Know Your ABZs

A practical mantra for thinking & acting long-term

As important as it is to recognize that good things come to those who have a long-term mindset, it’s not an especially novel observation. To at least some degree, everyone with any ambition knows that doing the sensible thing (practising, learning, iterating) consistently over a long period of time produces positive results. When people have a hard time behaving accordingly, it’s not for lack of belief or understanding.

When people slip into short-term modes of operation, it’s typically against their better judgement, brought on by one of a handful of practical or psychological challenges. First and foremost is natural impatience: humans’ instinctive and consistent desire for immediate gratification. Another is distraction: if you’re playing a game that is best viewed on a 5-, 10- or 20-year horizon, from time to time it’s easy to just sort of...forget that fact and inadvertently take your eyes off the prize. Third, there’s the matter of not knowing how to eat the elephant: when the thing you’re after is a long way in the future, getting your head around how to get from here to there can be daunting.

Here’s a handy mantra for dealing with all of those challenges: know your ABZs.

Knowing your ABZs means knowing where you are now (A), where you’re trying to get to in the long run (Z), and -- arguably the most important part -- the next milestone along the way (B).

A and Z are the most obvious things you need to identify in starting to think long-term, but B is the part that makes it all hang together -- it’s the trick to navigating most of those day-to-day pitfalls.

Deliberately choosing your next milestone means you don’t have to figure everything out all at once. You just eat the elephant one bite at a time. Using the information you have, pick a near-term goal that you think puts you on the path to Z, shoot for that, then reevaluate when you get there. Rinse and repeat, then eventually -- looking backward -- the path you’ve followed will start to make sense. Trying to envision that same path at outset -- looking forward -- is impractical and unnecessary.

Having a near-term B to shoot for also makes it easier to stay on task in the long run. Whereas it’s easy to periodically lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish over decades, it’s much more manageable to organize your efforts around an objective for the next 6 to 12 months. And if that 12-month objective is connected to the long-term goal, then you’ve succeeded in acting as though you only had the long run in mind -- without the struggle of trying to stay focused on a distant prize.

Finally, aiming for ‘B’ also offers near-term gratification, which is important for the ability to enjoy the journey from A to Z -- and to keep you going along the way. Even if B is (by definition) not the ‘big payoff’ that’s got you thinking long-term in the first place, it can and should produce a sense of accomplishment. After all, you can’t run a marathon without passing each mile marker.