Improve decision making with a supermarket

We’re assaulted with a multitude of decisions, demanding action almost every minute of the day.

But each decision takes willpower, effort and time – three of our most precious resources. Not only are they key to decision making, they’re also fundamental to getting shit done.

Making decisions not directly relevant to the task at hand wears down our ability to focus on what’s important and achieve results. Those decisions kill our momentum and velocity.

But we’ve solved this issue elsewhere.

Doing all our shopping at the supermarket, once and then getting a single, itemised receipt lets us batch the task and makes it clear what the cost was. Buying 80 items individually, as we need them, and then trying to manage the receipts, that’s something else.

If we let tiny decisions arrive and challenge us on their own terms, we deplete our resources in dribs and drabs. It’s hard to gauge how much of our time, effort or willpower was spent.

But we can compress the demand on our thinking into more manageable chunks by capturing decisisons as they arise, holding them until we have a few and then tackling them in batches.

Taking the supermarket approach to decision making lessens the cognitive load, allows us to focus on making good decisions and – most importantly – leaves us free to act later.

Figuring out what comes next

Changed priorities ahead

The to-do list is never-ending.

As soon as we tick something off, two more tasks will take its place. It’s an admin hydra.  The sooner we accept this, the better,  because it’s not going to change anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean, more work, harder work, longer work – it just means that we have to learn to accept that our work is never done. We need to learn to give it boundaries or it will dominate everything.

Taking this as our starting point, there is value in execution, for sure, but there is also huge (and often hidden) value in prioritisation.

When you’re not going to get to everything, what are you going to get to? What will you complete and what will you leave?

Irrespective of which method of prioritisation you use, you first need a realistic understanding and acceptance of the time and resources you have available. This means not pretending you have 10 productive hours if you have 3 hours of scheduled meetings. It means not saying you can work late if you have to pick up the kids and get them to bed.

Once the playing field is established, you can then bring your priorities to bear.

There are an infinite number of ways to cut this, but here are two personal favourites, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

The first is to use an Eisenhower matrix which is a great tool for distinguishing what’s urgent for what’s important (we tend to always conflate the two, and that can create a lot of unnecessary noise). Lots has been written about this, so I won’t repeat it all here. Google is your friend.

The second is to ask “which task will add the most value for the effort required, right now?” It’s important to add the “right now” when you ask the question as both the value and effort required to complete a task will change over time. It’s also vital to not just do the easy tasks first, but whatever is most valuable with respect to its effort.

Both of these methods will then give you a focussed list which you can then slot in to your available time. If there isn’t enough time to complete at least one of your tasks, then you need to break them down and learn how to eat the elephant.

Either one of these methods will go a long way towards making sure you’re focussing your time and attention somewhere useful, but neither will offer you any solace until you’ve made peace with the fact that there will always be something more to do, and you’re not going to get it all done in this lifetime.

Breaking the back of big tasks

Pizza Slice by Jenn Durfey

Every big job has a back you can break – a point at which you can apply attention and effort to make it manageable and enable big gains.

The trick is to find it early enough. To be oriented in the right way to see it.

If you’re stuck and not making headway, you’re probably applying your effort to the wrong point.

This doesn’t mean give up, it means re-orient.

Think of your task as a pizza.

You can make a pizza into equal parts by slicing it into thin discs or cutting it into slices.

Both will give you pieces of equal size, but one is a lot easier (without a weapons-grade laser).

This is orientation.

Think of your task as a car.

You can put the jack on the roof, of under the rim near the wheel arch.

Both will allow you to raise the jack, but only one will result in you raising the car.

This is applying the effort.

Now stop thinking about your task and go break its back.

How to deal with scarcity

Nonsense clock

// Message from Sam: Hey do you have a few minutes to talk about something?

I glance at the clock. It’s 05.45 and this is the only time I have to get writing done in the day. It’s when I commit to putting pen to paper for 45 minutes and then hitting “publish”.

But Sam is:
a) a good friend,
b) not someone I get to talk to often, and
c) always a source of interesting ideas.

What to do?

Time is precious. It’s a surprisingly scarce resource, but people either seem to either forget this or conflate if with money.

My favourite reminder of time’s value is from Seneca who says:

“I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself –as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. They are trifling with life’s most precious commodity, being deceived because it is an intangible thing, not open to inspection and therefore reckoned very cheap –in fact, almost without any value.”

His implication is that time is of great value (perhaps the highest value), and that other people both ask of it and give it freely because this value is invisible to them.

It seems then that the optimal response is to be miserly with your time, especially when it comes to the requests of others.

The problem is scarcity and how it makes us respond to finite resources. Scarcity lights a fire of fear. Fear of loss. Fear of not having enough. Fear of missing out. And so we start to hoard our scarce resources; we tuck them away and we keep them for ourselves.

But perhaps there is a third option. Perhaps the most optimal course of action is to be generous with our scarce resources. Not generous despite their scarcity, but because of it. That scarcity gives these resources more value, and so the gifts of them we choose to give are all the more precious.

I think the operative word here is to “choose”. It’s a deliberate action, taken with the full knowledge of what we are doing. We know how valuable time can be, and we give it to our friends because they are our friends, and it’s good to share value with them.

What else are we hoarding these resources for? If there is a more skilful way in which we can deploy them, then fine. But hoarding them because they are scarce and we are scared of being without them, is no way forward either.

I spoke to Sam, for longer than I would have spent writing. It was fun and informative and human and so full of value that it was a great use of time.

The result is that i’m now writing this on the 15 minute train journey in to work. Even with scarce and precious resources, you can often scrape up enough of the scraps to still extract some value. The coins under the sofa cushion, the minutes on the train, the quick hug on the way out the door.

Time is precious. It’s scarce and that makes people afraid, so be generous with it and you will find more of it when you need it. Know its value and choose to spent it how it pleases you best.

Bonus bit:
By the way, I’m not the only person who should spend time with Sam Bowring. He’s a hugely talented writer and comedian, so here are some of the ways you can enjoy what he does:

The difference between winning & being the best

Photo by

If you want to be the best at something, the ACTUAL best, you’ve got a lot of races ahead of you.

First you run an offensive, catch-up race where you’re the challenger.

If you catch the leader, then you have a struggle as equals.

And finally, if you win, you have to run the defensive race.

Now you’re the king of the hill, and everyone wants to take you down.

If you want to be the best and STAY the best, then you have a taste for all three races.

The races all have different flavours, require different skills and will present different challenges.

For the first two stages, you can just focus forward – all your threats are out in front. As soon as you’re out in front, then the temptation is to look over your shoulder. And that compromises your speed. That feeds paranoia. That changes the flavour of the race.

If you have a taste for all three races (and you’ve got lots of fuel in the tank), then good luck.

If you don’t, then you might want to think about what you’re going to do.

Do you hitch a ride with someone who’s running your race and jump ship when they start to run a new one?

Do you try to develop a taste and a talent for all the other races?

Do you play a different game entirely?

Everyone’s going to have their own answer, but to me the premise is flawed.

As soon at you want to be the ACTUAL best, then the game is rigged. The cards are stacked against you. Your success is suddenly tied to your position relative to other people. Winning is only possible in one scenario.

If it’s a race, and you need to win to get any enjoyment, then don’t bother running. Because as soon as you lose, you’re not getting enjoyment of the process and then you’re not a runner – you’re a slave to the race.

You win when you enjoy the race.

You win when you enjoy the act of running. The acceleration, the jostle, the distance, the wall, the outcome, the losses.

If you love the race, then sometimes you might also be the actual best. But even if you’re not, you’ll still be winning.