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Double discounting the future

“I’ll get it to you next week.”

Discounting the future is a double-edged sword.

First, we find it easier to commit to events further in the future:

  • The calendar really might be relatively empty (see Vanishing Time) – because time seems abundant, it seems cheap;
  • Conversely, time now seems scarce and costly, so putting things off feels like a good trade;
  • The details are hazy (for meetings and social events we rarely stop to imagine the details of logistics, coordination and preparation that will be required in the run up to the event itself) – so the event seems to cost less than it actually will;
  • The future opportunity cost of the event is hard to see (because we don’t know what alternatives the future will offer);
  • We are simultaneously discounting our future routine – all the overheads of daily life, the little tasks and frictions that are bound to occur are largely invisible to us from a distance;
  • It occurs to me that optimism may compound with time: if our hopes for what we can comfortably achieve are a few degrees off reality, they’ll diverge further and further with time.

Secondly, the social and emotional costs (and rewards) of refusing something (or committing to it) loom large because they happen now, and we’d like to avoid them (or enjoy them) if we can:

  • We like the thing we’re committing to;
  • We don’t want to turn people down;
  • We want to be helpful – and seem helpful;
  • We gain status and seem high-capacity by being “can do”.

Excessive agreeableness is a liability here – we’d do well to remember that it’s buy now, pay later.

Experiments:

  • Try putting your little routine tasks into your calendar for a week that falls in a month or two’s time. How do things look now?
  • Do the same for things you feel you don’t have enough time for at the moment – exercise, admin, fun, rest, learning and reflection – and see if it helps.
  • Make hard decisions early – try to visualise future costs clearly when it feels uncomfortable to say no, and make the decision that you think is right, not what people want to hear. It sounds silly to call this a form of courage, but it is.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...