The Challenge of Hitting Goals That Have Long Time Lags

“The old adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” is a phrase that attests for the need of time to create great things.

Written By Sterling Sweeney: Published Jan 6th, 2020 | Updated Jan 6th, 2020.

Sterling Sweeney is a growth hacker and the driving force behind Humanic a quantified self platform. 

8 Minute Read

“A long delay between cause and effect can make you doubt the cause and therefore never experience the effect.”

Deep down, whether we like it or not, we all understand the importance of delaying gratification when it comes to reaching our more ambitious goals. Generally speaking, the things that are most valuable to us, will take us time to achieve. Those goals could include things like raising great kids, building a successful company, developing a healthy romantic relationship, paying off debt, saving for retirement or learning a new language to name only a few examples.

All of the examples above share a common characteristic; there is a delay (or time lag) between the cause (input) and effect (output). For most of us, we can delay gratification if we know with certainty we will end up achieving our goal.

The old adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” attests to the need for time (and often a lot of it) to create great things. 

However, for many of us we struggle with just how much time is needed to create these great things. The unknown variable of time causes many of us to live in a permanent state of anxiety. 

Some time lags are written in stone and are subject to the rhythm of nature. These time lags are easier to live with due to their somewhat static nature. For example, if your goal is to give birth to a child you need to wait about 9 months between conception (input / cause) and birth (output / effect). There is not too much anyone can do to manipulate that time lag. 

Even though other time lags may be more elastic, they are, at least in part, guided by external forces that are out of our control. If 100 people had a goal to lose 30 pounds, and they all established a cause that would help them achieve that effect (usually in the form of proper diet and exercise), then they could all achieve that goal. However, none of them would lose the weight naturally within one or two days. The time horizon for this goal is more distant. 

Or imagine you have a business online and you’re trying to grow your website traffic. Again, there are systems outside of your control (like Google’s algorithm for example) which will determine how long it takes you to rank for your desired keywords. Google’s algorithm has a domain authority bias and many studies have shown the length of time it takes a page to rank well in organic search. Again, the time it takes to achieve this goal is elastic to some degree, but a substantial amount of data exists that prove the existence of a time lag of over one year between cause (the creation and promotion of content) and effect (high organic ranking).

This is where the problem comes in. 

There are a couple of major issues with time lags as they relate to our ability to reach our goals.

Is your cause working? Is your cause even a cause at all?

Time lags complicate the relationship between cause and effect because the existence of the time lag creates a space in time where many things can happen that could have an impact on the effect or outcome.

Generally speaking, the longer the time lag the more debate there will be around the relationship between cause and effect. Global warming is a great example. It’s estimated that there is often a 25 – 50 year year time lag between cause and effect. Essentially, some of the damage we did 40 years ago, will only start to be felt now. This great distance between cause and effect confuses their relationship because many things can happen during a 40 year time lag.

So how does this apply to our personal goals? Well our longer term goals will often suffer through the same internal confusion or self doubt.

We often ask ourselves, if I do A, will B happen? Where there is a time lag it’s harder for us to say with certainty that B will happen, especially if it’s the first time we’ve ever embarked on that particular journey. We either need to have our own historical experience prove the correlation between cause and effect, or be presented undeniable facts in order to believe in the correlation.

For example, even without having given birth to a child before, you probably know the cause needed, to make that effect happen. Even if all women who conceived 9 months ago today, all ate a taco on the day of they conceived, we could still figure out it was intercourse and not the taco that caused the pregnancy. 

However, for the average person finding causation in parts of their life they haven’t mastered yet can be a big challenge. 

The problem enters into our lives when we are dealing with a goal where there will be a time lag between our desire and the outcomes and we don’t fully understand the cause and effect relationships within that area of our life. 

For example, deep down we know that if someone has experienced or accomplished something in this world, it would theoretically be possible for us to experience or accomplish that as well.

For example, let’s imagine our goal is to acquire one million dollars. Currently there are over 46M millionaires in the world. So it’s been proven that becoming a millionaire is possible. But without your own personal experience, or reference to concrete facts, it becomes a major challenge for you to draw a line between cause and effect.

