Why Are People Bad at Long-Term Planning?

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Have you ever felt like others were getting ahead in life but you weren't? Maybe a friend bought a house, and you haven't even considered saving for a down payment. Or perhaps a relative your age is married and starting a family, and you can't fathom the responsibility of raising children.

These differences don't mean that you're less accomplished than others in your life, or that you're doing anything wrong. Rather, the people doing the "adulting" probably are just thinking about, and planning for the future. Some of us are great at that, and some of us aren't.

If you've wondered why people are bad at long-term planning, you're not alone. About 25% of Americans never think about what life will be like five years into the future, and over 50% never think about life in thirty years. And, only 35% of people say they think about the future at all once a week.

Ahead, we'll break down why long-term planning matters, why so many of us aren't good at it, and how to get better at this skill.

Why Long-Term Planning Matters

You may know that long-term planning benefits your life, but not be completely clear about why. Here are the top reasons why it helps to be able to think long term.

Financial Stability

In a perfect world, we'd all be well-taken care of as we age. However, this world is far from perfect, and saving for retirement is something most people need to do.

People who live on social security alone are forced to live incredibly frugal lives. The more money you have saved for retirement, the better your quality of life will be then.

Additionally, there are countless unexpected occurrences that people suddenly need chunks of money for. You may have a medical problem that isn't covered by your insurance, your car might need repairs, or you might need to help out a family member in crisis.

Consistently saving enough money to have a "nest egg" enables you to be prepared when the unexpected happens. In turn, you can feel more relaxed and less stressed in your everyday life.

Declining Energy As We Age

Some older adults travel the world and have a great time, but many feel like those days have passed. We have less energy as we age,and as such, you might have less energy to save money or to work more later in life.

For some, your younger years are when you have the most energy, so the more you can accomplish now, the more easily you can rest when you need to, later in life.

A Better World

Climate change is often cited as the main example of the effects of short-term thinking. By not factoring in the continued effects of climate change on the world, we've gotten ourselves into quite a pickle as a species.

Global warming of even a couple of degrees has catastrophic effects, as we've already begun to witness and experience.

The ability to think long-term provides us with the understanding that our actions have consequences.

When we don't think about the future, we care less about the fact that we might be putting it at risk. And when we do think about the future, we're likely to act in a way that ensures it's a better one.

Why People Have Challenges With Long-Term Thinking

If you don't think or plan for the long term well, it's not your fault. It's all about how our brains work, and many of us just aren't wired that way. These are a few examples of why it's hard to think long-term.

You "Can't See the Forest for the Trees"

There are several terms in place for people who think in the shorter term. These include:

  • Micro thinking, rather than macro thinking
  • Short-term thinking, instead of long-term thinking
  • Detail-oriented versus big-picture oriented

A complaint about people who see the finer points in situations, but have challenges examining the larger picture, is that they cannot see "the forest for the trees."

This means that while you're able to know about every leaf or small detail of a situation, you can't easily grasp what the tree looks like in the forest, or the larger, longer-term situation.

You Can't Relate to Your Future Self

As strange as it may sound, we often view future versions of ourselves as strangers. This inability to wrap our brains around the people we'll be in the future leads to an emotional disconnect, in which we care less about the future because we just can't relate to it.

Studies have shown that those of us who can relate most closely to the ideas of our future selves are the ones who do the most saving for the future.

That's right: people who can picture their future selves more clearly save more money in preparation for that.

Our Brains Just Aren't Programmed That Way

Only 60% of us think about one month ahead on a daily basis. This means that nearly half of the population doesn't think about a month out regularly.

And just 30% of us think about a year ahead regularly, or several times a week. MRIs have shown that our brains think of our future selves as entirely different people, offering concrete proof that it's a challenge for our minds.

How to Improve Long-Term Planning Skills

The good news here is that even though so many of us aren't naturally gifted at long-term planning, we can do things to improve our ability to move through life more smoothly, with a better focus on the future. Here are some ways you can go about being better at long-term planning.

Outline Your Goals

It may seem counterintuitive to outline your goals if you aren't sure what you want in the future. So think of this task as one that's more about aspirations than concrete plans. Be general, and highlight some of the things you wish to achieve for yourself in life.

Then, create a loose timeline for when you want to have achieved those goals. This can be flexible as time goes on, and you aren't committed to any goal that you decide you don't actually want, in years to come.

Writing down your aspirations will give you a clearer understanding of the direction you want your life to go in, and that is quite valuable.

Take Action Now

Once you have your aspirations detailed, look at how you can begin to take action to turn your aspirations into reality. Focus on the initial steps you can take, and try not to worry about many steps down the road. Instead, let your short-term thinking guide you for now.

Feel free to write out only one or two steps of an action plan, then make a date with yourself in two weeks or a month's time to see how it went. Check in with yourself as often as needed so that you can gain a deeper understanding of how you are preparing for the long term.

The more you do this, and the more time goes on, the better you'll be able to relate to and connect with your future self.

Break Down Goals Into Shorter Terms

More important than any other part of getting better at long-term planning is to break down your action steps into shorter-term ones so that you can understand and relate to them.

For example, say you want to start saving to buy a home in five years. Begin by planning to save $100 this month. Then, in another month, you can assess whether that felt comfortable or not for you financially. Maybe the next month you could save $200, or maybe you need to scale back to $50. Flexibility is key to success here.

A Word From Verywell

Not being able to think and plan for the future can be frustrating, especially when you see others around you accomplishing large goals. You're not alone in having this challenge! If the subject still feels overwhelming, consider speaking to a counselor or therapist so that you have some additional support.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.