A new study from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management examines how certain types of professionals sustain their motivation and enthusiasm over very long periods. 

“People in contemporary economies seem to know that they should ‘think long-term,’ when in fact they base their choices and behaviors primarily or even solely on short-term considerations,” notes Bruce Barry, the Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management, in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

American business leaders find Long-term thinking especially difficult due to the pressures of short-term success, says Barry and his co-author, Thomas Bateman of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce — even if that impedes on long-term planning or goals. Even when they have chosen long-term goals, CEOs and other executives find themselves wrapped up in “a complex set of cognitive and affective phenomena that implicate perceptions of self, the future, task activities, and a variety of other gratifications,” Barry and Bateman say.

So what is the key to circumventing this habit? The authors identified and interviewed 25 successful long-term-thinking professionals in trades that range from hedge fund operators to medical researchers. What they found is that these successful individuals had recognized the following facts: Eventual success could take years — perhaps even generations; real progress comes very slowly; and there is a significant risk of failing.

Armed with this insight, Barry and Bateman have identified eight key sources of motivation that provide “psychological sustenance” in the pursuit of long-terms goals. Specifically, the following sources of motivation tie a long-term goal to a more short-term payoff.


    • Allegory: Figurative representations or abstractions that offer significant, consequential meaning. (e.g., comparisons to the Wright Brothers or the moon landing.)
    • Futurity: Allusions to the long-term impact and possibilities associated with the ultimate outcomes that may result from the realization of a long-term goal. (e.g., setting the stage for my children and grandchildren.)
    • Self: Statements that invoke personal identity, reputation or personal belief systems. (e.g., expressing my personal creativity.)
    • Singularity: References to the perceived uniqueness of the endeavor. (e.g., the big exploration that nobody could have done before.)
    • Knowledge: Statements that refer to skill development, new understanding, acquiring truth and finding ways to control events. (e.g., any knowledge that’s created is good.)
    • The Work: Allusions to the nature of the work, including challenges, methods, risks and uncertainties, as well as elements that are fun or surprising. (e.g., it’s like a puzzle that you’re solving.)
    • Embeddedness: Ways in which individuals see their work situated within social contexts, as well as ways in which their work garners social legitimacy within their professions and in society. (e.g., an enjoyment from disproving the skeptics.)
    • Progress: Statements that emphasize the notion of forward movement, often short term, in the direction of long-term goal pursuit. (e.g., advancements in tools and techniques that facilitate the work.)


      But these keys alone won’t unlock long-term goals. The authors also note that all of the subjects they interviewed mentioned the key role that self-regulation plays in attempting to do something long-term. 

      “Effective self-regulation is associated with physical and psychological well-being, as well as better job performance,” Barry and Bateman write. 

      Such forms of self-regulation include maintaining focus on goal-directed actions, controlling emotions, coping with failure and using failure as a basis for improvement rather than a setback, they note.

      “Long-term goals arguably are at least as important as short-term goals in their ultimate consequences for individuals, organizations, and societies,” Barry and Bateman write. “Now is the time to expand our field’s search for theories and strategies that can help people and organizations pursue and achieve important long-term goals.”