Bright Lines - How To Avoid Short-Term Temptations

Imagine you have just won the lottery. You have two options about when you will get your cash payout:

If you wait 3 years, you’ll get $50 million dollars, but if you wait 6 years, you’ll get $100 million dollars.

If you’re like most people, you’ll wait the full 6 years for double the money. After all, you’ll be getting paid over $16 million dollars a year for each extra year that you wait! 

But what if I were to offer you $50 million dollars today or $100 million dollars 3 years from now?

It's not so easy to turn down the quick reward this time! Despite the fact that it’s the same amount of time spent waiting, now the majority of people will take the $50 million dollars today.


This phenomenon is known as hyperbolic discounting and it refers to our difficulty in turning down short-term rewards the closer they are to us. When the choice was 3 years down the road, it was easier for us to be rational than when we could get the money today. As soon as the reward was immediate, we wanted it now!! 

This concept applies to much of our daily lives. At night, it’s easy to say that we will go to the gym in the morning. But when our alarm goes off and the promise sleep is just a hit to the snooze away...not so easy.

Then in the morning it’s easier to say we’ll get a salad for lunch than when we see the burger and fries right there on the menu. And so on. 


The underlying problem is that we see these as isolated events, rather than patterns of behavior with long-term consequences.

“What’s one day skipping the gym going to matter?”

“One burger won’t kill me.”

And both of those statements are completely true! That’s the problem. As we get closer to the immediate reward, we will look to more reasons to justify taking it over the long-term goal.

And if these really were isolated events, they wouldn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. As we can all attest, though, they’re not isolated incidents. Every time we face a decision like this we go through the hyperbolic discounting process. Each temptation we face we try to justify that "this will be the only time we give in."


Luckily, researchers found a willpower weapon in our arsenal to fight back against this tendency – bright lines. A bright line is a pre-loaded decision about what we will do in the future that is clear and non-negotiable. The more specific this bright line is, the better.

If we say, “we will eat healthy” for lunch, that is not a bright line. What is healthy? Saying “healthy” gives you the ability to negotiate your way to piling on croutons, bacon and dressing as long as you feel you can call it a "salad".

However, if you say, “I’m going to this exact restaurant and ordering this exact salad” then that is a bright line. When you make it that specific, there is no way you can negotiate within the rules once the reward is right in front of you. And as an added bonus, creating a decision with a bright line will require less willpower to turn down temptations.


The most effective bright line I have in my life is my habit of turning off all of my electronics at 9pm. Originally I wanted to get to sleep earlier, but I always found that there was just one more thing that I wanted to do before bed. Whether that was checking my email, facebook, or watching just one more play on Monday Night Football, there was always something.

So I created the bright line. No matter what I was going to turn off all of my electronics at 9pm to help my body start unwinding to go to sleep. Even if I was still wide awake at that time, I turned off my electronics. Not only did I get to sleep earlier, but I also made progress on books I was reading and started meditating. Eventually this became a habit. Now around 9pm my body is trained to prepare for sleep.


As we get closer to a potential reward, our decision-making becomes more and more flawed. It’s a lot easier for us to say that we won’t eat a cookie with lunch when it's the night before, rather than when we're staring at the cookie right in front of us. The big problem with this phenomenon is our natural tendency to give ourselves justification for giving into temptation.

We can avoid this trap by setting rules in advance known as “bright lines”. Bright lines clearly state what we will and will not do under certain circumstances. By setting specific boundaries for ourselves, we don’t have to go through the painful process of “should we or shouldn’t we”, we just need to follow the decision we’ve already made. 

Do you find yourself giving in the closer you get to a reward? How did you deal with it?