To complicate matters further, there is generally more than one cause that can lead to an effect. It’s not like pregnancy where there is only one way to accomplish your goal. There are as many ways to become a millionaire as there are millionaires.

And if things weren’t already complicated enough, the information we can consume on this topic is often contradictory. Millionaire A might say, “to get where I am you need to do X and not Y”, while millionaire B might say, “to get to where I am you need to do Y and not X”.

This makes identifying a causal relationship challenging when you’re entering into domains where you have no or little experience. This is why many success coaches preach the importance of having mentors. Because even if there are a million ways to get from point A to point B, often having a concrete example helps make the journey a little more certain. 

If you don’t have a mentor (or even if you do), the best thing you can do is research, as thoroughly as you can, the people who have accomplished goals that are similar to the ones you want to accomplish. By studying these people, you’ll start to notice trends and at least some level of consistency in their thinking. 

Once you can identify at least one or two causes, you can begin your own work testing your hypothesis. 

Luckily, the universe isn’t cruel and it gives us hints along the way letting us know if we’re on the right path or not. If we’ve established a connection between cause and effect, the universe will present us with information to let us know if the levers we’re pulling are indeed the right levers.

For example, if your goal is to get pregnant, you don’t need to wait 9 months for the baby to be born, to know that you were pregnant. Your body will start showing signs often within the first month or two.

The same is true for reaching your body weight goals. Even if you’ve never been at your target body weight, you can test various causes that should lead to that desired outcome. Again, in this case, we could research those who have come before us, who come from a similar situation or have a similar body type, and we can model our own program after theirs. After a few rounds of experimentation we’ll start to experience very small amounts of progress towards our goal. Even if, at the end of a week you weigh in and see a 0.5 pound reduction in weight, you can celebrate, because you found the cause. That’s a big win in and of itself. 

Or imagine your trying to build website traffic to your blog. If you’ve never done this before, you might not know where to start. Again, you might need to experiment with 5 – 10 strategies to see what works. However, if you’ve properly conducted your research, at least one of these tests should produce some positive results.

Our quest towards fulfilling our most ambitious goals take time . However, we need to pay close attention to these small victories because these small victories allow us to establish causation. Once we establish causation, we just need to be consistent.

You feel anxiety because the cause you’ve identified seems slow. There must be a faster way…

You would think that once causation is established moving forward towards your goal would be easy. However, for most people this doesn’t seem to be the case. Why is this?

Well unlike pregnancy, where you just need one cause, one time, to create the desired effect, most other goals require a constant and consistent maintenance of causes. For example, a single workout won’t have much impact on your body weight, however, eight hundred workouts will.

However, even if we’ve established the relationship between cause and effect, and even if we know their is a time lag   between the two, why do we still give up?

Often, the cause of failure is due to not accepting the actual time lag itself. We often feel that we might be able to find a time lag that is shorter and more in our favor. So we give up on our small victories as we search for bigger wins, quicker wins and shortcuts. However, in the majority of cases, the right thing to do is to continue working on your small victories on a daily basis.

Once you’ve established cause, the rest is just tenacity. 

At the end of the day, the issues around time lags are solved by having established strong habits and being disciplined while questing towards your ultimate goals.

Time lags are nature’s way of keeping things in balance. So if you’ve established a goal (effect) and you’ve discovered what needs to be done to accomplish that goal (cause), your job should be to stick with that activity through thick and thin.

Instead of feeling frustrated with the existence of a time time lag, instead celebrate the fact that you found a relationship between cause and effect.

Embrace the time lag and enjoy your journey through it!



Compete with yesterday’s version of yourself.

Are you the best version of yourself you can possibly be? If not, wouldn’t trying something new be worth a try?

Written By Sterling Sweeney: Published Jan 6th, 2020 | Updated Jan 6th, 2020.

Sterling Sweeney is a growth hacker and the driving force behind Humanic, a quantified self platform So, if you’re kinda into things like personal growth, transformation and reaching your goals, then be sure to check out our homepage. 

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