I have a new Tuesday evening tradition. After my guitar lesson at Music & Arts, I head over to Panda Express for some stir-fry. This is a big change because I’ve always stopped off at Roy Rogers for the #1 meal (cheeseburger, fries and a Coke).
Now that I’m on a health kick, Roy Rogers is out and vegetables are in. Yes, we’re talking those green leafy things. I don’t even get the rice. I go straight for the side order of mixed veggies.
So last night, after eating more broccoli than anyone should have to eat in an entire year, I broke open the fortune cookie that Panda Express had prepared especially for me.
I have to admit, I was impressed by the appropriateness of the message—“A great day lies ahead in the not-too-distant future”—because it summed up some thoughts I had earlier in the day about long-term planning and the choices I’ve made to get to where I am now. It also made me realize that one of the reasons I’ve abandoned Roy’s is because I recognize that what I eat has an impact on my future health and well-being.
In life and work, we’re constantly faced with decisions that are present-focused or future-focused. We must learn to balance these two, often competing poles—planning for the long term, yet dealing with the short term. We have to stick to our plans so we can actually accomplish our goals. It’s that stick-to-itiveness that’s the hard part.
You may have heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the early 1970s. Mischel wanted to know if pre-school children were capable of delaying gratification to achieve a goal. He gave each of his little test subjects a marshmallow and told them they could eat it right away; however, if they were willing to wait 15 minutes, he would reward them with a second one.
Most of the children ate the marshmallow, but about a third waited long enough to earn a second treat. From what I’ve read, this experiment has been repeated numerous times, always with similar results.
Mischel tracked the kids over time and discovered that those who delayed gratification had better life outcomes. They had higher SAT scores and were higher achievers in whatever field they had chosen.
A 2012 University of Rochester experiment found that a child’s belief in the promise of a second marshmallow has a big impact on the outcome. In that study, the pre-schoolers were divided into two groups—one had a promise kept just before the test; the other one had a promise broken. Those in the “promises-kept” group were able to wait four times longer than their peers in the “promises-broken” group.
There’s no doubt that staying focused, learning self-discipline, believing in what you’re doing, and operating from a place of trust and support can help you reach your long-term goals. Sure, the road ahead may be bumpy. Inevitably there are challenges and setbacks, and you may question the decisions you’ve made. But staying future-focused will get you to your destination.
Last year, after being self-employed two years, I considered calling it quits and going back into the job market. I wasn’t where I wanted to be financially, and I had my doubts I would ever get there. To be honest, I was impatient and very present-focused. I was like an investor who hasn’t earned the return he expected in one year, so now he wants to take out all of his money.
But the future-focused voice inside me said, “Don’t throw in the towel just yet. Give yourself another year. Just keep working your plan.” And remarkably, things have picked up. I’m beginning to believe what it said in that fortune cookie: “A great day lies ahead in the not-too-distant future.” I think that might be a promise that gets kept.