Strategically tactical. Newsletter 27 December 2023.

Newsletter 24. Essay only for the holiday.

The biggest thing that divides people making decisions is not liberal vs. conservative, young vs. old, family vs. career, or eastern vs. western.

It’s long-term vs. short term.

For every decision you make — every one — this comes into play. Should I send my kids to the free public school or that expensive private school? Should I have another slice of pie that I might regret later? Should I buy the fancy new car or drive the old one for a while longer? Stay up late or go to bed early? Get married? Have an affair? Get divorced?

The constant battle between the short- and long-term perspectives rages within each of us at all times — but especially in this season of New Year’s resolutions. This contrast is the constant backdrop of our lives. It is central to every argument and every choice, conscious or unconscious. And yet most of us don’t recognize that we need to frame our choices on these dimensions.

This post is not an argument in favor of long-term, strategic thinking, nor for short-term opportunistic thinking. It’s just about being aware of this key axis.

Strategic decisions — those in which you defer a short-term goal in favor of long-term positioning — have significant advantages. Often, long-term goals are far more powerful than the short-term benefits. Think about the choice to attain a college degree, or have a child, or develop the habit to go to the gym twice a week. If you can learn to plan carefully and spend effort on things that won’t pay off for a while, you can position yourself to gain enormous benefits.

But long-term thinking has drawbacks as well. We all know how the best-laid plans of mice and men and women may go awry. You can never be certain that the future for which you are planning will develop in the way you imagine.

Moreover, denying yourself short-term happiness isn’t always wise. Each of us needs the reinforcement of a little fun now and then. If you always live for the future, you risk losing the fulfillment of the present. Ironically, too much long-term thinking is unwise for the long-term.

Tactical decisions — the choice to do what seems best right now — also have significant advantages. Tactically, you can quickly take advantage of opportunities that would otherwise disappear. This may be your last chance to have a meal at a great restaurant before it closes, to hug your teenager before they become moody and unresponsive, to raise a glass with a true friend, or to get your blood pumping in a vigorous game of tennis. Hedonism — in prudent doses — is good for the soul.

That said, those who always make the easy choice never make much progress. They don’t build skills, habits, or positions that will make the future easier. Life feels unfair to them, because they failed to invest in their future selves, resulting in constant setbacks that feel like bad luck. And short-term thinkers often lack the resilience and resources to deal with unexpected crises and setbacks, like losing a job or having a loved-one die.

To me, the irony is that short- and long-term thinking are actually two sides of the same coin. Long-term thinking requires the discipline to make many short-term decisions in a consistent way to build for the future: the long-term is built out of a thousand nows. And short-term thinking is a strategy, even if you don’t pursue it as one: focusing on the short-term too much becomes a part of who you are, a continuing long-term trend.

The key is balance and awareness.

Always know what your future could be. Have a vision for it.

Change that vision based on things that happen. Revisit it regularly.

Make choices knowing that they have both short- and long-term consequences.

Take time to enjoy your life, especially together with those you love.

Take time to invest for your future self and the future of the people who mean the most to you.

Decision-making for both the short- and long-term is a muscle. Exercise it. You’ll get better in the long-run. And you’ll enjoy your life in the here-and-now, too.

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