Playing the Long Game

I suspect most of us are guilty of pursuing personal or work-related results in our lives in the short term at the cost of losing long-term perspective. The canonical examples that come to mind are trying to lose a lot of weight, make a lot of money, succeeding in our work/business quickly, or worrying about the next financial quarter versus thinking about a longer time frame. I mention these examples because they are relatable and easy to measure.

One of the problems with this approach is that even if we were to lose weight quickly, we would gain all that weight just as quick. Lottery winners often lose most of their winnings by spending it all quickly. If you can’t manage money when you have little of it, you certainly won’t be able to manage when you have more of it. In our work lives, we may not get the “success” we want in our careers, let alone quickly. In fact, K. Anders Ericsson suggests in his book that it can take years of deliberate practice to get good at something. He defined deliberate practice as stepping outside your comfort zone and trying activities beyond your current abilities.

The other thing we should remember is that your happiness cannot be dependent on things outside of your control, such as whether you “succeed” in life. We want to lose weight. We want to make a lot of money. We want to be successful fast. The thing is many things are not in our control. All we can do is do the work, which is totally under our control. We may or may not get the results we want, let alone in the time frame we want. Focus on being happy now, do the work, and enjoy the journey, which is rewarding in and of itself. The results may or may not come, but at the end of the day all that really matters is that you did your best. We are so focused on getting short-term results that we lose sight of long-term perspective. This is all to say that we need to learn to play the long game.

James P. Carse writes about playing finite and infinite games. He writes that a finite game is played for the purpose of winning, while an infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing the play. At any point with any decision, we are playing a finite or infinite game. It could be something as simple as losing to a loved one in a game of hoop in order to build a relationship with them in the long-term. It could be as complex as refocusing our efforts from chasing quick rewards and likes by way of dopamine hits to loving our craft and shipping our best work.

Playing the long game to me means doing the work now while being patient for the results in the future. It means taking relentless action now that sets us up for the future. It means enjoying the journey (of doing the work), which is a reward in and of itself, rather than getting anxious about realizing results in the future. Let the process of doing the work determine the outcome for you.

It also means doing the essential things (important, but not urgent) routinely in terms of our relationships and results because at the end of the day those are the things that will matter the most, while everything else will fade away into insignificance. We can apply this approach to all aspects of our lives, including our health, work, relationships, and our habits in those areas. Let me share a few examples to illustrate that.

When it comes to investing in relationships (personal or at work), we need to deposit in them before we can spend/redeem our “relationship capital”, if you will. One example of that would be to resist asking for favors the minute you meet someone. Instead, figure out ways to add value to their lives in the forseeable future before asking them for help later on. Unless you have some relationship capital now, you can’t use it in the future. To learn more, read my draft on building relationships.

Another example: I write every day and try to put out one piece on my weblog every week (or so) with no immediate payoff. Am I crazy to be doing that? Why am I spending a third of my working time doing creative work and publishing on the weblog? Many reasons. I am in it for the long haul. I believe in doing the work. I believe in playing the long game. I am a pro (I try to be). Whether I get the results from it (by way of more readers or what have you) doesn’t interest me any more. That also doesn’t mean that I would not like my writing to be read more. Above all, I show up to write every week so I can learn the most. For me, doing the work is a reward in itself. I believe that the work we do is a gift we give ourselves. It’s why I do what I do.

The best example of not playing the long game is when organizations are so caught up on short-term results by way of staying fixated on their quarterly numbers that they lose long-term perspective.

So why play the long game? Well, as it turns out, things often take time. We need to be patient with expecting results, but impatient with our actions. You see, anything that is worth doing will take some time to complete (you may or may not achieve the outcome you desire), but you have to do the work at the very least.

A corollary to the above is that when you believe in doing something, failure (or quitting) is not an option. If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way; otherwise, you’ll find an excuse. You’ll do whatever it takes to make it work. When you know where you want to go, you’ll figure out a way to get there. Most of us lack clarity about where we want to go and what we want in life.

There are times when you want to concentrate on short-term results. The problem with that occurs when we stay in that mode for too long without routinely gaining the appropriate perspective.

