Secrets to Success: Overcoming Temporal Myopia


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Ever set a goal, then fail to follow through? You're not alone. If you find it hard to stay focused on the future, you have temporal myopia. Not to worry – here's the fix.

When people say to me:  “How do you do so many things?”  I often answer them, without meaning to be cruel:  “How do you do so little?”  It seems to me that people have vast potential.  Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks.  Yet most people don’t.  They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.
~Philip Adams

In last Monday’s post, I highlighted one of the reasons we fail to achieve the goals we establish: Because we don’t tie them to our core values. In this one, I’m going to explore another challenge to success, temporal myopia.

Have you heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment?

The experiment was conducted in 1972 by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel. He went to an on-campus nursery school and got 600 kids, ages 4 to 6. One by one, the children were brought into a room and offered a treat of their choice (Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel stick.) They were allowed to immediately eat the marshmallow, but were told that if they waited 15 minutes, they’d get a second one.

Of the more than 600 who took part in the experiment, only about one-third could delay gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.

This illustrates the concept of temporal myopia, also known as hyperbolic discounting. These are 2-dollar words for a 10-cent concept: People tend to settle for smaller payoffs now over larger ones later.

Just as visual myopia means things farther away are harder to see, temporal myopia means things farther away in time are less real.  Both types of myopia affect some people more than others.

This tendency explains everything from why we don’t start saving when we’re young to why Congress spends money it doesn’t have. It also explains self-destructive behavior, like smoking, drinking, drugs, overeating, or overspending: because the fun is here now and the negative side effects aren’t. If you were going to get cancer, need a new liver, get fat, or go broke this afternoon, you probably wouldn’t smoke, drink, overeat, or overspend this morning.

What’s interesting about temporal myopia is that when we see it in ourselves or another person, we call it a weak will, or lack of discipline, or a need for instant gratification. Not true.  Temporal myopia is hardwired into human beings – maybe because when our life span was only 30 or 40 years, it made more sense. But every single one of us is subject to it and all manner of businesses are built on it.

In the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, the majority of very young subjects were unable to double their reward simply by waiting 15 minutes. But lest you think that adults are immune, consider the TV news story I did a few weeks ago called Rent to Own: The Most Expensive Way to Buy? In that report I quoted the example of a $612 Toshiba laptop that Consumer Reports found at one rent-to-own store. Price? $38.99 a week for 48 weeks, for a total of $1,872: three times the price. But all the adult consumer need do is put the same $38.99 in the bank every week for just four months and they’d have the money to own it outright, saving $1,260!  Not much difference from the Marshmallow eaters, is it?

How to beat temporal myopia

The inclination to focus on the present-self versus the future-self threatens to take us off track when we’re trying to accomplish a goal. What do we do about it? Here are four ideas.

  • Recognize it: Not as a weakness that makes us feel bad about ourselves, but as simply being human. In short, expect it. That alone will help.
  • Remove temptation: If your goal is to save $1,000, don’t count on yourself to add to your savings every month. Defeat the effects of temporal myopia by automatically having money removed from your paychecks.  If you’re trying to destroy debt, cut up your credit cards and only use cash. If you’re trying to quit smoking, don’t hang around friends who do, or engage in triggering activities like drinking.
  • Change the way you make decisions: When confronting a potentially negative behavior, like buying stuff you don’t need, drinking, or smoking, stop. Imagine the decision to spend, smoke, or drink isn’t yours, but your best friend’s. Offer “them” your words of wisdom – then follow them yourself.
  • Expose yourself to the advice, input, and support of others. For decades, Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers have helped by surrounding you with people who relate to you because they’re wrestling with the same types of goals. Having the support of like-minded people can take the focus off the nearby temptation and put it back where it belongs: on your future-self. For every goal, there’s a community. For example, the online Facebook community here at Money Talks. If your goals include spending less, saving for the future, paying off debts or anything money-related, don’t just sit there. Talk to me or any of the  other 5,000 Facebook members who share them.

Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire.
~Arnold H. Glasow

Stacy Johnson

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