The Damage of Short Term Thinking

By Chris Chittenden

"Never compromise your principles, even if it leads to difficulties in the short term.”

… Alan Casden

Anyone with an interest in politics or business has seen it. Politicians making decisions based on short political cycles with an eye to the next election and a fickle electorate. CEOs who come in with the expectation of a short life in the role and a big reward if they can achieve a big difference in the bottom line who make decisions with that in mind but not for what might happen beyond those next few years.

Individuals do the same thing. They want something now so they buy it and assume they will be able to pay for it later.

We live in a world of short term thinking and it is damaging us. Many would say it is destroying us. Yet it is a habit that persists.

In politics, attempts at longer term thinking are undermined by the next opinion poll, focus group result or bad piece of economic news. In business, people are assessed by the latest quarter's results and not by the long term trends. Individuals are constantly bombarded with the temptation of the latest and greatest and the need to maintain their aspirational life style.

All this short term thinking may allow some of us to feel like we are getting things done but the absence of a longer term perspective and therefore the narrower context means the decisions we make often lead to unexpected and unwelcome outcomes. As a result, we lurch from one mini crisis to the next.

Why do we continue to think in the short term when even a cursory examination tells us that such a way of being does not serve us well over time?

It seems one answer to that question lies in the human predisposition for survival. When we perceive a threat or a quick reward we act to take it. It also seems humans will almost always act to address the concerns of themselves and those close to them before considering the wider community or the environment.

And our world is set up to play on those predispositions. Politicians seek to scare us. Organisations constantly apply the pressure to do more with less. Our digital mediums pump out messages that we are always in danger of missing out. There are so many people seeking to manipulate the way we think and feel.

So, rather than thinking of the long term consequences, we succumb and deal with what is in front of us in the quickest way possible.

So what can we do about this?

Finding a definitive answer to that question is a big challenge. However, there are a number of things that can help us think more long term.

The first is self-awareness. When we are aware of how we are feeling at any moment in time, we can start to get a sense of when we feel under pressure and when we might be acting too hastily based on our immediate reaction to something. Appreciating our emotional states and what they mean is good step to achieving this.

Secondly, it is important to be able to create space in the day for reflection and the setting of priorities. Based on my coaching experience, it is a rare person who spends time every day to be clear about the direction in which they are heading and the clear priorities for the day. This is often one of the first things that I work with people on and it makes a profoundly positive difference to not only what they achieve but also how they feel.

Finally, it is useful to have a simple vision and set of foundational values on which to orient oneself each day. I discussed the idea of foundational values last year. How to use effectively use a vision will be the subject of a future e-zine.

Thinking in the long term is not as easy as it seems. The busier we get, the more challenging it becomes as we lose sight of what we really are seeking to achieve in the detail of the day.

So here is an invitation for you. Take a minute to reflect on whether you are trapped in too much short term thinking and, if so, what would you like to do about. It may open your eyes to some new possibilities.

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© 2016 Chris Chittenden