Here are some ideas for playing the long game:

Start with the end in mind. Then, work your way backwards. Use the Explore, Evaluate, Execute process to figure out what you want. One way of starting with the end and working your way backwards is to have long-term goals, which will help you make short-term decisions. It will also make it easy for you to say no to almost everything else later.

Define the outcome, but then focus on the process of doing the work. Show up every day and do the work without making excuses. Focus on doing the work sincerely without getting attached to the outcome emotionally because that is all you can do. For instance, you can routinely reach out to prospects and clients to offer them tremendous value in their work and personal lives. Then, it’s up to them if they choose to receive it. You can only focus on doing the work (in this case, reaching out to prospects). There is nothing you can do about it except to offer value, which is part of playing the long game.

Focus on doing the essential things (often the important and non-urgent ones) routinely to get results over time. One example of this could be working towards your relationships and results every week. As long as you’re doing that routinely, nothing else should matter in the long term. Another example of this could be sticking to your weekly exercise and dietary plan for an extended period of time. Even better (and easier in the long term): focus on making it a habit for life.

Whatever change you are trying to make in life at any given time, give it your full attention and focus over a period of time. That’s the only way you can hope to reach your goals. For instance, if you’re trying to establish the habit of waking up early, focus only on that for a month. Don’t try to start too many things at once because you’re more likely to fail at all of them; not to mention, you’ll be discouraged from starting in the future.

Pick habits that you want to add or remove from your life. Start doing things that are good for you. Stop doing things that are not helping you; you already know the things you are doing that are helping you and those that are working against you. Most of the time, it’s not about knowing what to do. We already know the things we need to do to reach our goals, but we don’t do them (or do them enough). And no matter how much others would like us to change, we will only change when we realize that it’s in our rational self-interest.

When it comes to making changes in your life, start small. For instance, if you’re doing 10 pushups this week as part of your weekly fitness plan during one of your workouts, continue doing it until you feel comfortable with it, then maybe raise it to 11 reps in a couple of weeks. You want to strive for balance between effort and relaxation. Too much of either is unproductive. Too little of either is ineffective.

The same idea holds true for your dietary lifestyle. What I mean by that is if you want to stop having certain foods (such as sugar or dairy products, let’s say) in the long term, focus on reducing intake for one of these foods for a month or so (start with 10 days if a month seems like an eternity), and then reflect on it. More often than not, we need to do things for a while before we can commit to them in the long term. Other times you might learn after a month that that change was not meant for you, but without trying you wouldn’t have known that. Either way, you’ll end up learning something about yourself, which will guide you forward.

It’s easy to get busy in our everyday lives, but until we step back every now and then, we risk losing perspective. In order to do that, we need to have some control first. Gaining perspective first can also work, but it’s easier to start with what has your attention rather than think about where you should start from. Once you have that, look at your life from a slightly elevated perspective every week, month, and quarter. One way of doing that every week is to review your past week and plan for the following week. Another example is to look at the areas of your life once a month to ensure that you’re working on the right things in terms of results and relationships. Set one personal and one work-related goal every quarter. Then, reflect and review. For example, lose x weight or work with x clients during the next quarter. You could also do an annual review of your life. In other words, let’s not just hug the trees, but also look at the forest. Focus not on just where you are, but also where you’re headed.

Organizations can focus on the long game by putting people and processes ahead of their profits. Paradoxically, when you invest in your people, the profits typically follow along. There is no greater example of this right now than Apple. They are not driven primarily by profits, and not despite it, but because of it, they are the most valuable company in the world right now. They have always thought about making the best products possible for their customers, which in turn brings them huge profits. In other words, they are focused on their Why. Profits or making money in the end is simply a byproduct of focusing on their Why.

When you play the long game, it can be easy to get distracted and/or demotivated. One way of keeping yourself focused is to celebrate your small wins by way of keeping track of your progress in terms of how far you have come. You can also remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing.

Playing the long game is in your (and your organization’s) best interest. It’s about making slow, but lasting change in our lives for the better. It’s about sacrificing short-term gains in the interest of long-term results. It’s about enjoying the journey and not getting hung up about the destination. It’s about letting the process determine later results. It’s about making short-term decisions in the interest of long-term outcomes.

Stop going after the low-hanging fruit by way of using shortcuts because there are none. Show up every day and do the work without making excuses.

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