Long ago I heard a powerful quote: “If you do what’s hard today, life will be easy tomorrow. If you do what’s easy today, life will be hard tomorrow.” For me, that was a great reminder that often when I thought I was taking the “easy way out,” ultimately that choice would make things harder in the future. Several years ago when I was working in the high-tech consulting business, I earned a fantastic bonus. I had never received that much in one lump sum before, and it was such a temptation to celebrate with an extravagant vacation or a big, impulsive purchase. Instead my husband and I had a modest celebration, and used the majority of the bonus to pay down the mortgage on our home. A couple of years later, when business was bad and the company was laying off people, I realized the quote had come true. While others feared losing their jobs because of their high- end lifestyle, I was in a great position to not only leave the company, but to start my coaching business. My choice to live conservatively was hard at the time, but made life much easier down the road.
Today, the news is full of people who have it “hard:” home foreclosures, lost jobs, poor health, and so much more. Did they choose a mortgage they knew they could reasonably afford? Did they continue to grow and develop their skills to create business value? Did they make healthy food and exercise choices, or did they do what felt good in the moment? I have a great deal of compassion for the people who are struggling. I work with many of them and the situation is heart-breaking. However, for most of those people, we can look back at the choices they made and match them up to the “hard and easy” model above. And our consumer society encourages that attitude. Advertisers want us to do what is easy and feels good NOW! Very soon many of us in the U.S. will receive an “economic stimulus” check from the government. No, we’re not encouraged to do what is “hard” with this money and pay down our mortgages or invest it. We are asked, as good citizens, to do what is easy – to go out and spend this money. Somehow if we all do what is “easy” today, we are led to believe life will be even easier tomorrow. Does that make sense to you?
The simple term for the concept in the quote is “delayed gratification.” When we are able to delay gratification today, we reap much greater rewards tomorrow. In the 1960’s, Standford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel did a study that demonstrated how important self-discipline is to success. He gave 4-year-old children the option of eating one marshmallow right away, or, if they waited until he came back into the room (about 15 minutes), they would get an extra marshmallow. About 2/3 of the children ate the marshmallow immediately, and 1/3 had the self-discipline to wait and receive the second marshmallow. The study then followed up 14 years later to see how self-discipline at an early age played out later in life. The 1/3 who waited for the second marshmallow were more positive, persistent when faced with life difficulties, more self motivated, and were able to delay immediate gratification in order to pursue their longer-term goals. The children who ate the marshmallow immediately were less successful years later. They were more indecisive, mistrustful of others, less self confident and often more troubled in general. When SAT scores were compared, these subjects scored an average of 210 points (a huge difference) lower than the 2 marshmallow students. The tendency to do what was “easy” in the moment (get distracted, not work as hard to study, etc.) resulted in significantly worse results than those whose tendency was to do what was “hard” (stay focused on studying, prioritize important activities).
Take a look at your choices over the years. Are you like the children who ate the marshmallow right away, trading today’s “easy” for tomorrow’s “hard?” If so, it’s not too late! I love this philosophy because it is simply about choices. All you have to do is shift the way you make decisions, from a focus on the short-term, to a focus that prioritizes the longer-term. Simply asking some different questions can help you shift this focus.
Ask questions like:
*What are the benefits in the short-term? How long will those benefits really last (seconds, days, weeks)?
*What will this cost me (and others) in the short- term?
*What are the benefits in the longer-term (weeks, months, or years from now)?
*What will this cost in the longer-term?
*What would I need to believe to make a better choice for my future (e.g., believe I will stay true to my goals)?
*What is really most important to me? Does this decision support or endanger those priorities?
*What are other options that would meet my immediate need or desire, without “costing” me so much for my future?
As you ask these questions, consider the benefits and costs in terms of financial, relationship, health, self- esteem, building momentum, or any other factors to help you make better choices for your present AND for your future. And if it feels hard to start doing this differently, congratulations! If you do what’s “hard” today – choosing a new way of making decisions – then life will be “easy” tomorrow! How would it feel to know that every decision you make is in alignment with the future life you want to enjoy? How would it feel to really be in control of your destiny? It really is up to you, and it really is simply a matter of choice. Do you want “hard,” or do you want “easy?”
Copyright 2008 Karen Van Cleve, All rights reserved.