It's no secret that long-term goals are difficult to achieve. Retirement, for example, seems so far away that it's easy to put off saving for it—in fact, over 21% of working Americans aren't saving at all. And yet, if someone doesn't save for retirement now, they'll likely have to work well into their golden years.
So why are long-term goals so hard to commit to? The answer lies in our brain's wiring.
What's Our Brain Got to Do With Long-Term Goals?
When it comes to setting, committing, and planning long-term goals, our brain is not always our friend. Instead of going along with our long-term plans, our brains are wired to seek immediate gratification.
In other words, we're designed to respond to more immediate problems, not long-term problems down the line. Our brains have evolved to deal with more immediate threats, like being chased by a lion.
In today's world, long-term problems, like saving for retirement, can seem much less urgent than more immediate problems, like paying for rent. This means that we're often not as motivated to deal with long-term problems, even though they may be just as critical.
We Crave Immediate Gratification
So, why do our brains crave immediate gratification? It all comes down to brain chemicals.
We're programmed to want things that make us feel good now, even if it's not in our long-term best interest. When we get what we want, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel happy. This is why we often seek activities that will give us an immediate dopamine hit. For example, customers seek the dopamine spike that comes with a new purchase (even if it means going into debt).
For many of us, it can feel like our brain has a mind of its own when it comes to long-term goals.
A Tale of Two Brain Regions
There's a scientific reason why we struggle with immediate gratification and long-term goals. According to research from Princeton University, it all comes down to the conflict between two areas of our brain: one with our emotions and the other with abstract reasoning.
As you may imagine, our emotional brain desires instant gratification and short-term rewards. When given a choice between spending a paycheck now on a new outfit or investing in a retirement fund, our emotional brain will almost always choose the former.
On the other hand, our reasoning brain knows that long-term planning is essential. It might try to convince us that investing in our retirement fund means we will be well-taken care of in our later years and that we don't really need that new outfit.
The conflict between these two regions of our brain makes it difficult to stick to long-term goals like retirement savings.
The Future is Too Far Away
Another reason planning for long-term achievements can be challenging is because we have a difficult time imagining ourselves in the future. When we think of "the future," it can seem like an amorphous time frame. In fact, most people don't see the continuity between their present and future selves.
What do we call this phenomenon? It's known as present bias, which is the tendency to give more weight to the present than to the future. For example, in our most recent trend report on retirement savings behavior , we found that while 58% of respondents described positive feelings about managing their finances, only 17% of adults have made saving for retirement a top financial priority. This is likely because retirement feels like such a long way off that they assume "things will work out" or their "future self" will handle it.
But, should we be shifting our problems into the future?
Pass the Buck To Our Future Self
We often discount the importance of long-term goals like retirement since they seem remote. Tasks can be put off because there's a thought that the "other" version of ourselves (in the future) will be able to handle it. In other words, we continue to assume that our future self will miraculously get things done, even if that's just not logical.
Why do we treat our future selves so differently?
Our Future Self Is A Stranger
"When people think of themselves in the future, it feels to them like they are seeing a different person entirely…like a stranger on the street," said Hal Hershfield, a social psychologist at UCLA Anderson who is researching how human behavior can be modified when linked to future self-identity.
His studies have shown that there is an apparent emotional disconnect between the person we are today and the person we imagine we are in 10, 20, or 30 years from now. This disconnect is so great that it can lead to self-destructive behavior and limit our ability to follow through on long-term goals. No surprise, our pesky brain has a lot to do with this disconnection.
Hershfield and his colleagues at Stanford have documented this disconnect using fMRI technology. Subjects were asked to describe their current selves and then their future selves. Neural patterns in the brains of these individuals evoked the same response—their brains stopped acting as if they were thinking about themselves. Instead, it started acting as if they were thinking about a totally different person.
So, when we transfer long-term goals to our future selves, it almost feels like someone else will get it done for us (but that's not the case, is it?).
Get Comfortable With Long-term Planning
It's clear that long-term goals like retirement savings can be hard to commit to because of how our brains are wired. However, understanding this conflict can help us find ways to overcome it.
How can we outsmart our brains when it comes to long-term achievements?
We can make small changes in our behavior today that will pay off in the future.
We can also use technology to help us stay on track with long-term goals.
We can make a commitment to ourselves to stick to our long-term goals, no matter what.
How Can Marketers Change Consumer Behavior About Long-term Goals?
When it comes to long-term consumer behavior, marketers need to understand the conflict between our emotional and reasoning brains. We also need to find ways to help consumers overcome this conflict. A few ways marketers can do this:
Tap into present motivations—Research shows that buying experiences make people happier than buying stuff. So, instead of selling a product, try to sell an experience. For example, rather than selling a robo-advisor, try selling the experience of having a worry-free retirement.
Make it easy to start—Making a long-term commitment can be daunting. So, make it easy for consumers to get started by breaking down the commitment into small, manageable steps. For example, if you're trying to get consumers to commit to a financial investment plan, start by getting them to commit to investing $20 per week.
Think long-term, but focus on the present—Long-term goals can seem out of reach, making it difficult to get started. So, focus on the present and what consumers can do today to make long-term progress. For instance, if you're trying to get consumers to save for retirement, focus on getting them to sign up for a 401K plan today.
Get emotional with the goals—It's all about engaging the emotional brain. So, make long-term goals feel more emotionally appealing by focusing on the positive outcomes.
Rebel Against Your Brain
Long-term goals can be challenging, but that doesn't mean they're impossible. By understanding the conflict between the emotional and reasoning parts of our brain, we can find ways to overcome them. And, by making small changes in our behavior today, we can impact our future. So, rebel against those brain waves and commit to your future today.
We know that being future-ready might get uncomfortable. Growth often is. But by using strategy and consumer research, we'll find truths in places you wouldn't expect. We're up for it if you are. Let's go there.