“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.” -Sir Isaac Newton
We are hardwired for short-term thinking. This why our ancestors were able to evade predators in the wilderness. It is also why you are prone to check Twitter. There is value and peril in our short-term thinking. Recognize that this double-edged sword cuts in a lopsided fashion. We are easily distracted, reacting to anxious people and the pings of our phones. We are fascinated with improbable, but immediate threats, such as terrorism. And we neglect long-term existential crises, such as global warming. I discuss these biases with Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational in the video interview embedded below.
To resist the descent to an animal level of reasoning, we must develop a farsighted perspective. Unlike animals, we can use time to our advantage. While animals weaken over time, we can grow stronger by honing skills. While animals flit about reacting to stimuli, we see things clearly over time. To take a farsighted perspective, we can manufacture the effect of time by detaching from a situation and calming our nerves. I have found box breathing very calming during intense situations.
After you calm down, practice a slower approach to life. Learn to check decisions against your long-term goals and your ladder of values. Develop a clear sense of identity and check your decisions against that identity, not the frantic masses on social media. Time is a tool that can serve you. Do not squander it.
To elevate your perspective, watch for these signs of shortsightedness from The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene.
1. Unintended Consequences. This is all too common in your social interactions. You start a new job and seek to impress your boss. You start showing up before him and leaving after him. You dress better than him. You give an excellent presentation about your latest project and everyone is impressed. Everyone except your boss, because he fires you the next day. In your attempt to dazzle the boss, you made him feel insecure and he made you pay for it.
In all situations, do your best to picture the consequences of your decisions. Imagine all the things that could go wrong before you jump to a reaction. In the medical field, we would act as though our latest project had failed, then generate a list of reasons why it failed. This premortem allowed us to spot threats we might have missed. In the military, we would assign people to come up with a plan to defeat our plan. This is known as Red Teaming. Use an similar exercise to help the skeptical people in your team put their thought patterns to good use.
2. Tactical Hell. You’ve sunk an enormous amount of energy into a project. You’re fighting to keep things together financially, while maintaining morale, and your own life. All sense of your long-term goals is lost because you are just trying to survive each day. Welcome to Tactical Hell.
The answer is disengagement. Calm down, then see what really matters to you. Odds are good that this struggle is not consistent with your long-term goals. Look for a creative way to win the war without these battles. And if the fight is not consistent with your value system, then choose to surrender and move on to something better.
3. Ticker Tape Fever. You are checking your phone every few minutes. It’s getting harder to resist the notifications. There’s an addictive pull to stay up to speed with everything. The more we give in to the rapid flow of information, the more we need to keep up. Our attention spans get shorter and we find it hard to concentrate or relax. Even when the work day is done we are checking email in bed. We’ve lost a sense of the big picture, because we yearn for the frequent details. Even when the details are wrong or redundant, we keep checking them.
The solution is resistance. Like developing strong muscles, we can develop strong patience through resistance. Start by blocking some time where you will break the pattern and stop the flow of information. This may be as simple as leaving your phone at home while you go for a walk. Then, get back in touch with your long-term goals. In time, you will see that your elevated perspective is a great advantage that outweighs the pull of immediate updates.
4. Lost In Trivia. You have all of the information at your fingertips, but it is too much. You can’t prioritize and concentrate. Paradoxically, all of your details cause you to miss the most important information. Your mind grows tired.
Turn back to your ladder of values. What really matters to you? What matters for this situation? Start with the essentials, then plan for likely contingencies. Many details can be ignored.
As Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin share in their excellent book, Extreme Ownership, most new information should not affect your plans. In one situation, the SEALs learned of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in their path just minutes before starting a mission. Did they cancel? No. They were prepared for this likely contingency and executed the mission as planned.
“The years teach much which the days never know.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
For an in-depth look at our nature, the book to read is The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene.