August 21, 2022 Reading Time: 8 minutes

I’ve read it, and I’ve heard it: sentences that begin with It’s unbelievable thatIt’s unbelievable that airlines are allowed to mistreat passengers, that supermarkets/gas stations can increase prices so much, that the unmasked/unvaccinated can threaten those who have done everything right, that China is ripping us off, that stricter measures are not taken against fossil fuels. On and on, people rage. 

Driven by emotional reactions, the it’s unbelievable crowd wants solutions now; and for every problem they perceive, there is a politician ready to give it to them. Every time we say they should do something, a politician gets another vote. 

When your time preference is high, you don’t value studying the nuances of an issue. You don’t respect a market process that takes time to discover solutions. You want to “consume” an immediate remedy. Politicians thrive when our time preference is high. Without the it’s unbelievable mindset to exploit, most politicians, promising ridiculous and destructive solutions, would never get elected. 

In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises makes clear: “There is no man for whom the difference between sooner and later does not count.” Mises writes, “time preference or the higher valuation of want-satisfaction in nearer periods of the future as against that in remoter periods, is an essential element in human action. It determines every choice and every action.”

Our time preference can change. As we drop our time preference, we can stop emotionally demanding immediate gratification. Economist Saifedean Ammous explains the importance of lowering our time preference: “The lowering of the time preference is what initiates the process of human civilization and allows for humans to cooperate, prosper, and live in peace.” A falling time preference allows us to give greater importance to future outcomes:

As humans reduce their time preference, they develop the scope for carrying out tasks over longer time horizons, for satisfaction of ever-more remote needs, and they develop the mental capacity to create goods not for immediate consumption but for the production of future goods, in other words, to create capital goods.

In short, Ammous writes, “Human beings’ lower time preference allows us to curb our instinctive and animalistic impulses, think of what is better for our future, and act rationally rather than impulsively.” 

But what if government actions work perversely to increase our time preference? And more importantly, what if many of us, via our mindset, are cheering government on?

One of the most destructive things governments can do is manipulate time preference. 

Reckless monetary and fiscal policies resulting in inflation is the most obvious way government manipulates our time preference. The more we experience inflation, the more present consumption seems better than saving for the future.

Government subsidizes the consumption of processed foods. In the process, government subsidies promote obesity and chronic illnesses like diabetes. Each time we avail ourselves of this subsidy and consume calories loaded with white flour, corn syrup, and highly processed soy and canola oils, we choose the pleasant buzz of comfort foods over our long-term health. You can choose to forgo the subsidy and eat unprocessed whole foods, but doing so requires effort. It is a choice to lower your time preference and invest in your family’s health by exchanging empty calories for nutrient-rich foods. In a high time preference world of fast food, taking the time to cook whole foods does more than nourish the body; it decouples you from destructive government manipulation.

Schools are increasingly dedicated to indoctrination about race and gender. In the process, building blocks of liberty—free speech and individual rights—are suppressed. Parents can forgo government education and homeschool, which may require sacrificing present income. Politicians are counting that most parents won’t sacrifice current consumption in exchange for a better future for their children. 

Despite government incentives to increase your time preference, you retain your capacity to choose to lower your time preference. I want to point the reader to some low-hanging fruit: choices you can make today to lower your time preference. 

Focus on Process, Not Goals

Listen to any politicians and their focus on goals. Who isn’t for excellent education, a clean environment, and so on? Almost no attention is paid to the process of reaching the goal. Politicians tell us they are building bridges to the future and claim we must pass the bill before we can know what is in the bill. The tactics politicians deploy almost always suppress discovering solutions through a market process. 

Focusing on the individual, James Clear encourages us to think process not goals: “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”

He cautions, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

Clear explains, “True long-term thinking is goal-less thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment. It is about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately, it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”

A high time preference mindset leads to an inordinate focus on goals, often leading to expedient but destructive action. We need goals to set our direction, but we need the daily discipline of a process that works to truly change our future. 

Are you frustrated at how slow your progress seems? Maybe your process needs changing. Clear observes, 

Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You get what you repeat.

In my essay, “Effort Matters,” I explored the work of Anders Ericsson, whose research points us to consider the importance of process. “Heartfelt desire and hard work alone will lead to improved performance,” is a false belief. Ericsson writes, “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.” If you want to get better, get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable 

The 17th Century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

If you doubt Pascal, try this experiment: Sit alone in a room for 15 minutes with no gadgets, books, or papers. I know from reports of hundreds of my leadership students that the exercise is surprisingly difficult. With no distractions, their discomfort level rose to code red very quickly.

Why? Without distractions, our internal dialogue often runs wild. We want to escape the internal noise by our favorite coping mechanism: checking our phone for the latest update, getting a bite to eat, etc. 

Your internal chatter often harasses you with thoughts that you are not making fast enough progress. Thomas Sterner uses this metaphor to help us reflect:

Do you think that a flower seed sits in the ground and says, “This is going to take forever. I have to push all this dirt out of my way just to get to the surface and see the sun. Every time it rains or somebody waters me, I’m soaking wet and surrounded by mud. When do I get to bloom? That’s when I’ll be happy; that’s when everybody will be impressed with me. I hope I’m an orchid and not some wildflower nobody notices. Orchids have it all… no, wait; I want to be an oak tree. They are bigger than anybody else in the forest and live longer, too”? As silly as the flower’s monologue might sound, it is exactly what we do, and we do it, as they say, every day and in every way.

Sterner’s point is how often we default to goals thinking: “We consciously or unconsciously pick a point of reference in whatever we do and decide that nothing will be right until we get to that point.”

Sterner’s advice is to “step back and observe your internal dialogue from time to time during the day. He predicts, “you will be amazed at how hard you work against yourself with this type of thinking.”

We can develop patience to stick with our process. Sterner writes,

The first step toward patience is to become aware of when your internal dialogue is running wild and dragging you with it. If you are not aware of this when it is happening, which is probably most of the time, you are not in control. Your imagination takes you from one circumstance to another, and your different emotions just fire off inside you as you react to each problem your mind visits.

Politicians count on the public having the absurd “flower seed” mindset Sterner describes. When a perceived problem is not solved immediately, they forgo discovery in the market process and turn to counterproductive solutions. Politicians are so skillful at their sleight of hand that most individuals don’t realize real solutions go undiscovered when the market process is abandoned. 

The Joy of Missing Out

In financial markets, buying high and selling low is often the experience of those swept by powerful herding emotions. When the price of Bitcoin rose to its all-time high of 69k in 2021, the fear of missing out on promised riches lured some into the market. As the current Bitcoin price hovers around 20k, interest has waned; fear of falling prices dominates the herd. In contrast, if the price of an economic good drops, such as an iPad dropping from $690 to $200, people would line up to buy.

The fear of missing out can unleash powerful emotions that color our daily decision-making. We may perceive a world of limitless experiences and lifestyles, enticing our desires. Oliver Burkeman observes that “rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless.” He continues,

We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance; or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won’t be required. Or we procrastinate, which is another means of maintaining the feeling of omnipotent control over life—because you needn’t risk the upsetting experience of failing at an intimidating project, obviously, if you never even start it.

Jumping from one distraction to another, guarantees we won’t do anything very well. All decisions have an opportunity cost, and as our time preference falls, we become more aware of how we use time. Burkeman writes, “Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that, but didn’t—and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.”

Burkeman provides the antidote to the fear of missing out mindset: 

Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

Realizing the finitude of time, Burkeman writes, leads to the “’joy of missing out” in contrast to the fear of missing out. Burkeman explains, “It is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything.”

Just as there is a market process discovering solutions to problems on a societal level, there is an emergent process that solves problems in your life. You won’t reap the benefits of this personal discovery process if, like a politician, you look for a quick fix that will probably worsen your problems. 

Despite incentives that government provides, choose to lower your time preference. Remember, politicians thrive when high time preference voters, fixated on problems, are impatient and ready to support political solutions. The higher our time preference, the more likely we are to believe a politician’s false promises. The more we believe their goal-oriented lies and fail to question their processes, the more freedom, and prosperity we lose.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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