Shrinking Time Frames


It could be time to re-read what Niccolo Machiavelli advised his “Prince.” Machiavelli is criticized frequently for teaching his superior how to use unethical tactics to seize and keep political control. Many people, however, forget that Machiavelli is not only telling his prince, he’s also telling us about these tactics and how they work. And that plays to our (the reader’s) advantage. We get an up-close look at how those techniques are used, and that helps us spot those techniques before we can be swayed by them.

“I do not believe that divisions purposely caused can ever lead to good.”

That’s Machiavelli. Has an eerie ring of familiarity to it, doesn’t it? Divide and Conquer. Machiavelli underscores again and again how these tactics lead only to short term gains. And then he goes on to explain the mechanics of using the tactics he says will lead to no good. Trump suffers from a similar assumption: it’s this quarter’s bottom line, it’s the ‘win’ that counts, and it’s the only thing that counts. Most business leaders appear to be drinking the same Kool-Aid. What’s troubling about this is the time frame we’re routinely using to measure success is shrinking: many businesses have been focused on the bottom line, the profit, the quick “win,” neglecting long term goals. Here are some of today’s dominant time frames:

in politics–one term in office

fashion/pop culture–one season

corporations–one quarter

the internet–a few seconds

The shrinking time-frames have the artificial effect of speeding up decision-making. The reason this short-term thinking is troubling is that so many failed civilizations have shown that short-term thinking played a major role in their collapse. Less time to think and reflect makes us reactive instead of proactive, and the sense of increasingly urgent demands on our attention pumps up everyone’s stress level. Shrinking time frames, historians point out, are not the only troubling warning that a culture is on shaky ground. Consider these warnings:

Large populations of refugees moving across great distances

Border barriers and an increased sense of isolation

Growing gap between rich and poor (economic stratification)

“Black Swan” non-linear events that change the world order, like natural disasters or the rise of terrorism or systemic collapse of governing bodies (ie–Soviet Union)

Generalized feelings of exhaustion from dealing with the ‘crisis’ of the moment

Factionalism, in-fighting

Little realistic planning for the future

Over-extended military

Any of this sound familiar? Does our culture manifest any of these warnings? All of them? None? Current events certainly seem to lead one in a direction that isn’t very optimistic. One thing that could explain some of this behavior is what’s called ‘Present Bias.’ It’s a habitual way of thinking that favors immediate gratification and the short-term pay-off while ignoring the potential problems or consequences of today’s behavior. One way to combat this is to re-examine your purpose in order to determine how well the short-term goals are helping bring you or your organization closer to the fruition of your purpose. Focusing on a specific goal (or spending time on a goal-oriented mission statement) leads to short-term thinking (what do we need to do to reach our target?) without assessing whether the goal is in line with the larger purpose and whether the whole organization is moving in a fruitful, sustainable direction over time.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.