Cognitive slipstreaming: Thinking is an endurance sport

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* Updated *

In endurance swimming, I found out this week, you slipstream* just like cyclists do in a peloton. My wife, a sea swimmer, told me that swimming close to the person in front – right up by their kicking legs, off to one side – saves about 30% of the energy.

When you are swimming for a mile or more in the sea, energy efficiency is the basis of everything. A 30% reduction is a big deal.

The brain also consumes energy and we are interested in efficiencies there. For instance, we learn things through repetition, which makes them automatic, saving us from using the energy-hungry pre-frontal cortex. There are a whole load of other strategies and tricks we use without necessarily thinking about them, to save us from doing mental heavy-lifting too often.

Explaining one of my online working habits to Neil Perkin earlier this week, I realised that what I was doing was a kind of cognitive slipstreaming, using bookmarking. To be exact, using other people’s bookmarks.

In my one of my top folders in Google Reader, one that I read a lot, I don’t just have feeds from blogs. Using the RSS feed from Delicious, I follow the bookmark streams of a few people who are reading and working on things that closely match my current interests.

As they read and bookmark things, I see them. It doesn’t save me all of the effort of reading them and highlighting and bookmarking for myself and making connections and putting them in context and writing about them. It saves me the search though, it saves me the effort, the joules of energy that would take, to decide that this – and not the other 25 things that have passed through my reader or Twitter stream in the past ten minutes – is worth bookmarking for reference.

Amazon Kindle’s public notes and highlights provide a similar kind of opportunity to slipstream other people’s cognitive exertions, their brains’ hard work, although I don’t use that as often as following the bookmarks of fellow travellers.

Slipstreaming in endurance sports is a collaborative endeavour. Like cyclists, endurance swimmers in a small group take turns swimming at the front, they develop a rhythm of moving up to take on the burden of pushing through the waves first, then falling back to an easier position. Even though they may be competing to get to the finish line first, the pack and the peleton move together, sharing the load.

The parallel with knowledge work suggests that we should share more than we do, even if some of it helps our competitors at times. It is the final manifestation of our work, the product shipping, the report’s publishing, the pitch being pitched where we compete in an all or nothing sprint. Up until those moments, everyone is smarter if they slipstream.

* My wife’s pointed out that it is usually called “drafting” rather than “slipstreaming” in her swimming group.

7 comments

  1. Nick Allen

    I guess this also explains the reluctance to be an outlier. Splintering means you’ve really got to have something to challenge the pack, and motivation to win with it. 

  2. amayfield

    Interesting perspective. If it’s like distance cycling, I guess you breakaway hoping to join others, or take others with you as you will only last so long on your own… 

  3. jeremyhead

    The trick is finding those key people to ‘slipstream’ isn’t it. That’s the difficult bit. Glad you still use Delicious. It’s such a great idea and I wish people used it more. 

  4. Adam Tinworth

    And, sadly, inaccurate: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/hbrc/2012/06/29/busting-the-21-days-habit-formation-myth/

    There are a few people who can establish habits in as little as 18 days, but most of us take a couple of months. 

  5. TibZ

    Reading this article, I can’t help but think of how it all gets back two thing:
    – the “Hire A-Players” motto from successful innovation centers (and yes, in this case Silicon Valley)
    – surrounding yourself and working along very skilled and talented people. Not for your ego, but because you will be forced to stand up to their level… A sort of “Adapt or Die” if you will…

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