Think Inside The Box

18 Jul 2012

Standing in the dark at the Marriot County Hall's lone bike rack, pulling on damp gloves, I ponder the choices that led me here.

They weren't all choices.

A few hours earlier, suiting up for a high-profile dinner across town, I didn't evaluate the chance of rain, the likelihood of tube delays, the relative speeds. I didn't decide to ride because, on balance, under these circumstances, it was the optimal choice.

I ride because that's what I do.

I've done a lot of work on making effective decisions. But the real power comes from building structures so that you make decisions only when you really have to. All unimportant decisions become automatic, so you can make the important ones effectively. The first decision to make is always whether to decide at all.

This isn't laziness. The human mind is built for sprints, not marathons. It uses a frightening amount of power (25% of the body's glucose supply!) just ticking over, it tires quickly, and it recovers slowly. I've observed for a long time that my capacity for work in a day is limited not by time but by energy. If I run out of time I just work faster. But if I'm not careful, I can burn a day's energy in a couple of ultra-high-intensity hours and be reduced to doing paperwork until 6pm.

Rules, values and constraints remain important for rallying people to the cause, and for acting coherently when you have many decision makers in an organisation. But, crucially, they're also efficiency tools. With most of the work done for you, you're free to concentrate your firepower on the decisions that really matter.

I think this is why transition periods are so dangerous. Once the old set of rules falls away, every decision must be made from scratch. This is not necessarily error-prone - indeed it might be better - but it is slow, and confusing, and tiring. Then it's error-prone.

Twenty minutes later I slam the bike into the lift at the far end, wiping the rain from my headphones, grinning. Good call.