2012-04-12

Short Term Pain, Long Term Gain

One of the primary functions of my cognitive time-horizon concept is to help me deal with stress.

Think of it this way: Would you drink a glass of sour (but edible) milk for $50,000? I think most of us would. Sour milk is digusting, but $50,000 is really handy. Most of us could really use that kind of money, especially if all we have to do to get it is endure a bad taste in our mouth, and maybe a grumbly stomach for a couple of hours. The short-term pain involved is minimal with respect to the long-term gain.

Going into a situation like that, you'd hardly think about the milk. All you'd be thinking about is what you'll be doing with that $50,000. You'd pick up the glass of sour milk, raise it to your lips, and start drinking.

Once you start swallowing that atrocious stuff, that's when all your regrets and doubts would kick in. Thinking about the long-term gain is great before you start drinking, but it's really half-way through the glass that you need your cognitive time-horizon most. That's when you have to force yourself to keep drinking, to stop thinking about the taste and the smell of it, and the feel of it sliding down your throat, and instead focus on the fact that it is a minimal pain that will be over quickly; and the payoff will be worth it.

I don't expect that this kind of situation will ever happen to any of us in the real world, but I think it's a good example of how keeping a focus on long-range thinking can benefit you, even if you don't really buy into some of the other things I've said about that concept.

Stepping out of the realm of the hypothetical, what kinds of situations might benefit from remembering your cognitive time-horizon?

For many people, things like graduate school, professional certification courses, and second jobs (especially seasonal jobs) all benefit from this line of reasoning. During those late-night moments when we start to question our decision to take on these kinds of responsibilities, we often find ourselves reiterating the wisdom of our past decisions. It takes a little self-coaching to get one through those points in life, but it is a great case of reminding oneself that short term pain is worth it if one wants long-term gain.

How about training for a marathon? How about getting a new puppy, or throwing a big dinner party? We always encounter stressful situations (even mildly stressful) that can make us doubt ourselves. Think "sour milk!"

I spend a lot of time writing about the hypothetical here at Stationary Waves, but the ultimate goal in all of this is to help develop solutions to real-world problems faced by real individuals. Maybe it's trite to think about an imaginary glass of sour milk that will pay off with a fabulous cash prize. But triteness, too, comes in handy in stressful situations when we need to grin and bear it.

Bearing it is what the cognitive time-horizon is all about. Grinning is what the cartoonish hypotheticals are all about.