How to stop focusing on the short-term & start focusing on the long-term
In this article, I’m going to explore why we end up focused on short-term goals, why that can be dangerous & offer some solutions to help you better ‘zoom out’ with your work.
Let me paint you a (most likely) familiar scenario:
It’s 6.30pm & the heat is already on. John from design, a rather dramatic character, is being pretty vocal about the fact that he’s busy:
“Oh my god, Sandra, I really don’t have time for this. I’ve got soooooo much to do & it’s all really, really urgent & super important. I’m just swamped right now.”
He says it in a shrill, wavering voice. He genuinely believes it’s all really urgent & super important. But there’s also a hint of smug satisfaction.
Because he feels the weight of self-importance that comes with being busy.
He has, throughout his career, nailed the art of being busy. Not the art of being productive, of adding value. He’s just really, really good at being busy & looking busy.
So everyone thinks,
“Wow, that guy John. He really must do so much for the company. He’s always here late. He’s always so busy. He always seems to be doing loads of important stuff. How does he do it? How can I be like John?”
Which is completely absurd. Because John is just that: busy. John isn’t productive. John isn’t particularly good at his job.
But, quite frankly, people don’t really care or stop to think about that.
They are rushing around, busy & stressed, just like John. The entire office is doing the same thing: all looking busy, making everything urgent, making things sound really important.
But let’s just stop for a second & think:
Because what is really the point?
There isn’t one.
We seem happy to rush around for 14 hours a day, feeling mildly unhappy, anxious & stressed, yet we never stop to think & evaluate our actions:
Are we creating value? Are we spending our time wisely? Or are we just rushing around for the sake of it? Life is not the theatre, yet we act like it is.
Busyness equates success: Busyness lends us a sense of purpose in life. We feel wanted. We feel needed. It’s become an internal badge of honour we wear with pride, because busy people = successful people in our mind. If you doubt this, think how many times you mention the fact you’ve “been soooo busy” when catching up with a friend or colleague.
Busyness is praised: Work culture promotes the cult of late hours, of promoting the busy people, the overtly active, rather than the ones quietly getting on with the work. This external pressure makes it difficult to not conform to this arbitrary culture, regardless of the negative outcomes of busyness.
Short-term thinking is dangerous
And maybe you think all this behaviour is harmless. It’s just “how things have always been done”. But really think about that. Think about the consequences of constantly being busy & stressed out.
It’s actually dangerous. For you. For your company.
Because busyness means you are stressed. You are anxious. You are fatigued.
These states of being mean you only focus on the short-term, on the irrelevant. You are unable to prioritise. To distinguish the urgent from the important. The important from the unimportant.
Busyness means you get so obsessed with deciding which button to create for an app header, but you don’t stop to think whether you should be building the screen in the first place.
In essence, it leads to poor decision-making. And that poor decision-making over time leads to a failure to invest in the long-term interest of your company. This in turn leads to the failure of your company. There are only so many fuck-ups your company is able to survive.
Everyone in your company when it closes because of short-term thinking. Yet some of you will think, particularly as designers, “Well, it’s not my problem. The CEO & PMs should know what they are doing.” or “I can just find another job.”
Instead, take responsibility. Ask yourselves whether you want to turn around in a few years when the company has failed & realise that all that hard work is wasted. That there’s no company, no users & no value.
Instead, learn how to zoom out.
A caveat: These are all practices I have experimented with in different forms. They all work for me, but they may not work for you. As with any habit, see what works for you. Just be open to experimentation, rather than just not bothering to try anything new.
- Be idle
Particularly as creatives, it’s important to learn to chill more. Take more breaks. Psychological studies show we can only really concentrate for 3–4 hours, so realise your limitations. Don’t work flat out for 12 hours. Work in shorter blocks. Go for a walk. Go to the gym in the afternoon. Listen to a podcast. Browse Dribbble. Disconnect.
Start every morning with 10 minutes’ meditation. Use Headspace, as it’s guided & comes without the religious element we usually relate to meditation.
Think of it like this: it makes you 10% happier every day, more relaxed & provides you with much greater clarity of thought & action.
I used to find myself over-working, being busy & making poor decisions. I now catch myself throughout the day, asking myself probing questions, whilst also enjoying my day more & being more present. All because of meditation.
One of my journal posts using Bear. The content varies, but I always define one high impact thing to acheive that day, something I’ve learnt, something I’m grateful for & a free-flow section on my thoughts, worries, weird ideas, etc.
- Daily journal
Spend 5–10 minutes after meditating just recording your thoughts. At first you’ll be lost for what to write, but you’ll start recording ideas, thoughts & things to do. Just by getting your worries down on paper, you’ll free up your brain.
Start small with 2 minutes & use an app like Bear or Evernote.
- The One Thing
A framework by author Gary Keller: ensuring progression by focusing on one achievement each day, month & year, however big or small the goal.
Start with something you can’t fail with &, before starting your day, just record the one thing that will make today a successful day. Maybe it’s nailing that presentation, or reading an article on design. It can be small, but it will give you a sense of accomplishment & progress towards your goals that’s really powerful.
Again, use Bear or Evernote. You can even just write it on a scrap of paper.
Read the full book here.
- Take responsibility
It’s easy to pass on responsibility to PMs & C-levels. Because our work is creative, it’s fun, it’s relatively stress-free. Yet, particularly with a startup, no-one really knows what they are doing.
So if you’re a UI Designer, for example, don’t just say yes to everything. Get involved in the UX discussions, question PMs, bring new ideas to the table. Be vocal.
How many people do you think are still following their New Year resolutions? One Business Insider report estimates 80% fail by February.
Charles Duhigg & B.J. Fogg have done some great research in this area, so I would recommend reading up on both. Two quick takeaways to remember, however:
Start really small: If you want to make lasting change, you need to habitualise the action, rather than focusing on results. If you want to start journaling, for example, just start by writing one phrase per day. Otherwise you’ll give up. Make it so easy you can’t make excuses.
Anchor it to another habit: This provides a trigger to remind you to complete the new habit. I meditate straight after having a shower, for example, and journal when I have my morning coffee.
So hopefully you’ve realised the absurdity — and danger of always being busy & stressed. That it focuses you on the short-term, at the cost of the long-term.
Avoid this outcome by trying some tactics & techniques, such as meditation, to help you zoom out better; to focus you on the long-term more often.
Because if you don’t, failure may await, whether personal or of your company. And you’ll look back & think,
“Why didn’t I see it coming?”