Put Your Decision-Making Time Horizon to Work

Think about the future. Notice what kind of events you expect to happen in the future. Think about the projects you have going on. Think about the good things you expect to happen, and how you plan for them.

You’ll notice that you have a preferred time horizon that you automatically use without thinking about it. For some people, considering “the long term” means thinking five months out. For other people, it means thinking ahead a hundred years… or a thousand years. I’m not talking about the time pressure from Wall Street or other managers; I’m talking about the mental timelines that all of us have, that we use to plan our lives.

Your Time Horizon Matters

The time horizon you use makes a huge difference in how you make decisions. If you naturally have a long time line, you may be able to create great long-term plans. You might not be so good at the short-term, however. Unfortunately, you have to pass through the short-term to get to the long-term, and if the short-term has some surprises, you can be caught unawares. I met a startup entrepreneur whose timeframe was years. He was mentally in a future where his company was already an industry leader. Unfortunately, he lived in that future and didn’t really pay much attention to the next six months. His company hit a few snags, and rather than focus in on the short term, he was so wedded to his long-term vision that he assumed “everything will work out.” It didn’t really penetrate that *he* was the one who had to make it work out.

A purely short-term time horizon is great for day-to-day survival. A short-term calendar has its own problems. It’s easy to make decisions that seem great in the short-term, but lead to long-term ruin. A friend of mine thought his decisions through about three weeks out from the present. Three weeks is less than a credit card statement cycle, however. Each month he would run up more and more credit card debt, because his decisions about “can I afford this?” never really considered the need to pay back the credit card, four weeks in the future. It took him 15 years to pay down the credit card debt he accumulated in college.

Use a Deliberate Time Horizon

Next time you make a decision—about work, or family, or home life—consciously consider the same decision and its consequences on a 2-week, 6-month, and 5-year time horizon. You may find that different decisions work best with different time scales. That’s a good thing! It lets you understand the interplay between short and long-term consequences.

My friend Michael Linenberger noticed that having a to-do list that’s so long your brain wants to explode also has a timeframe attached to it. Different items on your to-do list are associated with different time distances in the future. He’s designed a complete system to take advantage of how people think about time and activities to handle task management with no stress. His system meshes naturally with how people process near-future tasks differently from medium-future tasks, differently from far-future tasks. Today (immediate future), his book on the system is launching and I encourage you to check it out and buy a copy:

Next week (medium future), try his system for a week. Just do it for a week and find out whether taking timeframes into account improves your ability to juggle the demands of a task-heavy workload. Then in six months, if it’s still working for you, start asking where else in your life you can take timeframes into account, so you make better decisions and build your life into more of what you want it to be.

Time after Time: Put Your Decision-Making Time Hor…

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