4 Signs of Short-Term Thinking

This piece was adapted from my latest book The Laws of Human Nature.

Most of us imagine that we engage in some form of long-term thinking; after all, we have goals and plans. But really we are fooling ourselves. We can see this most clearly when we talk to other people about their plans and strategies for the near and more distant future: we are often struck by their vagueness and the lack of deep thinking people generally give to such plans. They are more like hopes and wishes and in the rush of immediate events, feeling pressure and the need to respond, such weak goals and plans are easily overwhelmed. Most of the time we are improvising and reacting to events with insufficient information. Basically we are in denial about this because it is hard to have perspective about our own decision-making process.

The best way to overcome this is to recognize the clear signs of short sighted thinking in our own lives. As with most elements of human nature, awareness is the key. Only by seeing these signs can we combat them. The following are the four most common manifestations of short-term thinking:

1. Unintended consequences

History is littered with endless examples of this phenomenon. In ancient Rome, a group of men loyal to the Republic feared that Julius Caesar was going to make his dictatorship permanent and establish a monarchy. In 44 B.C. they decided to assassinate him, thereby restoring the Republic. In the ensuing chaos and power vacuum Caesar’s great nephew Octavius quickly rose to the top, assumed power, and permanently ended the Republic by establishing a de facto monarchy. After Caesar’s death it came out that he had never intended to create a monarchical system. The conspirators brought about precisely what they had tried to stop.

In 19th century India, under British colonial rule, authorities there decided there were too many venomous cobras in the streets of Delhi, making life uncomfortable for the British residents and their families. To solve this they offered a reward for every dead cobra residents would bring in. Soon, enterprising locals began to breed the cobras in order to make a living from the bounty. The government caught on to this and canceled the program. The breeders, resentful of the rulers and angered by their actions, decided to release their cobras back on the streets, thereby tripling the population since before the government program.

We can find less dramatic examples of this in our daily lives. We try to control a rebellious teenager by putting some restrictions on his behavior, only to make him even more rebellious and uncontrollable. We try to cheer up a depressed person by making her realize that her life is not that bad and that the sun is shining, only to find out we have made her even more depressed. She now feels guilty about her feelings, worthless, and more alone in her unhappiness. A wife tries to get her partner to open up more to her. With the hope of establishing more intimacy, she asks him about what he is thinking, what happened during the course of the day, and so on. He interprets this as intrusiveness and closes up further, which makes the wife more suspicious and more prying, which closes him up even further.

The source of this age-old syndrome is relatively simple: alarmed by something in the present, we grab for a solution without thinking deeply about the context, the roots of the problem, the possible unintended consequences that might ensue. Because we mostly react instead of think, our actions are based on insufficient information — Caesar was not planning to start a monarchy; the poor people of Delhi actually despised their colonial rulers and would not take kindly to suddenly losing money; Americans largely did not want a war with Japan. When we operate with such a skewed perspective it results in all kinds of perverse effects. In all of these cases a simple move part way up the mountain would have made clear the possible negative consequences so obvious to us in hindsight: for example, offering a reward for dead cobras would naturally cause impoverished residents to breed them.

Understand: any phenomenon in the world is by nature complex. The people you deal with are equally complex. Any action sets off a limitless chain of reactions. It is never so simple as A leads to B. B will lead to C, D and beyond. Other actors are pulled into the drama and it is hard to predict their motivations and responses. You cannot possibly map out these chains or get a complete handle on consequences. But by making your thinking more consequential you can at least become aware of the more obvious negative consequences that could ensue, and this often spells the difference between success and disaster. You want depth of thinking, to go to several degrees of imagining the permutations, as far as your mind can go.

2. Tactical hell

You find yourself embroiled in several struggles or battles. You seem to get nowhere but you feel like you have invested so much time and energy already that it would be a tremendous waste to give up. You have actually lost sight of your long-term goals, what you’re really fighting for. Instead it has become a question of asserting your ego and proving you are right. Often we see this dynamic in marital spats: it is no longer about repairing the relationship but about imposing one’s point of view. At times, caught in these battles you feel defensive and petty, your spirit drawn downward. These are almost sure signs that you have descended into tactical hell. Our minds are designed for strategic thinking — calculating several moves in advance towards our goals. In tactical hell you can never raise your perspective high enough to think in that manner. You are constantly reacting to the moves of this or that person, embroiled in their dramas and emotions, going around in circles.

The only solution is to back out temporarily or permanently from these battles, particularly if they are occurring on several fronts. You need some detachment and perspective. Get your ego to calm down. Remind yourself that winning an argument or proving your point really gets you nowhere in the long run. Win through your actions, not your words. Start to think again about your long-term goals. Create a ladder of values and priorities in your life, reminding yourself of what really matters to you. If you determine that a particular battle is in fact important, with a greater sense of detachment you can now plot a more strategic response.

More often than not you will realize that certain battles are not worth it in the end. They are a waste of valuable energy and time, which should be high on your scale of values. It is always better to walk away from a circular battle, no matter how deeply you feel personally invested in it. Your energy, your spirit are important considerations. Feeling petty and frustrated can have reverberating consequences for your ability to think strategically and reach your goals. Going through the process delineated above in the Keys will naturally elevate your perspective and put your mind on the strategic plane. And in life as in warfare, strategists will always prevail over tacticians.

3. Ticker tape fever

During the run up to the 1929 crash on Wall Street, many people had become addicted to playing the stock market, and this addiction had a physical component — the sound of the ticker tape that electronically registered each change in a stock’s price. Hearing that clicking noise indicated something was happening, somebody was trading and making a fortune. Many felt drawn to the sound itself, which felt like the heartbeat of Wall Street. We no longer have the ticker tape. Instead many of us have become addicted to the minute-by-minute news cycle, to “what’s trending,” to the Twitter feed, which is often accompanied by a ping that has its own narcotic effects. We feel like we are connected to the very flow of life itself, to events as they change in real time, and to other people who are following the same instant reports.

This need to know instantly has a built-in momentum. Once we expect to have some bit of news quickly, we can never go back to the slower pace of just a year ago. In fact, we feel the need for more information more quickly. Such impatience tends to spill over into other aspects of life — driving, reading a book, following a film. Our attention span decreases as well as our tolerance for any obstacles in our path.

Look at what Abraham Lincoln had to face in a much less technological age. At the outbreak of the civil war, he looked at the larger picture — as he estimated it, the North should prevail because it had more men and more resources to draw on. The only danger was time. Lincoln would need time for the Union army to develop itself as a fighting force; he also needed time to find the right generals who would prosecute the war as he desired. But if too much time passed and there were no big victories, public opinion might turn against the effort and once the North became divided within itself Lincoln’s job would become impossible. He needed patience but also victories on the battlefield.

In the first year of the war the North suffered a great defeat at Bull Run and suddenly almost everyone questioned the president’s competency. Now even level headed Northerners such as the famous editor Horace Greeley urged the president to negotiate peace. Others urged him to throw everything the North had into an immediate blow to crush the south, even though the army was not ready for this.

On and on this went, the pressure continually mounting as the North failed to deliver a single solid victory until finally Grant finished off the siege at Vicksburg in 1863, followed soon by the victory at Gettysburg under General Meade. Now suddenly Lincoln was hailed as a genius. But some six months later, as Grant got bogged down in his pursuit of the Confederate army under General Lee and the casualties mounted, the sense of panic returned. Once again Greeley urged negotiating with the South. Lincoln’s reelection that year seemed doomed. He had become immensely unpopular. The war was taking too long. Feeling the weight of all this, in late August of 1864 Lincoln finally drafted a letter spelling out the terms of peace he would offer the South, but that very night he felt ashamed for losing his resolve and hid the letter in a drawer. The tide had to turn, he felt, and the South would be crushed. Only a week later, General Sherman marched into Atlanta and all the doubts about Lincoln suddenly vanished for good.

