Short-Term vs. Long-Term

The work we do with students must always strike a balance between the short-term and the long-term.

A typical session might involve helping the student get some of her homework done and helping her understand the content that the homework covers, which are both short-term aims. But that same session will invariably include some of the following long-term pieces: strategies for problem-solving, memory-formation techniques, productivity tools, mindset adjustments, and executive function coaching.

No student would come back if the latter was all we offered because they have pressing objectives: tonight’s homework and this week’s test. But our mission is to help students become independent learners, so those bigger lessons are sprinkled in whenever appropriate.


Choosing between short-term objectives and long-term goals is a persistent challenge throughout our lives. On any given day, we can only spend so much of our time working, so we are forced to make choices between the short-term and the long-term. We need to be strategic about this such that our choices end up aligning with our deepest values and our most important goals.

Often, the short-term and the long-term are in conflict, and in those cases, we must try to strike a balance, and we’ll surely have to accept some tradeoffs. In doing so, we might devote too much time and energy to long-term goals at the expense of short-term needs. Or we might make the opposite mistake and devote too much time and energy to our short-term objectives and make no progress toward our bigger goals.

These two errors, however, are not equally likely.

We are much more likely to pour excessive effort into short-term goals and ignore long-term goals. This is because we often confuse what’s urgent with what’s important.1

Important vs. Urgent

In his landmark book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says that our activities can be sorted into these four categories:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important and not urgent
  3. Not important and urgent
  4. Not important and not urgent

Here is an example of this chart filled out for a hypothetical high school Junior:

It’s easy to make time for Quadrant 1 activities because they are both urgent and important. They call for your immediate attention, and they matter. These are short-term objectives that need to get done.1

It’s harder to make time for Quadrant 2 activities because, although they are important, they don’t demand immediate action. These are long-term objectives that we would benefit greatly from doing, but because they don’t feel urgent, we neglect them.1

Quadrant 3 draws us in because it grabs our attention. Our cell phone is buzzing at us or our friends are talking about it. And it’s happening now. But these activities aren’t all that important. These are short-term objectives that steal time from the long-term objectives in Quadrant 2.1

And when we’re exhausted from completing everything in Quadrants 1 and 3, we naturally slip into Quadrant 4, which is the home of time-wasting activities.1

It’s unfortunate that Quadrant 2 gets neglected because the things there are genuinely important. If we want to get more of those important things done, we have to pull time from Quadrants 3 and 4.1 This is very challenging because Quadrant 3 actively asks for our attention over and over again, and Quadrant 4 activities are typically ingrained, time-wasting habits. Furthermore, Quadrants 3 and 4 tend to offer immediate pleasure, while the benefits of Quadrant 2 come later.

In other words, this is a short-term vs long-term conundrum.

Engaging in Quadrant 2 activities is an exercise in delayed gratification, which, as famously demonstrated by The Marshmallow Test, is a skill strongly associated with long-term success.2 This is not to say that we should never do the things in the lower two quadrants, but that we should consider what’s really important to us when deciding how to allocate our time.

Easier Today, Harder Tomorrow

Sometimes the conflict between short-term and long-term isn’t about what to do but how to do it.

Math offers us the simplest example. There is certainly a great deal of math where calculator use is strongly recommended: trigonometry, logarithms, statistics, and anything where the numbers are, well, gross. And at the other end of the spectrum, there is a great deal of math that normally doesn’t require a calculator at all, such as simple arithmetic, also known as math facts. But everything in between presents a choice: to use a calculator or not.

If I choose to use a calculator when I’m presented with one of these in-between problems rather than, say, doing some long division by hand, I’m going to save a little time. Today’s homework will be easier and over with more quickly. But if I make that same choice every time for the entire schoolyear, I’m going to forget how to do long division and become dependent on my calculator to do it for me. When it comes to this sort of knowledge, the brain has a very simple rule: Use it or lose it.

Alternatively, I could choose to put my calculator away and do the math by hand. This is slower today – I pay a short-term cost – but it comes with a long-term payoff: I don’t lose hard-earned knowledge from the base of my upside-down math pyramid. Now, I don’t have to do it the hard way every time to prevent my brain muscles for arithmetic from atrophying. I just have to do this once in a while, often enough to remember how to do it.

As I’ve mentioned before, both the SAT and the AP Calculus exams have no-calculator sections that are particularly troublesome for students who have become dependent on their calculator. And long before most students face those challenges, they’ll be asked to learn factoring quadratics, rational equations, and polynomial long division, all of which are brutally hard if you’ve forgotten arithmetic.

Skinned Knees

Other times, the conflict between short-term and long-term goals is about protecting children from failure.

No parent wants to see their child hurting, so parents are naturally inclined to protect their children from the pain of failure. But there is a fatal flaw in this approach: Failures are inevitable. You simply can’t prevent your child from experiencing failures. You might delay it, but in doing so, you also delay the learning that comes from mistakes and failures. And this just sets your child up to fail when he’s older and the stakes are higher.

Let’s imagine you’re the parent of a young child who knows how to tie his shoes. You’re at the playground, and he’s running around oblivious to the fact that his shoes are untied. Left to his own devices, he’ll eventually trip himself and take a painful fall. So it would better for him (and probably you) today if you stop him and point out his untied shoes. But if you let him skin his knees, he’ll probably learn a very memorable lesson about checking his shoelaces. As a teenager, that lesson might save his life if he is, like I am, inclined to hike near the edge of cliffs.

Many students struggle in middle school and simultaneously reject the organizational tools and study techniques that would help them succeed. This is very hard for parents to watch, and the vast majority do everything they can to rescue their children from failing: helping them finish their homework, helping them study, keeping track of their assignments, organizing their binders, and emailing their teachers to ask for project extensions and test retakes.

But if the child always gets rescued, he’ll never feel why he should use any of those methods. He won’t follow your advice, partly because, at this age, he’s like a Chinese finger trap, but mostly because he’s never actually felt the pain of doing it wrong. Only when he’s felt that pain – a failed test, the embarrassment of retaking a class, or the hassle of summer school – will he be motivated to do it right.

Failing in middle school often motivates teens to figure out how to be a student. They learn a tough lesson and, as a result, grow up a little. Would you prefer that the lesson be postponed until high school or college? The stakes are much lower in middle school.

Childhood provides many opportunities to fail, and most of these are golden opportunities because the consequences are insignificant. Adulthood, too, provides many opportunities to fail, but these usually come with significant consequences. It’s better to learn our lessons early.

So, when do you want your child to fail, now or later?

Do you want things to be easy in the short-term and painful in the long-term? Or are you willing to suffer some pain now for a big payoff down the road?

These questions don’t have easy answers, and finding the right balance is tough. If you’re struggling with this, please reach out to Greg to schedule some parent coaching. He would love to help.


Works Cited

1 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside, 1990.

2 Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. Little, Brown and Company, 2014.

Image Credits

Title Image: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay. Text added.

Calculator or Paper?: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Shoelaces: Creative Commons Public Domain. Courtesy of Pixabay.

Cliff: Loper, Chris.

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