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How To Make Smart Choices At Any Age

If you were given thirty minutes to spend time with someone interesting, who would you choose?

  1. a famous author of a book you enjoyed?
  2. a family member or close friend?
  3. a recent acquaintance with whom you have much in common?

According to research, the answer you give will be influenced by how old you are.

In a fascinating set of studies by social researcher Laura Carstensen, people in their twenties, forties, and seventies were given these same choices. Older people overwhelmingly chose to spend time with family and close friends. Younger people, in contrast, distributed their responses across all three options.

Carstensen and her team were curious and wanted to understand why older people responded differently to younger people. Are they less open to new experiences? Do they have different values? Are their choices impacted by their experiences of time?

To investigate these questions, the research team repeated the study with altered conditions. The results were starkly different.

In the second study, younger people were asked the same question with an additional caveat – they only had “half an hour before moving across the country to live.” With less time, younger people made the choice to spend time with close friends and family rather than meet people they hardly knew.

In contrast, when older people were asked how they would respond “if they knew they had twenty additional years of life,” they distributed their responses across all three categories. Older people responded like younger people when they were guaranteed a longer timeframe.

Different timeline. Different responses. Interesting.

These studies are important. They suggest that the way we set goals, form priorities, and arrange our choices are determined by how much time we perceive we have left in life.

If we believe we have years or decades before us, we tend to be more future focused, broaden our experiences and pursue longer-term activities. If we believe we are closer to death, we are more likely to narrow our choices, reduce our breadth of experiences, and prioritise time with those who are dearest to us.

This has significant implications when seeking to understand how to make wise decisions, day by day, over the journey of our life.

LIVE EVERY DAY AS IF IT IS YOUR LAST?

There is a popular saying in self-help literature: “Live every day as if it is your last.” This may sound like good advice but can we really live this way?

I first heard this saying when watching a keynote address by the late Steve Jobs. Speaking at Stanford University, Jobs compelled a group of new graduates to live every day as if it was their last. I understand why this speech was motivating. Jobs was encouraging us to live in the moment and not take life for granted. He was imploring us to make decisions without fear. I support these motivations, in theory.

But then I started to think, “how can this work in practice?” If I live for today, what about tomorrow? Is it smart to live as if there is no tomorrow when I have a family to raise, a business to build, and a twenty year mortgage to service? Live in the present or plan for the future? How can I reconcile my tension with these different time demands?

Here is where I find Carstensen’s research to be of value. Wisdom is both contextual and time-oriented, and must be shaped by our age and stage of life. For the choices we make will inevitably be impacted by how much time we think we have left to live. Steve Jobs, who was fighting cancer at the time of giving his keynote, argued the logic of “living in the moment.” But we must remember where he was situated in the seasons of life. His career had been established. He had money in the bank. His children had left home. Why delay gratification and plan for the future when time is running out?

But Jobs wasn’t speaking to people like himself. He was speaking to a group of young graduates, with decades of life before them as they prepared to enter the workforce. He was speaking to Carstensen’s twenty year old cohort, rather than her seventy year old cohort, which is surely worth considering when giving sage advice. 

Seize the day, yes. Live today as if it’s your last, maybe not? At least not literally.

For when we are young, there is much value in preparing for a better future. This involves delaying gratification and putting off the immediacy of today for tomorrow. It involves saving money, studying a degree, building relational networks, travelling the world, and learning new skills. For as Carstensen discovered, it makes sense for younger people to invest in new relationships and to broaden their experiences – assuming they have plenty of life ahead of them.

But as we near the finish line, logic determines that we invest our limited life in different ways. This may explain why older people in Carstensen’s study were less interested in forming new relationships. The payoff isn’t the same. For how can a new acquaintance become an ‘old friend’ if there isn’t enough time? With increasing age there’s also less time to master new skills. This may be why older people seem to relish and gain satisfaction from the memories, experiences and relationships they already have.

So age matters. Our perspectives and priorities are deeply impacted by our remaining timeline. It’s not about being young or old per se. It’s about how much time we perceive we have left. For people tend to make different choices when they only have thirty minutes to catch a plane, compared with all the time in the world.

Practical Application

How do we use these concepts and apply them in practice?

Firstly, I suggest we take care when giving people advice, or at the very least, remember that wisdom requires we consider a person’s age and stage in life. 

For example, when talking with young people I am likely to encourage them to broaden their experiences. Throw caution to the wind. Travel the world. Meet lots of new people. Start new hobbies. Get new experiences. Why this advice? It’s about preparing for the future. By broadening one’s skills, experiences and relationships, a young person has a better chance of discovering who they are, what they believe, and what they are good at – all necessary for a healthy future self.

In contrast, when I coach leaders in the mid-life slump, typically between forty and fifty years of age, my advice is quite different. By middle-age, most people have networks and experiences, and not enough focus. They have too many commitments, too many priorities, too many options, and the burden of choice and responsibility is weighing them down. Opposite to our youth, in the middle of life it’s often best to narrow our skills and eliminate our options. What can we eliminate from our life? What can we outsource or stop doing? How can we deepen our existing relationships? How can we say “yes” to a few things by saying “no” or “not yet” to a lot? 

Context is everything. Different timelines bring different choices. So let’s be considerate of this when giving advice.

Shifting The Spotlight

The second practical application is to shift the spotlight when making decisions.

If you have too many choices and are stuck in analysis paralysis, can you stand back and examine your situation from a different time-perspective? How might the march of time impact the way you feel about this situation?

For example, would you respond differently if you had just one day to live? What about one week? What about one year? What about another eighty years?

Zoom in and zoom out. It’s a useful activity. What might your current self say about the problem? What might your future self say about the decision?

By considering the impact of time on our choices we can consider new data and increase our ability to make informed decisions. Each perspective has something unique to offer. By narrowing and broadening our horizons we can learn to think both old and young at the same time.

Today and Tomorrow

Steve Jobs was not wrong but his advice must be heeded with caution.

There is great value in pursuing a life lived in the moment. Living for ‘today’ can be a great motivator to spend more time with our children, appreciate our partner, or pursue passion projects that might fail. The immediate perspective is gutsy, emotional and activating. We need this to live our best life. 

At the same time, the myopic perspective of ‘today’ is often inadequate for the twists and turns of ‘tomorrow.’ There is value in NOT living in the moment – in delaying gratification, pursuing longer-term projects, and in sacrificing one’s desires for the betterment of our future self.

Here lies the tension of adulthood; being present in the moment while at the same time investing in a longer-term legacy. Some days we need to remind ourselves to live the moment. Other days we need to visualise ourselves at the end of our lives and make decisions accordingly. Zoom in and zoom out. Between these polarities is wisdom – an appropriate answer to how I might best use my time, at any given moment, considering both today and tomorrow.

What does it mean for you to live in the moment? What does it mean for you to plan for the future? And how are you navigating the tension between these two realities?

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