Information work blurs, and sometimes eliminates, the distinction between thought and action, and elevates the role of decision-making above both.

Frederick Brooks, in his 1975 classic, The Mythical Man Month,1 noted that “the programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff.”

Information work also elevates the roles of when, where and who above the roles of what, why and how in decision-making.

Ultimately, all the concepts, theories, ideas, exercises and examples in the book are merely scaffolding. This state is what we really want to explore.

Wherever you are right now, be it at your desk, on a couch watching TV while reading, on an airplane, or in a café, see if you can detect the next change in tempo.

You just observed tempo in the raw, along with all sorts of other distracting features. To develop a skill, you must first isolate it,

As you play your private game of watching tempo changes in your favorite environments, pay attention to how your own emotions and energy levels respond.

Practice being jumpy and on-edge for ten minutes, just to experience the feeling. It can be quite enlightening.

Ask someone who has just changed jobs, or traveled to a different country, about their impressions. If a change of tempo was involved, chances are that will be the first thing they mention. “Things are much more relaxed there,” or “it is a very exciting and fast-paced lifestyle.”

The most basic decision-making skill is adapting to the tempo of your environment, and setting your own pace within it. It is significantly harder to become a pace-setter or pace-disruptor: somebody who can actually influence the tempo of the environment.

Driving graphically illustrates the four main skilled behaviors that constitute the overall skill of timing: merging, going with the flow, pace-setting and disrupting. I will introduce, at the end of the chapter, a single micro-skill, thinking in terms of temporal logic, which will help you master all these behaviors.

The emotion of a tempo can even change with no change in pace, and no new external factors. Humans and organizations naturally crave variety and stimulation. Stay too long at one tempo, and boredom will set in.

At work, for instance, it is easier to acquire the habit of making notes and capturing action items after a meeting, when the situation awareness is still strong in your mind. It is much harder to acquire the complementary habit of preparing adequately for meetings, since it is difficult to acquire the necessary situation awareness before actually entering the venue and encountering faces and voices.

This asymmetry is one reason that start-up situation awareness rituals, such as agenda reviews and approval of minutes, are more common than exit rituals. Post-processing happens more naturally than pre-processing.

Once you are settled into a routine in a domain, and attuned to the local rhythms, your next challenge is to operate efficiently within it. For most people, this translates to a path of least resistance, which I’ll call going with the flow. This is what most drivers do in traffic. Decision-making is hard. It pays to automate as much as you can.

Going with the flow is the smart thing to do if you’ve found a stable and rewarding niche, where your auto-pilot skills are in high-demand.

What makes us suspicious of going-with-the-flow behaviors is that they can become ritualized if underlying assumptions are not periodically re-examined, and the design reconsidered in light of new information. The common English idioms, in a groove and in a rut illustrate how efficiency and the potential for irrationality go together.

Pace-setting is the art of harmoniously driving the natural tempo of your environment away from its current state and towards your preferred state – slower or faster – in non-disruptive ways.

Beyond this is the pace-setting zone. Push beyond the comfort zone and you get charged emotional responses. Running is exciting. Walking is calming. Walking very slowly and meditatively is frustrating, unless you are a monk.

I almost succumbed to the tired, buzz-killing tempo of the kitchen. But just as I was about to pick up the phone to order take-out Chinese food, something made me fight off the lethargy that was starting to descend. I attacked the sink with unnecessary ferocity, rapidly finishing up the dishes and cleaning the countertop in ten minutes.

Later, I realized there was a deeper lesson: the apparently unnecessary ferocity was necessary after all. The act of bustling about – pace-setting – was necessary to get the tempo of the kitchen where it needed to be. Had I not bustled, I might well have gotten the kitchen clean, only to have psychologically exhausted myself too much to cook. I needed to get the kitchen clean and preserve my own buzz.

Today I have a stable pace-setting routine that I use whenever I start cooking. I move clean dishes from the dishwasher to the cabinet and move dirty ones from the sink to the dishwasher. Remember the metaphor of the child on a swing? This is an example of adding a jolt of energy to what you might call the ‘kitchen cycle” to lift its emotional state.

In managing dissonance, keep an eye on that most subtle of all emotions: boredom. Recall what we said earlier: there is natural restlessness and variety-seeking in human and organizational personalities. In managing dissonance through decision-making, boredom is your ally. As in music and comedy, the most sublime moments of artistry are often achieved when you judge the onset of boredom just right, and insert a smart disruption of tempo that takes advantage of the latent energy of boredom to create momentum.

This behavior – interrupting and talking over others – can be so disruptive in fact, and so often the result of a disruptive temperament rather than a situational need for disruption, that it is nearly always viewed as an unpleasant and abrasive personality trait. But used judiciously, interruption and talking over others is how you, as a socially situated decision-maker, can arrest the momentum of developing group-think and assumed consensus.

We may not all be comic geniuses, but within the scope of your particular artistic talents, you will find more opportunities to create such magic than you might think. Every time you spot such an opportunity, and take an artistic leap of faith, your boldness will increase. As it does, you will get better at spotting the opportunities.

My goal with this skill is to get you to see your calendar – and I mean here the actual grid of dates and times you see in something like Microsoft Outlook – as a canvas for artistry. Your calendar is not an empty container. It is a landscape of invisible energy and emotion associated with all the things that are going on in your life.

Don’t get carried away by the idea though. Keep it simple; developing your artistic sense of timing, not optimal calendar management, is the point here.

If you normally schedule your time in blocks of one hour, try scheduling a week using just four-hour blocks. Investor Paul Graham calls this the manager time/maker time distinction.║ He suggests that people who build things should manage their time in four-hour blocks, while managers should use one-hour blocks.

Conversations are the e. coli of momentum-driven decision-making, and illustrate its basic properties very well. New information comes in at every step, and you use it to update your mental model of the situation and modulate the stream of what-to-say-next decisions. You steer by your overall sense of where the conversation is going, and occasionally override your conversation autopilot with a deliberate and considered response.

Fortunately, that’s all you need. In conversational decision-making, you don’t have to get every response exactly right so long as you get things roughly right, and correct your course with subsequent responses as necessary. This is because the effects of what you say (or hear) are cumulative rather than isolated.

We will ignore philosophical nuances,

What we really use everyday are aggregate constructs (just as meteorology deals with somewhat loose constructs like tornado or cumulus cloud rather than individual air molecules).

You can then move on to exhortation: using their pet phrase when they themselves hesitate, as in “What do you say, Let’s GO! Right?” When you’re really comfortable with the pattern, you can use it in a “hang by own petard” tactic: persuading people using their own favorite

This is what Eisenhower meant when he said, “plans are nothing, planning is everything.”

The process of planning is very valuable, for forcing you to think hard about what you are doing, but the actual plan that results from it is probably useless.