Why Productive People Stick To Their Strike Zone

To make better decisions, know where you make bad ones.

Two baseball legends--Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams--were talking to each other. The former said to the latter: The single most important thing for a hitter was to get a good ball to hit.

This is something, as Farnam Street blogger Shane Parrish observes, Williams internalized: He knew that swinging at the best balls--those most in his range as a hitter--would help him to bat .400, while reaching for the bad ones could put him down .230.

"Patience," Parrish notes, "would make the difference between a trip to the hall of fame and a ticket to the minors."

What Williams exercised is a point we like to keep in mind: To do our best work, we need to make decisions about the way we make decisions. This comes out in the way we structure our mornings: If we're fidgeting about what to eat for breakfast, we're spending mental energy we won't get back until tomorrow; if we take every single meeting, then we won't get our value-creating work done. Similarly, we need to have a meta-awareness of what decisions we can decide on well--or not.

What you know that you know well is your strike zone. That's the area, Parrish details, where you have a good shot at understanding the relevant variables and likely outcomes of a decision. It's the place where you can best rely on your intuition: Research has shown that experts make sound immediate judgments if the decision is in their wheelhouse, while novices' hunches will be, as you may imagine, off base.

So what we want to do, then, is be like Ted Williams: to know the spaces in which we do our best hitting and have the patience to wait for them. Parrish quotes the ever-sagely Warren Buffett, who puts it more beautifully than we can hope to:

“If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are well within our cycle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter ... If we stray, we will have done so inadvertently, not because we got restless and substituted hope for rationality.”

The problem, Parrish cautions, is that we tend to think bigger is better; our decision-making eyes are bigger than our core-competency stomachs. What's required of us, then, is to know where the borders of our expertise lie.

But you cannot know the fiefdom of your fine decisions without finding out where you're not so canny. This requires, like everything else worthwhile:

  • A fair degree of vulnerability, which is, of course, terrifying
  • Making note of your decision-making process. The more you map it out, the more data you'll have to reflect on--and improve upon--later

Hat tip: Farnam Street

[Image: Flickr user Hello Turkey Toe]

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