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How to Play a Better Long Game

Playing the long game is easier said than done. Most people already know compounding the right things creates future rewards in all kinds of areas including finances, relationships, and health. Yet doing it is actually very hard. We are powerfully drawn to short-term incentives and often overvalue speed above all else. Simply put, we’re impatient. I know I am.

Sometimes what is not clear is the tradeoff we’re making when we choose short-term incentives over long-term rewards. This is in part because it takes so much time for the long-term rewards to show up, obscuring the future payoff and allowing us to justify our short-term thinking. The long game also requires you to get more comfortable with long periods of discomfort and requires building intentional decision-making that can appear to take you backward and further from your goals.

I have a simple example from this last week. I’ve been within a 206-212 pound weight band for too long. I’d like to be just under 200 and work out 3-4 days a week toward that goal. However, I frequently choose an incredible meal or glass of wine over my fitness goal. Truth be told, enjoying the meal is more important to me at that moment because the longer-term reward of getting below 200 isn’t clear or compelling enough.

Or a different example: I’ve experienced some scary financial hardships in my 20 years career and I’m extremely motivated to avoid them. I’m very clear on those consequences and therefore think about my finances through a long-term lens. I rarely make short-term financial choices, though I did recently buy a new car and struggled with that decision.

To encourage long-term thinking I have a few points that help me.

Think long-term, execute short-term.

Have a great long-term plan, 5 years works for me, but don’t worry if it’s not as clear as you’d like. Work to make it directionally accurate, then clarify and execute the next steps in 30-90 day increments.

Wanting a long-term reward isn’t enough.

The pain you’re avoiding has to be clear and personal, or the long-term reward has to be significantly greater and better defined than the short-term incentive. There needs to be a strong pull toward the long-term or a push away from the short-term. The reality is we are often more motivated to avoid pain than we are to gain pleasure, so use that equation to your advantage.

Long-term thinking and flexibility in the short term aren’t mutually exclusive.

“Playing the long game” can be used to support a bias toward inaction or indecision. Don’t let it. It’s important to be flexible, and decisive when the situation calls for it. Many companies fail slowly because they become rigid and indecisive, thinking their incumbent status will pull them through. That’s not a guarantee.

Don’t be afraid to change course.

How do you get out of a hole? Stop digging. I love that saying because it speaks directly to our stubbornness to stay the course no matter the consequences. While persistence is key to success, that can turn to obstinacy if you’re not taking in a balanced perspective and are caught too deeply in your own biased point of view.

The importance of compounding and using time as a lever for the things most important to you cannot be overemphasized. Though remember don’t forget to enjoy the journey along the way.

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