The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi had his shares of wins and loses. Or so you would think. But he way of viewing such things. When asked about games where his team “lost”, he was fond of saying, “We didn’t lose the game. We just ran out of time.”

This is a really great sentiment that places the blame of a bad outcome on some artificial, external constraint: time. Had those arbitrary time limits been removed, I think Lombardi would have made his team play for months to get a win. The final score in his matches would have probably been something like 1,042 – 1,017.

Such is the persistence of a professional sports team. Give them a field, an opponent, and a set of rules and they’ll compete as long as necessary to win. This is why time limits are very important.

All the great games have a time limit. It doesn’t have to be a clock. For instance, it’s twelve rounds in a boxing match. Nine innings in a baseball game. Five games in a tennis match. Eighteen holes in golf.

Setting sports aside, we see limits in other games, too. It’s critical for pacing. There are antes in poker keep people from sitting on large chip stacks for hours. Chess has a clock for many variations of its play. And then there’s Monopoly. Some time ago, Hasbro introduced “speed dice” for a faster version of the game.

This was never intended. But the game creators felt they had to do something after years of watching people incorrectly play the game far longer than they should. According to the rules, Monopoly should only take about 60-90 minutes. It never does. Hence the “speedy version.”

You’re Taking Too Long

There are many other instances where we play our proverbial Monopoly games a little longer than we should. For example, it once took me about five months to decide on a vehicle purchase. That’s about 150 days. In the end, I selected the exact make and model that I had wanted from the start.

I also spend more time perusing Netflix’s titles than actually watching them.

I occasionally do this in restaurants, too. I’ll stare at the menu for a long time, reversing my decision again and again. When I finally decide what to order, I’ll still second-guess it all the way to the end of the meal.

I’ve eaten at thousands of restaurants. Why is this still a problem? With that much experience, I should be treating this as a System 1 problem in the parlance of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (book review here). Yet I somehow drift back to System 2 quite regularly.

Then there are more substantial matters like what we see in the workplace. We’ve heard of the phrase “analysis paralysis.” Wikipedia defines it as such:

Analysis paralysis is [a condition where] the fear of potential error outweighs the realistic expectation or potential value of success.

I like the last phrase in that sentence. The “potential value of success” is hard to objectively define. It varies by person. No one ever seems to know when that value is captured but we definitely know when it’s lost. Many is the time, in many a workplace, where I’ve heard someone say, “This just isn’t worth it anymore.”

It might relate to a potential project or study. Or a new hire. In any case, there comes a point where only the decider seems to insist on more study, more reports, more data.

Some things are not studied enough. But many more things are studied too much. So what causes this problem? What creates the indecisive leader who perpetually hesitates?

It’s the fear, of course. We don’t want to be wrong. We don’t want to make a bad bet. This indecision is a cardinal sin in poker. I think it’s a cardinal sin in business, too.

Lengthy analysis just isn’t worth it.

What Is The Right Amount Of Time?

In the study of Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules!, he described Google’s unique approach to hiring. They take a long time. Or they did, anyway, when Bock was the VP of People Operations. Some interviewees had to sit through as many as twelve interviews. I can’t imagine the strain.

After all, how much information do you really need?

Hiring, of course, is a really big deal. But even Google can overthink it. Over time, Bock and his counterparts studied the record and discovered their optimal number of interviews. It wasn’t 12. It was 4. After four interviews, they realized they were probably overthinking things.

As an aside, I really hope the poor souls who had to suffer through 12 interviews (3x more interviews than what was later deemed necessary) got their job.  

Regardless, those terrible experiences helped Google create something better for itself and its future candidates. This sort of trial-and-error introspection is what made Bock’s book the best for organizational development. It carries a treasure trove of data-driven optimization that leads to careful, well-established rules for practice. These rules were no accident. As one of the great tech companies, Google’s approach is a perfect encapsulation of what computer scientists do for any problem.

Such structured methods of analyzing past performance leads to patterns that occasionally repeat in a wide range of circumstances. From there, the humble rules emerge. Those rules prove themselves in astonishing ways.

Google found that it needed only 33% of its original process to make the right hiring decision.

This pairs nicely with the 37% Rule that emerged from the classic Secretary Problem.

And it gets to the idea of optimal stopping, a crucial idea for all of us who take too long thinking about things. Under this idea, the “optimal” part of optimal stopping recognizes that there is a certain amount of time that we should definitely spend analyzing a problem. Just as there is a certain amount of time that we should spend playing a football game.

But the stopping comes in once we surpass that point. Once we exceed that specific amount of time, we suffer diminishing returns. Analysis paralysis comes into play. Or something worse: boredom.  

So how much time should you take to hire someone? Or accept a purchase offer on your house? Or settle on a menu item at the restaurant? Or decide on a spouse? About 37% of the time you’d ordinarily think is available.

It’s not a perfect rule. But it doesn’t have to be. And for folks like me, it really helps.

The 37% Rule is one of the many incredible insights that come from the fabulous book Algorithms to Live By. Authored by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths, this book takes the methodical, research-backed, data-driven methods of Bock’s Work Rules! and applies it to our daily lives.  

The 37% Rule comes from the legendary computer scientist Merrill Flood. He optimized a solution to the tricky thought experiment for hiring a secretary. In the scenario, which he solved in 1958, a hiring agent must screen candidates and choose, upon one interview, to hire or not. There could be no second round of interviews. There could be no return to a candidate that you decide not to hire. Much like someone offering to buy your house, you can only make a choice at that point with the information you have. How many candidates do you screen? How long do you look?

Mathematically, the answer is 37% of the total candidate pool. You observe the qualities of 37% of the pool and then choose the next-best candidate.

In other words, your analysis should take 67% less time than you think you should.

So again, how many candidates should you review before hiring? About 37% of the total candidate pool.

And how many cars should you test drive before making a purchase? Well, if you want an SUV, build a list of all eligible SUVs, set an order, and then make a decision after you’ve tested 37% of the list.

And in my case, with a restaurant menu, I should review 37% of the items beforehand and then choose the next-best option I then see.

Time Spoils The Thinking

I’m reminded of a beautiful passage from the 1710 Japanese classic, Hagakure, The Book of Samurai. Such historical texts always amaze me; they show how certain problems are timeless product of the human condition.

Lord Takanobu said, “If discrimination is long, it will spoil.” Lord Naoshige said, “When matters are done leisurely, seven out of ten will turn out badly. A warrior is a person who does things quickly.”

Analysis paralysis is at least as old as feudal Japan.

So what does it mean to be a warrior who “does things quickly” as Lord Naoshige says? According to the math, which Professor Flood developed 248 years later, such a warrior would only take 37% of the time a normal person would require.

Coincidentally, I’m reminded of a similar and equally-fantastic rule from former statesman and four-star general Colin Powell. His heuristic is known now as the 40-70 Rule:

Generally you should act somewhere between P40 and P70, as I call it. Some time after you have obtained 40% of all the information you are liable to get, start thinking in terms of making a decision. When you have about 70% of all the information, you probably ought to decide, because you may lose an opportunity in losing time.

So whether it’s Flood’s 37% of the total information or Powell’s maximum of 70%, the point stands that time is of the essence. We know complete information isn’t necessary and these rules tell us how much is enough.

These rules are meant to help us overcome the fear and confusion. It’s so tempting to think more time and more information leads to better quality. It doesn’t. And even when we are fearful of a bad result, the math and the logic of this idea should push us forward. Lord Takanobu was right: our deliberation has an expiration date.

And it’s much sooner than we think.