Hyperbolic discounting and why your goals suck

Updated to Productivity on December 27, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

If you struggle to reach goals you might have a bad case of hyperbolic discounting.


Before I get to what hyperbolic discounting is, let me back up and first talk about goal setting.

A typical assumption is that BIG GOALS (think: Jim Collin’s BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) are the best. After all, isn’t that how all great achievements happened?

The Egyptians toiled away for 20 years because they wanted to build the Pyramids.

Cartographer James Rennell spent 13 years hauling around a perambulator and eating Dal Bhat because India needed a map.

And Disney poured all his resources plus years of his life to build the most iconic fantasy park in history (which, BTW was originally named Disneylandia.)

Big goals should get us fired up to take on the world. Right?


It turns out (I know you’ve experienced this), big goals way out in the future lose some of their luster and don’t motivate you as much as you might hope. Sure, you need direction – but there’s something needed between your BHAG and the actions you take today.

That brings me to hyperbolic discounting, the phenomenon of giving less value to something because of how distant it is.

Can I give you $120?

“Your ‘present now’ and all ‘future nows’ are undeniably determined by the priority you live in the moment.” -The One Thing, Keller and Papasan

Imagine I offer you $100 today. You’d take it, thank me, and celebrate with a nice cappuccino, right?

But, what if I was to give you the option of $100 today or $120 at the end of the month. Now which would you take? How about $100 today or $200 next year. Would you take the 200?

It turns out, you would take the bigger amount if your goal was to make the most money. Strangely, that’s not what most people choose.

Economists have long known, that even though we want bigger rewards over smaller ones there is a much stronger preference to the reward I can get today over a future one.

Think about where you put your attention. Are you working on your long term goals or pecking away at Facebook updates and unprioritized To-Do lists? Can you honestly say that every week you move your big projects forward?

How to chop down a big tree

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” –Lincoln

If you want to chop down a big tree (your Boulders), you start by reverse engineering all the way from raking up the leaves back to packing up the tools you’ll need for the job. It’s no different with you business or your goals—work backwards from the end result to get to the start.

When I joined my partners at Adventure Network our goal was to operate the world’s first airline in Antarctica. First we needed to get fuel to the Antarctic coast.

When I started BlogWorks I wanted to be the best social media service for bloggers. First I needed to speak with bloggers. I started there.

It sounds simple – even elementary – even frustratingly slow. But, this is how goals work. And this is how the Flight Plan works.

First your Flight Plan

“Start with the end in mind.” -Stephen Covey

I created the Flight Plan tool to help busy people reach their BHAGs and to grapple with the To-Do list monster. The To-Do list monster wants to keep you SO BUSY you don’t have time to think if you’re getting ahead.

I did that for years—thinking if I was so busy I MUST be moving forward. Most times, I wasn’t.

Staying busy on today’s goals is a great recipe for never getting to your future goals.

The solution is to start your week with an eye on the goal – completing your Boulders. Your flight plan is the dozen or so tasks that move your Boulders ahead. It might just be a phone call, completing a draft proposal or 3 sales calls. But you are working to keep your Boulders rolling and get closer to you ultimate goal.

So, rather than starting your day by checking email, you block your day to work on Boulders. Just like a pilot, you want to land on Friday with your work done, as planned.

3 steps to accomplish anything

The formula for reaching your BHAGs is simple:

  1. Create your big goals and define them using the SMART formula.
  2. Every week build your Flight Plan and always include the chunk of your goals you can get done that week.
  3. Block time in your week to accomplish your Flight Plan.

If you thrive on being a drama queen, chasing after bright shiny objects (“Oh wow! A new appy thingy that does cool edits on videos I never shoot…must have!”) or chasing down rabbit holes (often from email) that get you nowhere this 3 step model will be frustratingly mundane. Sorry.

I suppose it’s also mundane to save money, pay down debt, invest for your retirement and get your car’s oil changed.

Sometimes mundane is a good thing.


Enjoyed this article? Here are 3 more of my most popular articles:

How I overcame procrastination by blocking time
How to Stop Being a Drama Queen and get Stuff Done
Five tried and true sources for writing inspiration (I’m using one here)


Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash