Achieving better decision-making with a long-game mindset

Image by Carolina Bento.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been asked long-game questions without realizing it. I couldn’t identify them as long-game questions, because no one teaches you how to develop a long-game mindset. It’s not something you learn in school, discuss at the dinner table or at a barbecue with friends.

The long-game mindset is a decision-making approach that focuses on the long-term outcomes and impact of your decisions.

In many points in life, you’re faced with decisions that go beyond short-term impact. In these situations, you can choose to cut some corners and make a quick decision without thinking much about how it will play out later on. Or you can take a more structured approach and project how it will look like in the long-term.

Second and third-order consequences

Most of the time, you’re dealing with trivial decisions that have short-term consequences. Do I have lunch right now or in an hour? Do a quick stop at my parents on the way home or spend more time with them over the weekend?

But when you’re faced with decisions that challenge your status quo, you’re forced to project where you want to be in the future. All of a sudden, your core values are being tested and your most profound beliefs are on the table. You need to switch gears to a long-game mindset.

The long-game is a shift from a fast, exciting and immediate attitude to a slower, structured, decisive attitude.

These types of decisions require a more profound evaluation. They push you to consider what’s beyond the immediate reward or consequence, the possible ripple effect of your decisions. Ray Dalio, in his book Principles, calls it second-order and third-order consequences.

“… it seems to be in our nature to overly focus on short-term gratification rather than long-term satisfaction — on first-order rather than second- or third-order consequences” — Ray Dalio, Principles

Long-game decisions start a chain reaction of events. If you’re not studying enough, barely getting passing grades, then getting a higher degree becomes more difficult. Then, a giant chicken and egg problem begins. Better job opportunities require either experience or strong credentials, but without good credentials it’s harder to get good experience … it goes on and on.

Then, there are the decisions that kick-off a long-term process that culminates with achieving a goal. For example, you’re feeling tired, unmotivated, and you catch yourself eating a lot of junk food. So you decide to cut on junk food and introduce healthier foods in your diet. You want to break the cycle and improve your daily mood and health.

Both of these decisions push you to peek into the future, and see how your actions to day can have impact or even materialize in the future. Along with it, you must develop a level of comfort with delayed gratification.

With delayed gratification, you’re trading the immediate reward for a later reward or accomplishment, that usually several orders of magnitude bigger.

Delayed gratification is the ability to postpone an immediate gain in favor of greater and later reward.

Life is full of trade-offs so, if you master the art of delayed gratification, you have an hedge.

You can trade the rush of excitement that comes from the short-term mindset and getting what you want immediately at any cost, for a process that takes commitment and determination to stick to but, will be much more satisfying and rewarding.

At this point, it may seem like the long-game is all about sitting around and waiting. It’s actually the opposite, the long-game requires consistent commitment:

  • The long-game is active.
  • The long-game exercises focus, determination and discipline.
  • The long-game is not fun, it’s about the process.
  • The long-game is compounding.

The long-game is active

Unlike the short-term mindset, where you make a decision and settle matters on the spot, in the long-game you have to do the work for the outcomes of your decisions to materialize.

If it’s something that speaks to your core values and you deeply care about, you’ll commit to it. You’ll put in the work for as long as it’s necessary.

Nothing that is really important will come out of thin air. Not even if you put a lot of thought into it. You must to act on it to see the results.

You’ll have to accept the direct consequences consequences. You’ll pass on parties when you’re focused on finishing your degree, and cut down on junk food if you want to be healthier.

Once you’ve committed to a long-game decision, accepting the second and third order consequences becomes natural. You’ll do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, because you’re living by your values.

Exercises focus, determination and discipline

The long-game takes time. So you have to develop ways to stay motivated and focused on materializing the outcome of your decision, your ultimate goal.

You have to develop strong habits that keep you on the right track and the right mindset.

To stay on a healthy diet or on track with your savings, you need to be disciplined about it. You have to create habit loops that remind you about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Habits that create a rhythm and give you enough motivation to keep coming back to it every day.

You have to create habit loops that remind you about why you’re doing what you’re doing.

For example, I want to be a better writer, to breakdown complex ideas and articulate them in a compelling way. But, for as much as I’d like, this won’t happen overnight. So I created structures to stay disciplined and develop a consistent practice.

For me that structure is always having a notebook, so I can write down the ideas I want to explore. Then, I commit to literally put in the hours, using a time-tracking software. This keeps me accountable and committed to putting in the time and effort. At the end of the day, it’s not about the number of hours, but the quality of that time and the cadence.

It’s also about being honest with yourself. On the days I don’t feel productive I don’t push it, but I know the next time I sit down to write, it has to count. It’s not worth to trick yourself and check a box just to make you feel better.

This is my method, but everyone is different. Every single person will have their personal method to keep focused in the long-game.

It’s not fun, it’s about the process

The work is not meant to be fun. Ask any pro-athlete if they have fun during training and they may say Yes for particular days, but not all. Deep down they know the process involves showing up everyday, rolling up their sleeves and putting in the work.

It’s not fun to stay inside studying when most people are enjoying their weekends. And it’s definitely not as fun to go on a shoestring budget vacation, or even default to a stay-vacation for a few years, so you can save enough money to buy your dream house.

But part of the process is training and mastering delayed gratification.

You sacrifice nights and weekends, but get a degree that leads to opportunities you didn’t have before.

You sacrifice traveling, but exercise the discipline of saving towards something that’s important to you, owning a house.

At the end of the day, you have to learn to enjoy the process. Otherwise, it will be a constant struggle.

There are two types of struggle, one that’s about constant pain, setbacks and virtually no progress. Another where things are hard enough that you feel challenged, but still motivated and wanting to stay in the game.

At the end of the day, you have to learn to enjoy the process. Otherwise, it will be a constant struggle.

If your process is all about pain and setbacks, something is wrong. Something is not working and you have to evaluate if you made the right decision at that particular point in your life. Give it time, and avoid quitting at the first challenge. But if you keep putting in the effort and it’s still all pain and struggle, it’s time for a reset.

The process is not fun, but has to be balanced. The process should keep you curious and motivated to come back to it every day.

Pop-culture narratives only focus on ease, immediacy, the overnight successes, the viral videos.

But significant work and significant change requires time and effort.

It’s compounding

The distinctive feature of the long-game is that it’s compounding.

In the short-term you sprint, get what you want and you move onto the next thing. The long-game grants you the opportunity continue to build on top of what accomplished before.

A clear example is saving money. If you have a savings account that generates 5% interest every year and you start off with $1000, after the first year you’ll have $1050. But on the next year you’ll have $1102.50 and so on. Your savings don’t start from scratch every year, they compound on the previous year’s growth.

This rule applies to everything else you commit yourself to in the long-game. The key difference from opening a savings account is that, everything else depends on putting in the time and effort in a consistent manner.

In the long-game you don’t start from scratch every day, you compound on the work and discipline of previous days.

Long-game: what’s in it for me?

Some decisions don’t need a long-game mindset. You get to pick which decision should be long-game one.

And as a byproduct of committing to the long-game you will:

  • Find meaning in the process, not the result. The result is a micro-second compared to the process. Finding deep meaning in the process will make you enjoy it more.
  • Exercise different muscles. In the long-game you get the chance to exercise your curiosity, to think deeply about something, to experiment and iterate.
  • Free yourself from immediate rewards and the action→ reaction loop. You acknowledge things take time and effort and, the more complex the more work it involves. At the same time, you find joy and accomplishment when you see yourself making continued progress.

Conclusion

The long-game doesn’t have a formula, like most of the content you learn in school. It’s a process of patience and experimentation. That’s why no one explicitly teaches you about the long-game mindset.

The long-game doesn’t have a formula, like most of the content you learn in school.

It’s something have to explore for yourself and at your own pace. Always grounded in four principles:

  • The long-game is active.
  • The long-game exercises focus, determination and discipline.
  • The long-game is not fun, it’s about the process.
  • The long-game is compounding.

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Carolina Bento

Carolina Bento

Articles about Data Science and Machine Learning | @carolinabento

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