According to researchers from Kansas State University, people who use long-term thinking have a greater capacity for implementing healthier behaviors than those who consider only short-term consequences. As described in the January issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences (2010; 48 [2], 202–207), the study sought to discover how people’s perceptions of time correlate with health behaviors, and which measures of time best predict those behaviors. The 467 undergraduate-student participants completed three questionnaires about long- and short-term thinking, as well as current health behaviors such as smoking, nutrition and exercise habits. Topics included sacrificing current happiness to achieve future success and waiting longer for more pay. The researchers then made connections between those responses to predict the respondents’ health choices. The authors suggested that those who understood the future benefits or perils of present decisions were more likely to participate in healthier behaviors. Conversely, short-term thinkers preferred instant gratification and engaged in less-healthy behaviors.

So what is it about long-term thinkers that makes them more successful, healthwise? “I think that ‘long-term’ or ‘future-minded’ thinkers—while being able to evaluate the effect of their current behavior on future situations—actually employ many ‘present-minded’ behavior characteristics,” suggests Mary Bratcher, MA, DipLC, and co-owner of The BioMechanics in San Diego. “They clearly see the links between eating unhealthy foods and the risk of becoming overweight the same way they see an open bottle of bleach on the washing machine as a potential risk that could ruin their favorite jeans.” Even though some of your clients may not currently be future minded, Bratcher believes that this is a trait that can be learned. Here’s how you can help your clients use immediate tactics for greater future success:

  • Counter impulsive tendencies with self-questions before making a decision to act. Examples include “Do I really want/need to eat this right now?” or “Will I feel good tomorrow if I choose to have another drink?”
  • People with similar habits are often drawn together, making it more difficult to replace those habits with more healthful choices. Encourage short-term thinkers to
    include more long-term thinkers in their current circle of friends.
  • Try to delay current impulsive ideas or actions by small increments of time. For instance, wait 10 minutes before submitting to a craving and then re-evaluate the intensity of the craving. If it is still strong, try to wait another 10 minutes. Regular practice in delaying gratification may cause short-term thinkers to more effectively evaluate the influence that current behaviors have on future outcomes.