’t the person who has spent a decade asking “How can I contribute more than I’m paid to” be in a different place than than someone who has spent the last ten years asking “How can I do as little as possible without getting fired”?
  • Health: Our physical health is majorly affected by our past decisions concerning eating and exercise. Genetics play a co-starring role, but our decisions almost always outshine our genes.
  • Finances: If we’ve saved more than we’ve spent for the last few years, our net worth is probably solid. If not, we may have some work to do.
  • Relationships: If we’ve invested time and energy maintaining our interpersonal relationships, they’re probably in good shape. If not, they may be malnourished and in need of care. As the parent of a one month-old, I’m having to make some adjustments in this area.

Since our Past Selves’ decisions have largely created our present circumstances, it stands to reason that our current decisions will be pretty dang important in the lives of our Future Selves. Learning to think long-term is a simple habit, and it’s not that hard to develop. Here are three ways to start.

1. Start looking at cost per decade

A good rule of thumb is to consider the cost of a product, service, or personal habit by the decade, not by the month.

I’ve recently cut way back on drinking craft beer. Now, a six-pack of good craft beer is about $9.99 at present. Ten bucks per week is no big deal, but $5200 per decade has a different ring to it, no?

And let’s just agree that I was only purchasing one six-pack per week. Yup.

Or consider my ridiculous $1,000 Jimmy John’s bill from last year. Over a decade, that’s $10,000. Ten grand buys a good used car. Ten grand is a six year-old Honda Civic, which might provide dependable transportation for a good chunk of that decade.

A decade of junky sandwiches or a car? Slaps forehead.

Considering cost per decade won’t cause you to abandon the things you really love, of course. In fact, it’ll bring their value into greater focus. Netflix’ cost per decade is just shy of $1,200. According to Sarah, Netflix will easily deliver that much entertainment over those ten years (and I think I agree). That’s a worthwhile expense.

You can apply this thinking to personal habits, too, both bad and good. What’s the cost per decade of working out 3 days a week? It’ll take a lot of time, but you’ll reap the rewards of more energy, more self-confidence, and a better chance of staying healthy in the future.

It’s easy to adopt this mindset. Just ask yourself the following question about your habits: “What are the long-term implications of this behavior?”

Or, as Jim Rohn used to put it: “If I keep up my current daily practices, without kidding myself, where will I be in ten years?”

2. Endure short-term discomfort by asking yourself “Why am I doing this?”

Long-term thinking often involves short-term discomfort, as anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight can attest.

The key is to have a strong why.

Forgoing a piece of pie because it’s “not healthy” isn’t compelling.

Turning down the pie because it’s part of a larger plan to lose 15 pounds in time for your family reunion on Memorial Day is much easier.

Likewise, cancelling cable to save $100 a month is no fun. Why deprive yourself of the good life?

But cancelling cable to save $12,000 over the next decade and free up time to become a part-time fly-fishing instructor: that’s a much stronger why.

Anticipate the short-term discomfort you’ll feel in the difficult moments, and be prepared with a good answer to the question of “Why am I doing this, again?”

3. Start with just one area of your life

A golden rule of behavior change is to start small. Don’t try to renovate your entire life all at once (as I’ve tried to do over and over). You’re more likely to make a permanent change if you deal with one area at a time.

Start thinking long-term when it comes to your finances. Or your health. Or your career. Or your kids. Before long, you’ll notice your new outlook spilling over into other parts of your life, too, and you’ll feel what writer Dan Kennedy calls “a nostalgia for the future.”

And Future You will be grateful.