How Your Work Environment is Sapping You Dry (and How to Fix It)

When it comes to making decisions, your ability to think through problems is important. Consider this your raw mental horsepower. Most of us never tap into our available horsepower because we are hampered by one important and overlooked aspect: our environment.

The Modern Office is Terrible for Thinking

I first clued into this by studying Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Sure, they consistently make good decisions, but they also share a few traits that enable them to get the most out of their mental horsepower. A big chunk of their ability to think through problems comes from how they structure their environment.

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

In fact, I’m hard-pressed to imagine an environment worse for rational decision making than that of the modern office worker.

You arrive at work and immediately start to answer the critical emails from your swelling inbox, telling yourself you’ll get to the low priority stuff later. The phone rings, it’s your boss wanting to know if you have time to chat on the 15-page proposal he was supposed to read for the meeting in 30 minutes. Having not read the proposal yourself, and not wanting to say, “I haven’t read that,” you glance at the executive summary and, like anyone who’s learned to survive in an office, confidently act like you know what’s going on. Your opinion is superficial, at best. You know this but rationalize that everyone else put the same 5-minute effort into it that you did, so you carry on. Getting back to your desk, you find 5 missed calls. You call the first person back and immediately realize that you’re late for your meeting and haven’t read any of the preparation material.

This isn’t an abnormal day. This is a reality for a lot of people in large organizations. From the moment we arrive until the moment we leave, we’re pulled in all directions. The unwritten arrangement 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 to justify your salary. The environment is about politics and signaling, not about putting people in a position to succeed.

Now picture Warren Buffett sitting at his desk with his feet up reading. 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.

He knows that it’s hard to say no to ideas by smart people. That’s part of the problem: It’s hard to think clearly for yourself when there is always someone in your ear. So he moved to Omaha from New York.

“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.

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 environment matters.

During my first-year calculus finals, there was construction next door. I couldn’t concentrate. I walked out of the exam, wondering how much better I would have done if only I could have focused. When I got my grade back, I wasn’t surprised. I could have done better.

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.