In the Long Run, We Are All Dead.

by Mark on February 10, 2010

We constantly hear about the wisdom and importance of long-term thinking. We are told about how our problems are a result of short-term thinking. To a certain extent, there is some truth to this. Long-term thinking is very important in certain areas:

  1. Sustainability. We need to think long-term to determine what is sustainable or not. One reason that diets rarely work is because they are not sustainable. What we really need is a sustainable nutrition plan that keeps us lean. We need to focus on the long-term to determine what is sustainable for our environment. When we are working on a long-term project, the workload must be sustainable.
  2. Compounding of investments or debt. When you compound investments or debt over long periods of time, they begin to accumulate like a snowball rolling down a mountain. Compounding is a very powerful force over long periods of time, as I explained in my post on avoiding procrastination in the area of investing.
  3. Incremental improvement. By making very small improvements over long periods of time, you can improve dramatically. Toyota used incremental improvement to become the #1 car company in the world. While Toyota is currently going through some difficulties related to defective cars, there is no doubt that a commitment to incremental improvement over many decades led Toyota to overtake GM as the #1 car company.
  4. Large capital investments. Anytime you make a large capital investment (such as a home, a business, a manufacturing plant, etc.), you first need to think about the long run. Are you certain you will have a job? Do business conditions support such a large investment? Are there any innovations that could quickly make the investment obsolete? These are all long-term considerations that need to be taken into account.

As you can see, long-term thinking is definitely appropriate in certain situations. The problem is that, as the famous economist John  Maynard Keynes once said, “In the long run, we are all dead.” The quote was in response to the classical economics belief that the market will correct economic disequilibriums in the long run without government intervention, but it also applies to other areas of life.

Life is short. The morbid truth is that we have very limited time on this Earth. Sometimes it is very appropriate to focus on the short run rather than the long run. There are two important reasons that we should sometimes focus on the short run instead of the long run:

  1. As Tim Ferriss wrote, “Interest and energy is cyclical.” When we try to maintain our focus on one thing for long periods of time without a break, we tend to lose interest. It is also easy to get run down and lose motivation. Sometimes it seems like we will never get to the finish line, and sometimes our destination seems so far off that we never even try to get there.
  2. Parkinson’s Law. As I talked about in my post on Parkinson’s Law, reducing the time available to accomplish something can make us vastly more productive and speed up our accomplishments dramatically.

One solution is to focus in short bursts, accomplish something amazing in a short-period of time, and then re-charge or move onto something different. There is no rule that you must work at any one thing endlessly for years on end. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t have a long-term vision for your life. I know that I have one for my life (although it continues to evolve). I’m suggesting that you might want to consider breaking down your goals and reducing their time horizons so that you can sustain your motivation through completion. Far off goals are too easy to give up on.

Focus on ways you can begin living your life now rather than many years down the road. Try to find something that really excites you. Life is too short to be bored.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

There is one question that I ask myself from time to time in order to balance short-term and long-term considerations:

How would you live if you were going to die either in 6 months or 100 years but you didn’t know which?

You would definitely want to strike some kind of balance. You probably would want to eat a healthy diet but enjoy treats on a fairly regular basis as well. You might want to exercise but not spend every spare moment in the gym. You might want to live below your means to save for the future, but you wouldn’t want to live like a monk either. How would it change your thinking if you were trying to maximize your enjoyment over both the short and long runs at the same time? The insights might be helpful.

In my own case, I definitely have a tendency to think very long-term. Sometimes I would even project many decades into the future. One problem with this is that it also causes me to procrastinate. With the deadline so far off into the future, there is little urgency to take action now. The problem is that the days turn into years, the years into decades, and the decades into a lifetime.

In order to remedy this, right now I am working with annual goals that I have broken down into shorter goals as follows:

  1. Annual goal
  2. Quarterly goal
  3. Monthly goal
  4. Weekly goal
  5. Daily goal

The quarterly goal is really my main area of focus. Three months seems like a good time period because it is not so short that little can be accomplished, but it isn’t so long that attention and motivation can’t be sustained. I am also working on raising my standards when it comes to completing my goals in order to increase the sense of urgency. So far I’m pleased with the results, although there is always room for improvement.

What is something amazing that you could accomplish in the next few months? Is there something that you could achieve that would surprise everyone around you and maybe even surprise yourself?

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