Through long-term thinking Lincoln had correctly gauged the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two sides and how the war would eventually trend. Everyone else got caught up in the day-by-day reports of the progress of the war. Some wanted to negotiate, others to suddenly speed up the effort, but all of this was based on the momentary swings of fortune. A weaker man would have given in to such pressures and the war would have ended much differently. The writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, who visited Lincoln in 1864, later wrote of him: “Surrounded by all sorts of conflicting claims, by traitors, by half-hearted, timid men, by Border States men and Free States men, by radical Abolitionists and Conservatives, he has listened to all, weighed the words of all, waited, observed, yielded now here and now there, but in the main kept one inflexible, honest purpose, and drawn the national ship through.”

Lincoln provides the model for us all and the antidote to the fever. First and foremost we must develop patience, which is like a muscle that requires training and repetition to make it strong. Lincoln was a supremely patient man. When we face any kind of problem or obstacle, we must follow his example and make an effort to slow things down and step back, wait a day or two, before taking action. Second, when faced with issues that are important, we must have a clear sense of our long-term goals and how to attain them. Part of this involves assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the parties involved. Such clarity will allow us to withstand the constant emotional overreactions of those around us. Finally, it is important to have faith that time will eventually prove us right and to maintain our resolution.

4. Lost in trivia

You feel overwhelmed by the complexity of your work. You feel the need to be on top of all the details and global trends so you can control things better, but you are drowning in information. It is hard to see the proverbial forest from the trees. This is a sure sign that you have lost a sense of your priorities — which facts are more important, what problems or details require more attention.

The icon for this syndrome would have to be King Philip II of Spain (1527–1598). He had a prodigious appetite for paperwork and for keeping on top of all facets of the Spanish government. This gave him a feeling of being in control, but in fact in the end it made him lose control. He fussed over the placement of toilets in his new palace of Escorial and their precise distance from the kitchen; he spent days deliberating on how exactly particular members of the clergy should be addressed and remunerated. But sometimes he would fail to pay proper attention to important reports on spies and national security issues. Poring over endless reports on the state of the Turkish army, he believed they showed signs of great weakness and decided to launch a war against the Turks. Somehow he had misjudged. The war would last eighteen years, have no definitive resolution, and would bleed Spain of money.

A similar process occurred in relation to England. The King had to read every single report on the state of the English navy, the support of the people for Queen Elizabeth, every minute detail about its finances, and shoreline defenses. Based on years of studying this, in 1588 he decided to launch the Armada against England, feeling certain that having made it large enough Spain would prevail. But he failed to pay enough attention to weather reports, the most critical factor of all — for storms at sea would spell the destruction of the Armada. He also failed to realize that by the time he had compiled and assimilated enough information on the Turks or on England, the situation had actually changed. So while he seemed extremely detail-oriented, he was never quite on top of anything. Over the years Philip strained his mind with so much reading that he had continual headaches and dizzy spells. His thinking was definitely impaired, and he made decisions that ended up leading directly to the irreversible decline of the Spanish empire.

In some ways you are probably more like King Philip II than you would like to imagine. In your life you are more than likely paying attention to some details that seem immediately important to you, while ignoring the weather reports that will doom your project. Like Philip you tend to take in information without considering your priorities, what really matters in the end. But the brain has its limits. Assimilating too much information leads to mental fatigue, confusion, and feelings of helplessness. Everything begins to seem the same — the placement of toilets and a possible war with the Turks. What you need is a mental filtering system based on a scale of priorities and your long-term goals. Knowing what you want to accomplish in the end will help you weed out the essential from the nonessential. You do not have to know all the details. Sometimes you need to delegate — let your subordinates handle the information gathering. Remember that greater control over events will come from realistic assessments of the situation, precisely what is made most difficult with a brain submerged in trivia.


This piece was adapted from my newest book The Laws of Human Nature, now available everywhere books are sold. The Laws of Human Nature was six years in the making and is the culmination of my life’s study of power, psychology, and history. Click here to learn more.