Second and third-order thinking
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Second and third-order thinking

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Second and third-order thinking is a mental model which helps with long-term thinking by exploring the consequences of a decision after a longer time period.

🔖 Table of contents

💡 About the framework

Every decision has a first, second, third or nth-order consequence. Mostly people only consider the immediate results, so-called first-order consequences. First-order thinking is simple and easy, and it may improve your life today but not a week or a year down the road. If you consider second or third-order consequences you might realize you don't even want to do the thing you set out to do in the first place. Often times, the effect of second or third-order consequences is the opposite of what we were aiming during our "immediate gratification" thinking.

Notionery tip: We recommend using the number 10 for nth-order consequences. So first-order is 10 minutes, second-order is 10 days, third-order is 10 months. You can add a fourth-order for 10 years.

As an example, consider that you are thinking whether to go for a run:

  • First-order thinking (10 minutes): I will be sweating, uncomfortable and exhausted afterwards.
  • Second-order thinking (10 days): I will feel healthier and more inclined to keep up my healthy habits
  • Third-order thinking (10 months): I will have lost weight and improved my endurance

✂️ How to use it?

1. Capture all your options

Write down the choice, or the solution space of choices you're dealing with.

2. Think about second and third-order consequences

Below is a table with example options you could take and their consequences after a certain period of time.

Consequence table

OptionFirst-order (10 minutes)Second-order (10 days)Third-order (10 months)
Example 1
Consequence 1, Consequence 2
Consequence 3
Consequence 4
Example 2
Consequence 5
Consequence 6, Consequence 7
Consequence 8

3. Compare and consider the second and third-order consequences

We want to look at second and third-order consequences and evaluate how the decision will unfold over time. Just because a decision looks like it doesn't have any immediate benefits doesn't mean that's the case with longer-term rewards.

You should always try to consider the longer-term impact of your decision by asking yourself "What happens afterwards?"

🌊 Example

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If you want to use second and third-order thinking for your ideas, the easiest way to get started is to duplicate the whole page and delete everything except the Example section.

1. Capture your options

Eat a burger
Eat a salad

2. Plug them into the table

Consequence Table

OptionFirst-order (10 minutes)Second-order (10 days)Third-order (10 months)
Eat a burger
I will be full, It will make me happy
I will be less inclined to stick to healthy habits because I made an unhealthy choice
If I keep eating burgers I might not be successful in getting in shape
Eat a salad
I might be still hungry, It's not as good as a burger
I will feel more like sticking to my healthy habits because I made a healthy choice
If I keep eating healthy salads I have a pretty good chance hitting my caloric intake for the day and losing weight

3. Compare and consider the second and third-order consequences

In this situation, the decision is quite obvious. If your goal is to lose weight, you will want to eat a salad. The short-term prospects don't look so appealing but longer-term you have a greater chance of succeeding because you will stick to your healthy habits.

📚 Additional reading resources