Why do we have such a hard time sticking with what we know will be better in the long run instead of sacrificing the greater good for a short term gain?

We cheat on our diets, we make the impulse buy, or we allow our child to watch TV for way too long because, frankly, there’s no other option.

In parenting, this shows up in a lot of places – discipline, moral development, spiritual development, helping them become adults, etc.  We know what we want, but we never quite get around to executing it like we would like to.  We have a vague vision of our hopes for the future, but we really are at a loss for what to do in the short term to get there.


Neuroscience lets us know that when we give in for a small gain in the short term we get a dopamine hit.  And it feels good.  Our biology likes it.  Sure, the greater good or level of intention or ultimate goal might have been sacrificed, but honestly if the bribe got me out of that embarrassing moment with my kid, I’ll deal with the consequences later (sound familiar to anyone?).   This is the curse of lawnmower parents – those that can’t stand to see their child experience anything negative in the short term, but don’t realize the way they are jeopardizing their child’s future.  But at least they got their dopamine fix!

Here’s the deal – our biology is not set up for success.  It’s just not.  It’s set up for survival.  Our biology is drawn to the dopamine drug we get when we do something in the short term that feels good.  We go back for more and  we cheat, we sacrifice, we compromise, we give in.   So, how do we break free from the survival mode our brains often are drawn to?


“Here’s the paradox:

Easy short term choices lead to difficult long term consequences.  Difficult short term choices lead to easy long term consequences.

But (those who have broken free) have realized that procrastination and indulgence are like these creditors that charge us interest…it ultimately creates the more difficult life.”


Rory Vaden – Take the Stairs


Again from Rory, “It’s not we struggle as much from a lack of discipline as much as it is we struggle from a lack of vision.  The amount of our endurance is directly proportionate to the clarity of our vision.”

In order to play the long game we have to have a vision of the future.  We use the phrase “imagine the end” to help with this process.  Imagine your child at 18.  If our goal is to create mature, Jesus-following adults by the time they leave our care, then that will require certain actions in the short term to create the desired outcome in the long term.  What do you hope they understand or who do you hope they are becoming?  Or maybe just imagine your child at the end of the current phase of life – who you hope they will be at the end of elementary or middle school years.  Whatever will help you create a vision.

Once the vision is there, we will have the endurance to stay the course and follow through in the difficult daily grind of parenting.  When we create the vision of the future, we realize the sacrifices of today move us toward the future we care about.   Our ability to be disciplined will kick in naturally and override those survival instincts.

So, here’s a simple invitation to take the time to “imagine the end”.  What is it you desire for your child?  What steps will it take to get there?  What small ways have you been sacrificing the long game for a short term fix?  How can you make some small, difficult decisions today that will lead to a better future?


Two Related Posts:  Don’t Give In!  and   Fight Your Instincts