Your Environment Shapes Your Decisions

When it comes to making decisions, your environment matters. Just as it’s hard to eat healthily if your kitchen is full of junk food, it’s hard to make good decisions when you’re too busy to think. Just as the kitchen influences what you eat, your office influences how you make decisions.

The Modern Office is Terrible for Thinking

No one understands how your environment shapes your ability to make decisions more than Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. While they’re gifted with intellect, they make sure they get the most out of it by structuring their environment to help them make good decisions.

Most of us make decisions in an environment where it is very hard for us to behave rationally. 

You can’t design a worse environment for good decisions than the modern office.  When you first arrive at work, you immediately start to answer the critical emails from your swelling inbox. The inner voice in your head tells you don’t worry; you’ll get to the rest later. Suddenly, the phone rings, it’s your boss wanting to know if you have time to chat on the 15-page proposal she was supposed to read for the meeting in 30 minutes. But you haven’t read the proposal either. So you glance at the executive summary and, like anyone that has learned to survive in an office, you confidently act like you know what’s going on. You haven’t done the work to have an opinion. But that’s the game. Everyone else did the same thing. When you finally lift your head up, your email box is swelling again, you have missed calls, and it’s almost time to pick up the kids from school. Where did the day go?

This isn’t an abnormal day. This is every day. From the moment you arrive until the moment you leave, you make an inch of progress on twenty things rather than ten feet of progress on one thing.

The unwritten rule is that you have to do these things to justify your job. If you’re not pushing paper, firing up hundreds of emails, calling and attending meetings, and chasing something down … just what the heck are you doing?

The cultural environment is typically about politics and signalling, not about putting people in a position to succeed. The physical environment is about busyness and distraction, not focus and thinking. Neither of these environments line up with the good decision making.

Contrast this to Warren Buffett. He has no computer in his office. He’s not distracted every few minutes by that annoying little ding that signals a new email has arrived. His day isn’t full of meetings. He doesn’t have an annoying boss that comes around and asks him for something tangible that’s he’s working on. He just reads and thinks. No wonder he’s so good at it.

If you want to think for yourself, you can’t have someone always whispering in your ear. If you want space to think, you need quiet and calm not a bunch of smart people throwing out new ideas. That’s why Buffett moved from New York to Omaha. “In some places, it’s easy to lose perspective. But I think it’s very easy to keep perspective in a place like Omaha,” Buffett says. He continues:

It’s very easy to think clearly here. You’re undisturbed by irrelevant factors and the noise generally of business investments. If you can’t think clearly in Omaha, you’re not going to think clearly anyplace.

Putting Buffett in a modern office is like giving Superman kryptonite. His superpowers would disappear. He wouldn’t be able to think and concentrate. Luckily, he intentionally set up his environment in a way that makes it easier to behave rationally.

The (Super) Power of Environment

We influence our environments, but we forget they influence us too.

We like to believe that we are in charge that our brains are only influenced by our conscious thoughts. That sounds amazing, but it’s wrong. Our conscious brain is much smaller than our subconscious brain. And yet when it comes to getting better at thinking and making decisions, we place all the emphasis on the conscious brain, learning mental models and methods of thinking that improve outcomes.  In so doing, we improve the raw horsepower of our brain. Yet, there is no point having a 400 horsepower engine if you can only get 25 horsepower out of it.

Designing an Effective Environment

There is no environment that works for everyone. We all respond differently to different stimuli. A corner office on the 100th floor in New York might provide inspiration to some and distraction to others. What works for me might not work for you.

Here are three things we’ve found work for a lot of different people in a lot of different situations.

First, structure your day to maximize your energy. Most people do the tasks requiring the least amount of thought (answering emails, checking voicemails, catching up with people) in the morning when they are most productive. Meetings and decisions get pushed to the afternoon when our brains are not working as well. Switch your day around. Do the most important thing first.

Second, use chunks of time and be conscious when interrupting other people. Block chunks of time in your calendar for your own projects. I don’t mean like 20 minutes, I mean like hours. I have every morning blocked off from 9-12. It’s not easy to get into a state of flow, but once you’re there, you’re focused on one thing. It could be thinking about a problem in a three dimensional way or refining a report that you’re writing for work. If you interrupt this time, it’s expensive to get back to where you were, often taking 25 minutes or more to recover. Keep that in mind when you interrupt others.

Third, make effective behaviors easy. If there is chocolate in our office, you can be sure I’ll eat it. That’s why I lock the good stuff in a safe. Literally. This makes it harder to get to, and I eat less of it. OK, you probably want a better example than chocolate. Here’s one I used to use at work. On the first page of my notebook at the intelligence agency, I listed some general thinking tools that I could fall back on for tough decisions. This prompted me to think through problems in a structured way and saved me from more than one mess. (Update: These are now a book).

Your Environment Matters More Than You Think

We intuitively know that the physical and cultural environment matters.

You don’t control everything in your environment, but you control enough to make a huge difference. Think about what you control and how you can change it to get more horsepower out of your brain.