Two steps ahead

“Plans are nothing. Planning is everything.” ~ U. S. President Dwight Eisenhower

While driving, I always watch two cars in front of me. I learned this living in New York City. You can never bet the person immediately in front of you is paying attention. So to double your odds of avoiding a pile-up you keep at least the next two cars in your scan.

You might call this being two steps ahead, and you’d be right. Being two steps ahead is a mindset,

a learned skill. But the attitude really gets useful when you carry it beyond driving to other areas of your life. Being two steps ahead is a critical skill for people who travel. Take airport parking, for example.

Most drivers get to the airport and first look for inexpensive parking, then look for any available spot. You want to get out of the car and into the terminal as quickly as possible. You’re one step ahead and that’s good. But have you thought ahead to your state of mind and body when you return? You’ll be tired, hungry, and just ready to be home. How do you get two steps ahead?

Arrive early at the airport parking garage. Find a spot near the exit or elevators, inside the garage and away from an exterior wall. When you return late at night in a snowstorm you’ll thank yourself. Not only did you make the first departing flight with time to spare, but you’ve put yourself ten or fifteen minutes closer to home on the back end. No extended walk to the parking spot. No searching through the entire garage for your car. No clearing off snow and ice in the dark. A little planning and effort at the front end normally make your life really easy at the back end.

In the world of human performance, the notion of being two steps ahead is connected to the concept of “causality“. Normally causality is approached as the ability to link stimulus to response, or “if this, then that”. Human subjects can normally work through a causal chain of up to five steps with ease.

When you act two or more steps ahead, you are creating your own causal chain. This is called process tracing, and is a critical skill when planning an expedition, an invasion, or just a trip to the grocery store. Causal process points are really decision points. And making the decision before you need to is one of the best shortcuts to performance. In driving and other activities with little time for decisions we must rely on pre-learned responses. In learning theory it’s called “automaticity“. Habit: a survival and performance skill and a good thing. Stimulus – decision – action – outcome. Hopefully a successful outcome.

Habits become part of our physical makeup through the process of myelination, the slow buildup of myelin along neural pathways each time a pathway fires. There is nothing we can do about this. The myelin will collect along the neural pathway that fires. If you repeatedly fire the pathway that choses Coke over Pepsi, that pathway will collect the most myelin and eventually become the default pathway. A habit is formed. Physically.

So the question is this: are you firing the pathways that will eventually put your automatic responses ahead of those around you? As a leader are you reinforcing the decision points across your team, or letting circumstances dictate reactions? Because if you are not you are only looking at the tail lights immediately in front of you. Yes, staying two steps ahead is extra work, but the payoff is so much more satisfying.

Try something new for the next 30 days – 3 minute 30 second TED Talk by Matt Cutts.

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