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Are you discounting the future?

#TLDR: Discounting the future is a common pitfall in the human psyche. In your professional world, it can hold you back from doing great things. Learn to recognize and prevent it at the right times.

The human mind through evolution is adept at discounting the future for immediate focus. Essentially, it is our innate preference for short-term rewards at the expense of long-term effects and impacts as only those of our ancient ancestors survived who focused on the immediate needs and threats.

In the modern workplace, this innate preference still shows up. Many employees and leaders follow the rule, "Don't speak up unless you are sure / unless you are supporting the majority / unless ...", you get the idea! The immediate rewards of such behavior are safety in silence, guarantee that your coworkers won't think less of you, assurance that your boss won't negate what you were going to say, or something similar.

But when employees do not speak up about their ideas, concerns, and proposals (no matter how trivial they might be or how true/false they are), the organization starts to lose innovation and productivity. Needless to say, encouraging people to speak up is a key communication challenge for many leaders beyond the clichés like "There is no wrong answer or there is no stupid question".

At #PBJAM, we always stress objective metrics and measures, even in a soft and subjective area like professional development. In the same vein, we strongly believe that the first step to creating space where people actually and regularly speak openly is to identify the instances where you are holding yourself back by discounting the future. Here are a few questions that you can ask yourself as your workday winds down.

  1. What was the thought/response/idea that I held back to myself today?

  2. How would it look in the future assuming my held-back thought helps my team (e.g. team achieving their goals earlier, or cost reduction, or faster time to market, or recognition)?

  3. What were the cues (e.g. presence of a large group, self-doubt about the validity/veracity, need to double-check my position, precedents where others were ridiculed for speaking up, lack of authority vested in me, etc.) that made me hold back?

  4. Which cues are rational (based on evidence and experience)?

  5. What can I do about the other cues?

Discounting the future is a behavior that can be changed with practice. The old adage "Stitch in time, saves nine" really holds true in the modern workplace if we can reduce our tendency to discount the future. It pays huge dividends when employees experience that their opinions are heard and they can express themselves without fear as Gallup's State of American Workplace report has shown time and again since 2012 (27% reduction in turnover, 40% reduction in safety incidents, and 12% increase in productivity).

In this post, we talked about the individual employee's perspective and how to reduce the tendency to discount the future. There is also an important role that leaders have to play and that is of creating psychologically safe spaces for their teams to be open (which needs a post on its own!).

What has been your experience with discounting the future? What were your cues? Which ones were rational? How do you feel your performance and job satisfaction will be if you can stop discounting the future? We would love to read your opinions!

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