I solved a mystery recently that had been bothering me for months.
There’s about a seven minute walk from the main faculty parking lot on campus to my office. About halfway through this walk, there are two paths that you can take – one covers significantly less distance. I’ve always taken this shorter route.
One day last year, I came out of the parking lot, and saw a guy that is a few doors down from me walking about 100 meters ahead of me. He is not a fast walker. By the time we had gotten to the split in the routes, I had caught up with him. He took the longer route, and I took the shorter one.
The shorter route involves going in through a building that is connected with ours, then crossing through onto our floor. When I came around the corner into the hallway, Peter was back in front of me.
How could this be??
I was clearly a faster walker, and I had taken the shorter route. I’m pretty sure that he didn’t start running the minute he left my sight, only to fall back into a saunter once I could see him again.
I just couldn’t figure it out.
But, given the evidence, the longer route was clearly faster somehow. So that’s the one that I started taking.
Then last week I saw a chance to try another experiment. Victor was leaving our building at the same time as me, and I knew that we walked at about the same pace, and that he regularly took the longer route. So I took the short route to see what would happen.
We split up at the elevators in our building, and I headed across into the connected one. I took the elevator down, walked out onto the road, and went over to where the two routes meet up. Victor, who had taken the longer route, was 100 meters in front of me.
And that’s when I finally figured out what was going on.
The thing that makes the difference is not the route, or your walking pace. It’s how long you wait for the elevator. The elevators in our building are very fast, and few people use them. So you get one almost instantly, and it usually goes to the floor you want without stopping for other people. In the connected building, they are slow, and they are always stopping at nearly every floor. They are what make the shorter route slower.
I noticed a similar thing last week while I was driving around Silicon Valley. It’s the first time I’ve used a GPS in the car, and watching the estimated arrival time was interesting. Driving fast had no impact on the estimated arrival time. The only thing that changed it was getting stopped in traffic.
I’m going to extrapolate these experiences out to a general rule:
When you’re trying to get somewhere, how fast you’re moving isn’t nearly as important as how often you stop.
Now, stopping is important when we’re trying to figure out where to go. If you don’t know, then thinking about it is pretty useful.
But if you have a target, it is stopping that slows down your progress. You don’t have to run to get there, and plotting out the shortest route doesn’t really help much. The main thing is to keep moving.
If you think about the goals that you are trying to reach right now, answering this question can help you get there:
What’s stopping you?
(Photo from flickr/Beppie K under a Creative Commons License)