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9.5.2. Formulating: Short-cutting


How To Invent (Almost) Anything > 9. Managing in a Complex World > 9.5. Formulating Intent > 9.5.2. Formulating: Short-cutting

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We make a constant stream of decisions as we interact with the outer world and we do not have time to think long and hard about every decision. We thus need to make quick decisions about many of our actions, especially those we make when external events do not allow us to ponder for long on the best course of action. Unfortunately, the need for speed (or laziness) also tends to lead us into short-cutting past creative thinking.

Fig. 9.4 Formulating Intent

Physical reaction

There are some events to which we react without even resorting to heuristics, such as when a branch falls from a tree above us, we quickly jump out of the way. When milliseconds count, there are specialised parts of the primitive brain that help us with these actions, literally by-passing the cortical decision centres.


A heuristic is a rule of thumb, a simple formula that says, ‘when this happens, do this.’ They are typically based on ‘what worked before will work again’ and we accumulate a vast array of heuristics to make our lives easier. For example a common parental heuristic is, ‘If the phone rings, it is probably for my teenage daughter, so there is no point in my answering it’ (the alternative is a race to see who gets to the phone first).

Heuristics are helpful, but they can also be too easy and consequently make us lazy. They can also misdirect us when we use them in inappropriate situations.


Do you usually buy one brand of coffee? The chances are that you do, and that the choice is more to do with simplifying your trip to the supermarket than whether it is the best taste or value.

Habits can have different strengths, ranging from simply repeating what worked last time to full physical addictions, where not following the ‘right’ decision results in significant discomfort. When smokers want a cigarette, they feel they have little choice.

Programmed responses

Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are programmed by the events around us, but unlike the dogs, we have many and complex programs. A person who is attacked once in a dark alley may have an aversion to them for the rest of their lives. Many of us have phobias of various kinds, ranging from a natural caution about high places to dark fears that constrain us at every turn.

We are also programmed by our parents, teachers and peers to act in ‘civilised’ ways that help people to live together in reasonable harmony. If someone offers you their hand, you shake it without much consideration of the alternatives.


Intuition is not magic, although sometimes it can appear this way, such as when the answer to a question just pops unbidden into your mind. This is often just the subconscious at work, picking out a good match from previous experiences.

It has been proven that in situations where there is no time for conscious reasoning that experts, people who have a wealth of related experience, make much better choices than beginners. This can apply to creative situations too, although this is a double-edged sword, where the experience that filters out the inappropriate ideas also filters out creative new ideas.

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