It’s human nature to want fast results. Couple that with the constant barrage of social media (more! faster! now!) and navigating a global pandemic, and most of us haven’t exactly been in the mood to cultivate our long-term thinking.
But for the past several years, that’s exactly what I’ve been researching, because resetting the way we think about time, and consciously embracing long-term thinking, can transform our businesses and careers in surprising ways.
In my new book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I share three unexpected reasons long-term thinking can be so powerful. Here’s how to leverage their value in your own life:
Long-term thinking gives you courage
Plenty of well-known companies have stumbled on social issues in recent years, from climate change to race to marriage equality. But as my friend, branding expert Martin Lindstrom notes, “Through my career, I’ve come to know hundreds of CEOs, and not one of them—I mean, zero—has ever disagreed with the concept of equality.” These leaders’ flat-footed responses are due to the fear of short-term consequences, whether it’s taking a hit to their share price or their annual bonus.
Re-orienting your point of view to the long-term (In 20 years, will I be proud of my actions?) enables you to resist pressure in the moment and make the right decisions based on values and ethics, not immediate gain or loss.
A longer time frame lets you accomplish more meaningful goals
My friend Jonathan Brill, an innovation expert who’s the author of the book Rogue Waves, identifies one of the worst hidden risks for companies: “You hire smart people who know how to win,” he says, “and you tell them to win at the wrong thing.” If the incentives are focused on short-term revenue gains, that’s where all the attention goes—and as Jonathan says, “The result of that is that you can lose by winning.”
Instead of focusing on transformative projects that can reshape your industry or revitalize your company, these very smart people focus on what’s known as “feature innovation”: small, somewhat meaningless changes like what color a button should be. The benefits (if any) are small, marginal, and ephemeral.
The problem—and the reason so many companies, and leaders, are averse to taking on substantive projects—is that they simply take longer to ramp up. “It takes typically five or six years for a product or a business to get to scale,” says Jonathan. Even if the benefits would be substantial once the product or service is established, a lot of companies just don’t want to wait that long. “What you’re looking for is profit,” he says, “That happens on the decade scale. That doesn’t happen on the quarterly scale.”
So if you buck the trend and embrace a long-term perspective, and if you’re willing to wait out those early days of getting established, you can enshrine a long-term competitive advantage (and their concomitant profits), because very few of your competitors will even make the attempt.
As Jeff Bezos observed, “”If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue.”
Long-term thinking helps you not be so hard on yourself
Almost everyone began the pandemic with lofty goals, from learning Italian to mastering sourdough to finishing that novel. (I took on the challenge of latte art.) And plenty of us failed. It’s like vowing to read 10 reports on a cross-country flight, and discovering upon landing that all you’ve done is nap. It’s frustrating, but also: You needed a nap.
With ever-changing responsibilities (figuring out work from home “office politics,” caregiving, homeschooling, etc.), not to mention overall stress levels reflecting the fact that were in a global pandemic, many of us didn’t quite accomplish as much as we wanted to, or as much as we likely would have during a different 18-month period. And it’s okay.
It’s just not helpful to beat ourselves up about what did, or didn’t, get done during COVID. The point is, you got through it. As I describe in The Long Game, you have to think in waves: There are times to over index on certain aspects of our lives (you probably want to spend more time focused on work when you start a new job, for instance) and certain times when you might need to refocus (you’ll likely pull back on discretionary professional development or networking activities if you’re caring for a sick relative).
There are seasons, and we have to respect them. And with a long-term mindset, you don’t have to curse the “wasted” 18 months, but instead, you recognize: There’s plenty of time to shift your focus back to work, or whatever your key projects are, in the future. Rebalancing your portfolio is all part of long-term thinking.
Long-term thinking isn’t just “nice to have.” When we embrace it, it’s a step toward becoming the kind of people we want to be.
This article is adapted from the book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-term Thinker in a Short-Term World, by Dorie Clark (Harvard Business Review Press, 2021).
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. You can receive her free Long Game strategic thinking self-assessment.