A characteristic trait of students is that we tend to think in the short term. Our lives have natural milestones: semesters, midterms, due dates for assignments, final exams, and summer and winter breaks. These lead to students having a certain mindset with respect to time. For the most part, we think about our lives in terms of weeks and (maybe) months.
For example, I’m writing this (not at the time of publication) in a week that I have a test, assignments due next week, a presentation I have to prepare, and a grant application I need to write. These are all within the span of a few weeks, so that’s how I’m thinking of my future. I’m not completely blind to time after that, but the majority of my attention is focused on these items. The result is that I’m always thinking about the short term. I plan my time in terms of these things that are due. I think you can agree that it would be too easy to let our whole life during a semester be led by these requirements. I can envision an alternative version of myself just responding to homework assignments and tests from week to week, never thinking about the longer term.
I think this is a mistake. It might seem like the way to go in the moment, but neglecting your longer term future is a mistake. Unfortunately, it’s only one that you will notice much later, and correcting it will only manifest even further down the line.
I don’t want this to happen with me. I know that as long as I’m in school I’ll be held to these short term requirements, but I make sure that there’s more to my life than that. In particular, I try to always keep some longer term projects in mind. That way, I don’t get stuck trying to satisfy the various urgent and short term responsibilities and ignoring the long term ones.
My goal isn’t to live in just the future or just the present. It’s to keep an eye on both, and make sure they each get their appropriate amount of focus. The reality is that the short term also tends to be the source for more urgent items, which is why we forget about the long term. I’ve found that school emphasizes this short term, to the detriment of everything else. This freedom means it’s up to you to find something of value to give your future self. A gift won’t appear out of the ether. What you do now will inevitably affect your future self, which is why it’s worth thinking about the kind of steps you’re taking now.
In this essay, I want to explore this idea in more detail. Basically, I want to argue for cultivating this long term mindset. The more you can think of your present investment as a gift to your future self, the better.
The value of long term
First off, why is there so much value in the long term? Sure, I keep on telling you that it’s important, but there’s no reason to take my word for it. The reason I argue for the long term boils down to the amount of influence you can make. This influence occurs whether you are a student studying physics and mathematics (like myself), or a designer, marketer, businessperson, or anything else.
In the short term, you can tackle small tasks and deal with the daily trials of life. Think about work tasks, homework assignments, tests, and the like. These are all important and do affect your trajectory.
However, there are some projects which just take a lot more time. If you’re like me and want to do science and mathematics communication, this isn’t something you can just jump into. As such, these kinds of projects require perseverance over long time scales. This means you need to plan ahead, and do more than react to incoming requirements of your time. A long term project takes a lot of effort, but it can exert a lot more influence than a shorter term project.
For myself, I have two long term projects that are separate from my education. I have my blog and my webcomic, which I work on every day. I make sure to carve out time to work on them because I know that the net affect of consistently showing up over years and years will be greater than the investment I make every day to do a bit more work on them. This is my gift to my future self. I’m keeping the blog and webcomic going in a consistent manner, and these become assets that gains momentum. If I didn’t work on them each day, this momentum would take a lot longer to grow.
One implication of thinking in the long term is that you need to be already comfortable with your short term requirements. When I work on my blog and webcomic each day, this takes time. I would estimate I spend roughly an hour to ninety minutes each day working on them. This is time I can’t use for other things, such as homework or studying. As I write these words, I have a test tomorrow that I need to prepare for. And yet, I’m still here, writing and drawing for my future self.
To get to this point, you need to have some sort of order in your life already. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I had ten assignments due the next day and a test to study for. There would just be too much short term work required of me. Therefore, it’s through budgeting my time properly and getting my short term requirements done that I can work on these longer term projects.
If you’re in school like myself, it might feel like each day is a battle to get everything done for the next day. I would submit that you’re in an unstable situation. If you feel like you’re barely holding on, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to change this feeling. Obviously, there are some people who have particular circumstances, but there are often find pockets of time that we can reclaim back. Heck, just managing our time better can be enough to get started on longer term projects.
But what if you don’t want to start a project? What if you just want to relax?
These are fair questions, but I would answer them the same way I would of those who wonder when they will find time to exercise. It might not be fun at first, but if you do it long enough, it will become fun. Even if it isn’t, you need to think of it as a gift to your future self. Don’t think about it as something you want to do right now. Think of it as something your future self will thank you for.
So sure, don’t take on projects if you’re uninterested. But I really would recommend starting something. Remember, you want to give your future self a gift.
Projects as the natural long term item
So why am I constantly pushing you to do projects? Well, there’s nothing special about projects. However, as a student who is immersed in the short term world, I’ve found projects to be the natural long term item. Projects are great because they require planning, consistently showing up, and executing over a longer period of time. This gives you skills that you won’t get from the steady cycle of assignments, tests, and final exams.
For myself, it’s why I like writing about my experience in science and mathematics. I get a space in which I can reflect, explain, and work through the various ideas I’ve come across. Through writing, I become better at explaining what I know and laying it out in an interesting way. Writing my blog gives me a chance to build an asset for my future, a proof that I know how to think and explain ideas. In particular, my hope is to become a professor one day and teach, which is why I find writing to be a great practice for this. Each day, I get to think about various ideas and see how I can give them their best exposition. As such, while I’m not a professor right now, I’m building myself up to the point where, when the time comes, I will be more ready than if I did nothing. This is the kind of project you should look for. What can you build that will move the needle in the right direction for what you want to do in the future?
Obviously, I can’t tell you what that means, since we all have our particular situations. This requires introspection and reflection. Once you’ve come up with an idea though, you want to find a way to do a little bit each day (or as consistently as possible). The idea is to always take a small step in the right direction. From day to day, it won’t be noticeable. But over the long term, you will find yourself with something you never could have accomplished in the short term.
We don’t often think about it, but we become our future selves. This means that what you do today will affect what your future is like. As such, you have a choice. You can react to the short term events and never think about the future, or you can be proactive in giving your future self a gift. This is so important in school, where we often find ourselves riding along and doing what we’re told. That’s fine, but what happens when you get your degree? You’re dumped into the world, and forced to figure it out on your own.
That sounds like a bad situation to me. Instead, what if you started building something now? What if you spent a little bit of time every day working on building an asset, a gift, for your future self? I might not enjoy every writing session I have, but I sure am happy when I look at the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written. Looking back at my past, I’m glad I made the choice each day to write. If you want to finish school and have more than just a degree, I would suggest thinking about this. The day-to-day investment is small, but it really does pay off in the future.
You become your future self. Wouldn’t it be nice to give that future self a gift?