You are currently viewing It’s time to lengthen our perspective

It’s time to lengthen our perspective

Long-term thinking in a short-term world
A Guide for Executives

Through long-term actions, firms seek to achieve more significant, even transformational changes that will enable durable success. They may invest in new infrastructure or business areas. These investments take longer to pay off, and can be difficult to quantify in advance — but can act as game changers for a firm.

Time-warped: how modern life shortens our perspectives

Many of us feel the anxiety of living in a time of ‘polycrisis’, but taking a long view will help you cope, writes Richard Fisher (The Guardian, 21 Jun 2023)

One February night in a London hospital, my perception of time shrunk to the span of a moment. Around 24 hours after my wife went into labour, we were rushed into emergency surgery. Our baby had acquired an infection. As I held my wife’s hand in the sterile silence of the operating theatre, it felt like nothing else in the world existed. Our recent past of slow, stable expectation faded away and the future became impossible to see with any fidelity – all that was left was now.

We were lucky; the threat receded, and after five nights of recovery and antibiotics, we stepped out of the timeless maternity ward and back into the world, carrying our daughter, Grace. Gradually, our future as a new family settled into view.

I am fortunate to have encountered such emergencies only rarely in my life – encounters with shock, fear or sudden loss – but for each, I can recall how time fell out of joint. Crisis tends to trap you in the present.

Over the past few years, I’ve been researching and writing a book called The Long View, about why our sense of time is malleable – how it can be foreshortened without us realising and how to lengthen our perspectives. Unlike the vast majority of other animals, we have a remarkable ability to manipulate time in our minds. Scientists call it “mental time travel”: As you read these words, you can transport your perspective into the past and stitch together those memories into a tapestry of possible futures.

However, that does not mean our timeviews cannot be coloured, swayed or even diminished. Every day, we are exposed to a barrage of temporal stresses: shortsighted targets, salient distractions and near-term temptations. When these combine with the psychological habits we inherited from our ancestors, a longer perspective can recede from view.

  Every day, we are exposed to a barrage of temporal stresses

One temporal stress that we now face daily is the sense that we live in a period of concatenating crises: financial crisis, pandemic crisis, climate crisis, Ukraine crisis, cost-of-living crisis – each one blending into another. People talk of a polycrisis, a cluster of related global risks and their effects, and of a permacrisis, the Collins Dictionary’s 2022 word of the year, defined as “an extended period of instability and insecurity”.

Is it true? Certainly it is for people personally affected by conflict, poverty or loss. But for those who live in relative comfort – myself included – it’s less clear. I know that, for my part, the media I consume influences how I feel about myself and the world; whereas when my great-grandparents faced upheaval, they did not have to live in a 21st-century news environment with 24-hour feeds and daily doomscrolling.

Doomscrolling is not good for mental wellbeing and health. In one study, people asked to watch negative news bulletins were more likely to feel anxious and sad afterwards, and to catastrophise a personal worry that had nothing to do with the content. But more subtly, a daily diet of bad news could be influencing our timeviews. Immersing oneself in negative news risks the onset of doomism, a form of apathy where the future stops being plural – shrinking to a singular path or even seeming to end altogether – without us realising. A diet of continual outrage and shock can create skewed mental models of the past, present and future. People’s judgments become based on what’s most readily available and prominent in memory – a psychological effect called the “availability heuristic”. The mind tends to paint possible futures using experiences that are most accessible.