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How to achieve long term goals by changing how we think about short ones

Life is always a balancing act: in addition to planning for the future, we need to focus on our immediate environment. Many short term goals — like saving money and dieting — are ultimately beneficial for our personal futures. But in the present we may be too absorbed in the short term, for example not eating food we like or buying things we want, to see the long-reaching benefits of sticking to them.

Professor Dan Ariely, who teaches psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, believes that understanding why we focus on our short terms goals and changing how we think about them could ultimately help us achieve our long term ones — and why we sometimes fall short.

Speaking at the 2014 Games for Change festival, Ariely said that in principle we know what the right behavior is, but we don't do it at the moment because our desire overrides our senses. This is applicable to things like overeating, not exercising and texting while driving. However, if a major decision is pushed in the future, we're more likely to say we'll do it — we'll exercise more, eat better.

"In the future we are wonderful people — but we don't live in the future, we live in the present," Ariely said. "And in the present we make mistake after mistake after mistake."

Ariely did not provide any clear examples of how goal-setting applied to games, or how others have used video game principles to affect change in their daily lives.

Ariely said one solution to helping people's long term goals is to make them pledge towards the goal in front of other people. Getting people to live in a way that is more consistent with long term goals can be done with two methods, he said: reward substitution and what he called Ulysses contracts.

Reward substitution is when you re-engineer your environment to encourage forward-thinking behavior. Ariely said that at one point in his life, he was on a medication for liver problems that he had to take daily. The medicine would make him sick every time he took it, and he would have miserable nights. But if he continued to take it, he would get better. He decided to take the medication and deal with the nightly sickness and a year and a half latter he got better. His doctor told him that of all people using this medication, he was the only one who took it all in time.

"In the future we are wonderful people — but we don't live in the future."

Ariely got through his sick nights by renting videos. He would bring home movies he wanted to see and inject himself with the medication right before he pressed play. He was associating something he wanted to do with something he didn't, and made sure his environment was equipped to handle the sick side effects of the medication. Ariely said it's about ranking the important things in life — liver health being more important than movies and side effects. Other patients on the same medication should have been motivated by wanting to keep their livers healthy, but they were not because of weak motivational force.

"The reality is educating people about long term objectives is just not going to work," he said. "We don't have a single piece of evidence that is has worked in the past."

Creating something immediate that people would act towards, something with a small immediate payoff, can push them to behave as though they care about the long term objective, he said. Bringing a reward closer to the immediate present, like what Ariely did with videos and medication, is more likely to get people to commit to a long term goal.

Educating people about long term objectives is just not going to work."

Another thing factoring into goal setting is regret. Regret isn't driven by happiness — it's driven by where we think we are and where we think we could have been. We are more upset when we miss a flight by two minutes than if we missed it by two hours because we nearly made it there in time. We compare to ourselves to a reality in which we think we could have made it, and that makes us miserable, Ariely said. Ariely cited a study done a few years ago measured the smiles on Olympic medal winners. Smiles were bigger on the bronze and gold winners, while silver winners didn't smile so widely — this was because they almost made it, and were too close to becoming gold medal winners. Regret drives people to think of the smallest steps they could take to achieve a goal, like winning first place or losing weight. Adding in regret drives compliance to long term behavior by almost 98 percent, Ariely said.

The second method, Ulysses contracts, calls back to the story of Ulysses. When traveling across the sea, Ulysses and his crew came across a group of sirens, who sang songs that would cause mortal men to crash their ships on rocks and drown. He made his crew members stuff cotton in their ears so they wouldn't hear, but had them tie him to the mast of the ship because he knew the song would affect him and didn't want to crash the ship.

"The contract is this: I know that my future self would misbehave, so let me do something now to prevent that future self from misbehaving," Ariely explained.

A contract could be anything from not buying sweets or placing an alarm clark farther away from you when you sleep, to signing up with a personal trainer to make sure you stay on top of your fitness goals. If you know your future self will not keep in line with long term goals, you can again alter your current environment and what's in it to ensure that your future self doesn't have the opportunity to misbehave in the first place.

Ariely also believes that these things can all amount to us creating easier ways to kill ourselves — obesity, texting while driving — so creating this kind of contract with yourself is good way to preserve no only our goals, but ourselves.

"It's not a case where you make one decision and it kills you, it's a sequence of bad decisions that will ultimately lead to your mortality," he said. "Life is tempting... We are making decisions as an outcome of the environment that we're in, and the environment we're in is interested in our short term well-being. The mechanisms we use to override these immediate temptations will only become more important over time."

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