Companies & Industries

Are You Living for the Short Term or the Long Term?


A fulfilling life—personally and professionally— is a balance between short-term satisfaction and long-term benefit

In analyzing how we spend our time, whether personally or professionally, it can be helpful to consider two dimensions: short-term satisfaction and long-term benefit. Both have value. It can be disappointing to live our lives with no meaning or pleasure in the here and now, just as it can be unfulfilling to live only for today.

Questions like, "Does this activity make me happy?" or "Do I find meaning in the activity itself?" can help us gauge the degree of short-term satisfaction that we get from any activity. Questions like, "Are the results achieved from this activity worth my effort?" or "Is the successful completion of this activity going to have a long-term positive impact on my life?" can help us gauge our expectations for potential long-term benefit from any activity.

The accompanying graph shows five different modes of behavior and how they can characterize our relationship to any activity—either at work or at home. (See above)

Stimulating is for activities that score high in short-term satisfaction but low in long-term benefit. An example of a "stimulating" activity may be the use of drugs or alcohol. While the activity may provide short-term satisfaction, it may be dysfunctional for long-term benefit. At work, gossiping with co-workers may be fun for a while, but it is probably not career- or business-enhancing. A life spent solely on stimulating activities could provide a lot of short-term pleasure but still be headed nowhere.

Sacrificing is for activities that score low in short-term satisfaction but high in long-term benefit. An extreme example of sacrificing could involve dedicating your life to work that you hate because you feel like you "have to" to achieve a larger goal. A more common example might be working out (when you don't feel like it) to improve your long-term health. At work, sacrificing might be spending extra hours on a project to help enhance your career prospects. A life spent solely on sacrificing activities would be the life of a martyr—lots of achievement, but not much joy.

Surviving is for activities that score low on short-term satisfaction and low on long-term benefit. These are activities that don't cause much joy or satisfaction and do not contribute to long-term benefit in your life. These are typically activities that we are doing because we feel that we have to do them in order just to get by. Charles Dickens frequently described the lives of people who were almost constantly in the surviving box. These poor people had countless hours of hard work, not much joy, and not much to show for all of their efforts. A life spent solely on surviving activities would be a hard one indeed.

Sustaining is for activities that produce moderate amounts of short-term satisfaction and lead to moderate long-term benefits. For many professionals, the daily answering of e-mails is a sustaining activity. It is moderately interesting (not thrilling) and usually produces moderate long-term but hardly life-changing benefit. At home, the day-to-day routine of shopping, cooking, and cleaning may be viewed as sustaining. A life spent solely on sustaining activities would be an O.K. one—not great, yet not too bad.

Succeeding is a term for activities that score high on short-term satisfaction and high on long-term benefit. These activities are the ones that we love to do and get great benefit from doing. At work, people who spend a lot of time in the succeeding box love what they are doing and believe that it is producing long-term benefit at the same time. At home, a parent may be spending hours with a child time that the parent greatly enjoys while valuing the long-term benefit that will come to the child. A life spent in succeeding is a life that is filled with both joy and accomplishment.

The perception of both short-term satisfaction and long-term benefit is dependent upon the individual engaged in the activity. Consider an immigrant who leaves a poor country and come to the U.S., where she works 18 hours a day at two minimum-wage jobs. She may have a great attitude toward her work and be saving every possible cent for her children's education. She may define her life as being largely spent in the succeeding category—filled with short-term happiness and long-term benefit.

At the other end of the professional scale, one CEO could feel resentful and grumpy about her work (and feel trapped) because a drop in stock value means that she will have to work another couple of years to have the $10 million she told herself she needed in order to retire. She might see herself in the surviving category. Another CEO in a similar situation could feel happy and fulfilled at the prospect of leading a major organization through challenging times and see herself in the succeeding category.

The point is two people could be engaged in the same activity but have completely different perceptions of what this activity means to them. It's because no one can define what short-term satisfaction or long-term benefit means for you but you. My suggestion for you is simple. Spend a week tracking how you spend your time. At the end of the week calculate how many hours you spent on stimulating, sacrificing, surviving, sustaining, or succeeding. Then ask yourself what changes you can make to help you create a life that is both more satisfying in the short-term and more rewarding in the long-term.

While the activities that take up our time can be one factor in determining our happiness and achievement, our attitude toward these activities can be an equally important factor in determining the ultimate quality of our lives. If we cannot change our activities, we can at least try to change our attitude toward them.

Readers: Please send in comments about your own lives and suggestions for other readers on how they can increase both short-term satisfaction and long-term benefit. Or send me your thoughts on this topic to Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com.

Marshall Goldsmith is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Succession: Are You Ready? as well as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller What Got You Here Won't Get You There, a Harold Longman Award winner for Business Book of the Year. He can be reached at Marshall@MarshallGoldsmith.com, and he provides his articles and videos online at MarshallGoldsmithLibrary.com.

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