Will it make the boat go faster?

On 24th September 2000, the British rowing team won the Olympic gold medal in Sydney.

I’m not talking about Redgrave, Pinsent, Cracknell, and Foster. They did win gold. In the coxless four. They were the best rowers in the world. They were expected to win gold. It would be Redgrave’s fifth gold medal in five consecutive Olympic Games.

No. I’m talking about the coxed eight. They were not expected to win. Far from it. In the previous ten years, the best they had done was win two international Regattas. They had not won a medal at the Olympics since 1980 (when they won silver), and had not won Olympic Gold since 1912 (a year in which, hilariously, a second British crew won silver).

So, when they crossed the line in first place on that sunny morning in Sydney, they surprised everybody. Except themselves. Because they were prepared. Better prepared than any of the other teams.

Life is chock-full of choices. It’s not particularly helpful to think of choices as being good or bad, right or wrong. It’s much greyer than that. The questions is, does a particular choice move you down the path towards your aspirations or does it send you backwards (or push you off the path altogether)? Making more of the ‘forward’ choices and less of the ‘backward’ choices will stack the probabilities in favour of success.

In the years leading up to the Sydney Olympics, the British 8+ crew had a very simple question – a filter – for determining the best choice to make in any situation:

Will it make the boat go faster?

Their ultimate aspiration – of course – was winning the Olympic gold. But it was a long way off and largely out of their control. So, they had a proximate goal of consistent improvement, of making their boat go faster. Something they could achieve every day.

Making the boat go faster was doable – they knew – if they made better choices more of the time. And that’s where the question came in.

Fancy a few pints in the pub? Will it make the boat go faster? No. So, no.

Do you want to do a 45-minutes high-intensity session on the rowing machine? Will it make the boat go faster? Yes. Then, yes.

Go to bed at 9.30pm or stay up watching a movie? Which will make the boat go faster? An early night. Bed it is.

It even extended to their state of mind. If they found themselves wallowing in frustration or anxiety or anger, they asked themselves the question. It allowed them to pause and consider the best route to take. More often than not, they made a choice that would make the boat go faster.

I’ve started to use this in my own life in two ways:

  1. Identifying the most effective behaviours for a given aspiration
  2. Making better choices throughout the day

I’ve written about the Tiny Habits process of behaviour mapping before. When you have decided on an aspiration (what you want to achieve) or an identity (the person you want to become), the first step is to list all the possible behaviours that would contribute to that aspiration or identity. Here we can use the question. Behaviours only have a place on the list if they will make the boat go faster. In other words, if they will get you moving along the right trajectory towards your desired aspiration or identity.

I’ve found it to be a useful addition to the behaviour design process. However, I’ve found the second application to be even more useful.

Like most of you, I sometimes get distracted from what I’m supposed to be doing. The distraction – most commonly – is either my phone or my internet browser (I’ve built various layers of friction into these habits which has reduced their distracting power, but they still creep in). When I find myself getting distracted, I simply ask myself the question: “Will it make my boat go faster?” Will it improve my health and happiness? Will it make me a better husband and father? Will it help me grow my business?

I don’t make the better choice every time. I’m not sure I even make it most of the time. But I make it more than I did before. And that’s a big win.

As the 8+ crew demonstrated, this can be applied to any choice in any area of your life. The difficult bit is being aware enough of what you are doing to ask yourself the question in the first place. Two things that can help with this are mindfulness meditation and habit formation.

The whole point of mindfulness meditation (as far as I understand it) is to train yourself to become more aware. More aware of what you’re doing. More aware of what your senses are receiving. And more aware of what you’re thinking. More of the time.

It really works. I’ve been trying to meditate for years now but have never found consistency. Until about nine months ago, when I made it a daily habit (using Tiny Habits). The changes are slow to materialise and subtle when they do (which is why meditation is hard to stick with), but I’ve noticed some profound benefits. Particularly with respect to awareness. For example, when my phone distracts me and I start scrolling, I notice. And I can ask the question.

While I recommend everyone give meditation a try, it may not be for you. If it’s not, don’t worry. You can make a habit out of asking the question at the right time. In the Tiny Habits method, there are three simple steps for forming any habit you want:

  1. Make it tiny (easy and quick)
  2. Find a good prompt (a reminder)
  3. Instant celebration (feel successful)

The habit we want here is to ask: “Will it make the boat go faster?”. It’s already tiny, so we don’t need to shrink it. The prompt is whatever distraction you are trying to disrupt (in my case, picking up my phone). And the celebration can be any action, words, or thought that makes you feel good.

So, my ‘habit recipe’ goes like this: After I pick up my phone (prompt); I will ask myself, “Will it make my boat go faster?”; and celebrate by nodding my head and thinking, “Well done!”.

None of this guarantees that you will always make the best choice. But it increases the probability that you will. After all, getting what you want in life is all about stacking the probabilities in your favour.

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