Cheeseburgers and chocolate cake are delicious. Eat a cheeseburger for lunch, and you will likely feel really good. And that piece of rich chocolate cake—definitely mouthwatering. The same goes for pizza dripping with cheese, juicy porterhouse steaks, hot dogs with all the fixins, moist frosted creme donuts, and many others. Undoubtedly tasty and gratifying.
Eating such foods on infrequent occasions is pleasurable and will probably cause no harm. However, filling your plate with these types of foods on most days of the week is an entirely different story—one whose ending is difficult to visualize in the present moment.
Many of us are probably aware that foods high in sugars, fats, and cholesterol are not the healthiest options. They increase the risk of developing many chronic diseases, including heart disease. Moreover, this risk increases the more often these foods are consumed. I’d bet that countless people who understand the dangers of eating these foods consistently still do so. Why would this be?
The likely answer is that the consequences of regularly eating unhealthy foods do not occur right away. As a matter of fact, the results of these actions will typically take years to manifest. If you knew that eating cheeseburgers a few times every week would increase your risk of suffering a heart attack ten or fifteen years down the road, it might not bother you too much. However, if you knew that eating a cheeseburger on Monday would cause you to have a heart attack on Tuesday, I’ll bet that you’d think twice about it.
The converse is also true. Eating a vegetable salad on Monday will not turn you into a picture of good health on Tuesday. But eat lots of fruits and vegetables every day, and you will undoubtedly see and feel the difference in the following months and years. Again, when there is a lot of time separating actions and consequences, people will oftentimes only care about the immediate or near-term results without giving much regard to the long-term effects of their choices.
This concept was explained very well by Ray Dalio in his book Principles. He refers to near-term effects as first-order consequences and long-term effects as second- and subsequent-order consequences. As Mr. Dalio says, “Quite often the first-order consequences are the temptations that cost us what we really want, and sometimes they are the barriers that stand in our way.”
The next time you are about to order that cheeseburger, don’t just think about how it will make you feel as you’re eating it. Consider how it may affect you a few years into the future. After all, it is still you that will bear the consequences.