in Life Optimization

Do Things That Will Matter in a Year

If you’ve been living deliberately, you may have already noticed a cosmic rule of thumb for activities: if it is easy/entertaining now, it won’t matter/is detrimental in the long run, and if it is hard/boring now, its effects persist/are positive. Obviously there are exceptions – playing with a pet is easy and fun, yet has documented positive health effects, while something like fitting a lightbulb in your mouth isn’t fun nor easy, but that’s not going to do much for the future you.

But those are extremes. Scrolling through your newsfeed, watching your favorite television show, tearing apart a fast food burger. These are all easy to do, and are fun while you are doing them, but once they are done, you don’t have much to show for the effort other than memories of past entertainment.

Meanwhile, think about writing something,  working out, doing language drills, or choosing to eat healthy. These are things that are classically difficult and often boring – everyone tells themselves excuses in order to get out of them. But afterwards, you always have something to show for your time, be it a blog post, toned abs, or a better understanding of how to conjugate things in Portuguese.

There’s the Past, Present, and Future, and most things that feel good in the Present look silly and trivial in the Past. The more work you put into the Present, the brighter the Future becomes. Our minds are hardwired to seek pleasure not pain, even if the pain is just the monotony of forcing yourself to do something without an immediate payoff. But even you don’t care about minor pain from weeks ago. Yet future pleasure is elusive (because we think of our future selves as strangers).

So how can you buck off your brain’s whims and decide what’s important? It’s simple – choose the activities which will still matter in one year. One year is a long time – long enough to make you forget all the little silly things you did last year, but not so long as to be unimaginable. You could scale this time period down to as low as 3 months, but the point is to have an interval that is long enough to make you forget the things you did in the day. Let’s stick with a year for this example.

Do you remember what you did exactly one year ago? Unless you use a life logging program, you probably don’t. But even if you do not remember events down to the exact date and time, I’ll wager that there are certain things from that time in your memories. Strong emotional memories,  time spent with friends or family, or perhaps a trip you made somewhere. It’s probably not the time you spent the whole day browsing the internet aimlessly.

If whatever you did a year ago was constructive, you don’t even need your fickle memories to remember it – it’s still there! If you wrote something or made some art, it will still exist in one year and you can go look at it whenever you like. (barring accidents) For the non-physical things that require continuous work, like language learning, friendships, or physical fitness, assume that you will continue to place importance on it between now and a year later. If you lift one weight between now and next year, it won’t do much, but if you make it a habit (which you will, if you internalize this perspective), you will continue to lift weights every day, and then that insignificant action will have effects no matter how far down the line you go. The repercussions stack on top of each other.

So think about this principle the next time you find yourself deciding what to do with your time. Will this matter in a year? In general, it will if:

  • it provides a foundation for further knowledge (study of particular information towards a goal)
  • it contributes to your health (eating healthy, exercising, taking time to play with others)
  • it creates something (writing, art)
  • it takes you out of your comfort zone (traveling, exposing yourself to new people/experiences).

In regards to interaction with others, think the same way, but more leniently. (Be ruthless with time, but gracious with people). Is this person/group somebody that I would enjoy seeing in my life a year from now? Are we doing something that has the potential to create a lasting, positive memory that I will remember? Do I enjoy time spent with this person? If the answer to all of these questions is ‘no’, think about whether you really want to be there with them.

This mindset was thrown into contrast for me after I returned for my final year of college after a year abroad, and noticed that many of the things that had occupied my time before I left were no longer had interest in. Loose acquaintances dropped out of view, while my group of core friends remained loyal and welcomed me back as if nary a day had passed. My blog posts from the year remained present helpful, even if the things I did in them were no longer relevant.

This is especially true with school classes. Since I’m taking classes that my major wants me to rather than the things I truly care about, all the knowledge absorbed during the quarter becomes useless the moment the final exams ends. I don’t care about poverty in Latin America, and I’ve forgotten most of the facts I’ve learned about it, except for the things that I found interesting. Whereas the things I learned on my own, out of personal interest (now listed weekly on this very blog) remain exciting, helpful, or both.

It’s also helpful when horrible things happen – ‘zoom out’ on your life and see if it will matter 1 year, 5 years, 10 years from now. Even relatively large setbacks like a stolen computer, or a failed project become insignificant.

This mindset lets me focus on what’s important. Just don’t forget the simple pleasures – there is certainly something to be said for good times with friends or a cold beverage in warm weather. Maybe it will be transcendent enough to stick in your memory for a year!