Playing The Long Game
Often we fail to take into account the wide view, the entire time cycle and cost, at our own peril.
Our greatest superpower as human beings is the ability to predict the future. So why don’t we use it?
Let’s go shopping
When I suggest that we have the ability to predict the future, I’m talking about analysis, planning, and forecasting in our own lives. I’m talking about packing for a vacation, or putting together a shopping list for the week. Even in those mundane tasks, we don’t really use our powers. And unfortunately when it comes to very important things like health and wealth, we are often very short-sighted – and it leads to disaster.
But let’s start small. Let’s go grocery shopping.
Imagine we’re going to “run to the grocery store”. Chances are we’ve made a list of 20 or so things that we are in need of, or plan to use in the coming days or weeks. Usually our list is a mishmash of hastily jotted-down items in random order. So we drive to the supermarket. We go there and find it busy as usual, and drive around looking for a parking spot. Once inside, we maneuver around the other customers and slowly make our way from aisle to aisle, checking things off our list as we go. Impulse purchases find their way into the cart, and things we hadn’t remembered to jot down (or are on sale) are added along the way. A solid half-hour later, we have made our way from end to end in the store. We stand in line, check out, load up the car, and head home.
Another wonderfully boring trip to the grocery store. And if you’re a regular weekly shopper in the household, that’s just one of the nearly 2,000 times you’ll do that over the course of your lifetime.
So let’s say it’s an hour-long venture. That’s 2,000 hours of your life spent grocery shopping. That’s equivalent to shopping 8 hours/day, five days a week, for a YEAR STRAIGHT. So at the end of your life, you will have spent a working year of your life picking items off a shelf, dropping them in a metal cart, and pushing that cart around a building.
Add to that the fact that the average person throws out around $600 worth of food per year, and overspends by $1,000 per year. Over a lifetime, we’re looking at $25,000 in wasted food, and $40,000 in overspending. $65,000. A luxury car paid for in cash.
But hey, that’s just how it goes. Grocery shopping is a part of life, right?
No, that’s just the result of short-term thinking.
Clean up on aisle five
Let’s imagine a different approach. Instead of taking grocery shopping one trip at a time, what if we looked at the long-term or even lifetime costs – both in time and money:
2,000 hours, a full working year of our life, spent grocery shopping is a foolish waste of our most precious resource – time. So first of all we should begin by investigating whether or not we need to be shopping at all. Obviously we need food, but is there another way to get it? Peapod is an option in some areas, or other grocery delivery services, and it’s pennies on the dollar compared to 2,000 hours of our life. Many things can be purchased online on Amazon or Jet, including all toiletries, dry, bottled, and canned goods, bulk foods, and even some fresh food. Free shipping. Why aren’t we always using it?
But let’s assume we still need to make trips to the store for some items. Now we can look for ways to be less wasteful and more efficient. Buying in bulk helps reduce costs, buying versatile foods (rice, potatoes, beans, tofu, etc) help with reducing waste. But the key is in planning. How about planning out meals and just buying what you need for those meals? How about setting a spending limit and not exceeding it? It’s not necessarily about buying cheap stuff, but about reducing waste.
And let’s not wait in line. Shop first thing in the morning. Go when no one else is there, with a clear list with items listed by aisle (you’ve been there a hundred times, don’t you know where everything is located where yet?). With those simple changes, we could cut our shopping time in half. Bingo – you just got a half a year of your life back.
And if we can save that $65,000 in wasted spending, it doesn’t have to go right back out the door. Invested over 20 years it becomes a new house…paid for in cash.
So maybe the small things aren’t so small after all.
Imagine what else
This is just a simple grocery shopping example. Imagine where else in your life there’s this unvisited, unexamined decision-making, or at least room for a little improvement (with a huge payoff).
It’s easy to start with infrequent purchases and decisions, like buying a car, a home, equipment/appliances, etc.
Do you buy a snowblower or pay for plowing, factoring in ALL of the costs – including time and money to sell the thing at the end of its life, and the risks with snowblowing that include the potential for an accident. (HINT: You will never lose a finger if someone plows your driveway for you). These are real costs with real risks – just ask your insurance company. And while you probably will never get hurt snowblowing, what if you take the DIY approach for everything, over your entire life – mowing, working on your car, wiring, landscaping, climbing ladders…what are the chances SOMETHING will get you someday? Odds aren’t so small anymore when you play the long game. What’s the cost of a single hospital stay or emergency room visit (not to mention the actual pain and suffering) vs hiring an electrician or painter?
It’s especially important with recurring choices, as they accumulate. That’s why nutrition and activity/exercise are critical. People aren’t just suddenly stricken by high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or other ailments. They may be suddenly diagnosed with these conditions, but they are cumulative, the result of daily decisions stacking up over time. Food decisions are often made on a moment to moment basis, instead of as part of a long-term analysis of the costs/benefits. A foolhardy choice, and a waste of our superpowers.
Same goes for a huge range of financial decisions, from daily spending choices to planning out a lifetime of health care, insurance, taxes, investments, and spending. This is why most people simply run out of money at the end of their lives – they never looked ahead and realized just how expensive their lives were going to be. Maybe if we saw the bill before we began, we would be more inclined to study in school, advance in careers, ask for raises, and continually improve our skills over the course of our lives.
Everyone wants to live a good life, and have nice things, but most are not willing to look ahead and face how much it will cost, and do what it takes to afford it – from their own resources. And we’re not just talking TVs and cars here – health care, taxes, and inflation are constantly rising. Just staying ahead year to year requires continuous advancement and investment. Every year we neglect to ask for a raise, every year we don’t review our investments or strategy, every year we pay more than we should on debt or expenses…is another year we are falling behind. Most people think they can just get a job and work and live happily ever after, and only find out in their later years that they have severely miscalculated what they need to retire and pay for medical care. Usually too late by then.
Why we don’t do this
There are really two reasons:
1. We don’t see the consequences.
Eating chicken instead of beans will not kill you…today, this week, this year. But make that choice over and over, and it will shorten your life – in a harsh way. Same goes for so many other critical things in life. Not investing properly won’t bankrupt you this week, but it might in 20 years. But by then it’s simply too late. The trick is to look ahead – anticipate – and play the long game.
2. It’s uncomfortable.
This involves the uncomfortable work of abstract thinking, analysis, and forecasting. It’s a ‘brain sweat’ and most people aren’t willing to do it. It’s actually amazing the lengths people will go to avoid thinking – not willing to sit down and plan out their finances, but will work two jobs, stress over bills and money, and spend most of their lives sacrificing their most important resource (time) and freedom. All this because they can’t bear sitting down every so often and doing some calculating of their own life – and trust me the only hard part is sitting down. It’s already been figured out.
Planning and calculating in life also sadly has a stigma about it. People consider such life examination to be ‘robotic’ or constricting, feeling that by doing this they may be (ironically) living life less fully or freely. The opposite is true of course. Having the discipline to sit down and think our lives through, and making better decisions based on a long-term view, dramatically expands life and its possibilities.
How we can
We instinctively know this when it comes to decisions with clearly poor consequences, such as with taking drugs. But we simply forget that every decision has consequences. There aren’t good or bad choices. There are just choices, and each one has good and bad in it – benefits and costs. But often we only get the full picture when we consider the long-term.
When we stop and think long-term, we are able to see the consequences and benefits more clearly. This is the only way to see the true impact over a lifetime of our seemingly small, everyday choices.
If grocery shopping without thinking long-term can cost you a year of your life and a new house, just imagine the consequences from not playing the long game with regards to decisions about mental and physical health, finances, or relationships.