Compartmentalized decoy optimization

"Stop trying to hit me and hit me." —Morpheus

A real post on r/notion

The gym I go to is on the fifth floor. Some take the stairs, but most take the lift.

I occasionally use Notion, a productivity tool. For some it is a means to an end, for many it becomes the end in itself.

A FTSE 500 company I used to work for prided itself on its "feedback culture" but was terrible at making decisions. The surveys and group sessions were thorough and considered, but morale grew worse when nothing happened in response.

These are different examples of compartmentalized decoy optimization; the fixation on and temporary reward from improving one part of a wider system. Improvements feel good in the short term, but fail to address the fundamentals.

I'm hardly the first to talk about it. W. Edwards Deming warned against optimizing components rather than whole systems.

"The results of a system must be managed by paying attention to the entire system. When we optimize sub-components of the system we don’t necessarily optimize the overall system."

But we want to get better at certain things. How do we do this? It takes time and energy, so we find we must prioritise to some extent. Sometimes, this works. But often it doesn't:

"...the original problem reappears, since nothing has been done to solve it at its root cause. So the intervenor applies more of the "solution," disguising the real state of the system again, and thereby failing to act on the problem. That makes it necessary to use still more 'solution.'" - Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems

This is why some people spend more time at the gym without getting their promised "gains," others spend more and more time building elaborate productivity systems without becoming more productive, and others still will improve feedback surveys without acting on their results.

For myself, I used to be fixated on personal knowledge management (or "PKM") for a while, and other productivity systems long before that. It took years to dawn on me that these were decoys. I've found it difficult to adjust, but here's how I've approached it:

  1. Reduce time spent optimising any one thing
  2. Increase time thinking about how the wider system works
  3. Change behaviour to act in concert with this system
  4. Return to 1 and apply reflexively to these steps

The last point—the "stop worrying about it so much" step—is critical, otherwise it's systems all the way down.

More of this, but in your inbox.

I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

Let me read it first