Coherent, Flexible Strategy

I wrote up a fairly extensive report on my games for this past weekend’s Infinity tournament (here, if you’re curious) and got some interesting feedback. People seemed to like my turn-by-turn commentary about what I was trying to accomplish at any given point and how I planned to go about it, as well as how my plans changed on the fly.

Coherent, Flexible Strategy

I’ve talked quite a bit about strategy vs tactics, and I’ve also talked about how I have a “background process” planning ahead most of the time, but I think I rarely go into specifics. Infinity might be a good springboard into my usual day-to-day thought processes, how I stay organized, and possibly some other questions that people have asked me.

When I’m playing Infinity, I’m very focused on what wins me the game. When I suggest strategy, it’s always focused more about what scores points (and thus wins you the game) than how to  handle a specific problem. In general, I find that spending energy finding a specific solution to a specific problem isn’t a terribly efficient approach, and avoiding doing so is a good way to manage my time effectively. Sometimes, a specific solution to a specific problem is unavoidable, but at that point the goal (whatever “wins you the game”) simply won’t happen without that solution, and thus it’s almost not possible for that solution to be inefficient, because there’s no alternative. Efficiency is a relative thing; there’s no real objective baseline for doing something efficiently, just a set of comparisons.

In the tournament this weekend, I was faced with a couple of deeply entrenched enemy units hidden in a tower. Given the opportunity, these units could make my life very difficult, and an explicit goal of the mission was eliminating enemy units. As a result, the goal for my first turn was to neutralize those units as best I could. It was what I needed to accomplish in the first turn, and my planning centered on that. I had a couple of options– I could send a unit from my backfield up to threaten the tower, spending a lot of orders to climb it and then (hopefully) effectively attack both of the targets, or I could send my infiltrator up with a slightly broader toolset. The first option was cost-efficient but time-inefficient; it would cost me rather more orders to move the cheaper unit up safely than to move the infiltrator up. The second option was more expensive in terms of cost– the infiltrator was worth nearly twice as much, and losing her would cost me a valuable reactive toolset, but she would expend far fewer orders moving into position safely. Both would take a lot of focus on that turn, and success for either one was not guaranteed.

As a result, I focused on smaller wins first, to see how my turn would unfold. An apparently quick, easy set of small victories was more time-expensive (cost more orders) than expected, pushing me towards using the infiltrator. I debated scoring a valuable win (in the form of a secondary objective) right away, when I was less likely to be opposed, but I was concerned about being left open to a strong counterattack (in a mission where winning fights is key to victory) and had alternative options for securing that secondary objective in later turns. When I finally started committing the infiltrator, she was discovered almost immediately, forcing me to spend more orders moving troops around to cover her advance and allow her a stealthy approach. It wound up costing me almost as much time (orders) as using the other unit would have, but she was ultimately successful, whereas the other troop would likely not have been. Had I committed the other troop, I probably would have been stymied by various obstacles that the infiltrator was better equipped to handle, and I would have gotten fewer ancillary wins. It was also extremely valuable to focus on smaller wins first, so that I could ensure those were in hand before committing to the larger task.

I apply a lot of this same logic to my day-to-day. I know that I will need several hours to write a paper, and that I also need to run a handful of errands. If I wait to run the errands, they’re a lot more likely to get put off if I wait until the paper is done, and may not get done at all. It’s a quick way for me to get overwhelmed later by lots of little things adding up. Instead, I handle the smaller things first, the “quick wins”, so that they don’t pile up. Run to the bank, get lunch, pay a toll bill, clear out comment spam, send a couple of important e-mails. Maybe a couple hours’ worth of tasks, time that I *could* be spending on the paper, but it keeps my to-do list uncluttered.

I prioritize things based on the energy and time they take to do, and try to keep the total number of things I need to do down as much as possible. I keep track of little things that are nevertheless important to get done (and do them first), bigger things that require a larger time investment (do these once the smaller things are done, to ensure I’m doing that work with a clear head and no distractions), and other things that don’t require my attention right away. I finally picked up a TV remote this morning, while getting my car looked at, because it was a convenient time to get it done. It wasn’t a high priority (it’s been on my radar for months) but it was something I could get done in parallel with something else I was doing.

The less I know about how long it will take me to do something, the more I want to get that thing done last, after other tasks are complete. If I’m not distracted, I can more readily focus on involved tasks, and if it takes longer than expected to get done, I’m (usually) not sacrificing anything else. The nice part about it is that I can then adapt my planning to however long it takes to get things done, and prioritize based on what needs to happen that day. I’ve found that I very rarely have single large overwhelming tasks that are top priority– when they do come up, I can focus entirely on them because I don’t have a long task backlog (because I’ve complete tasks-of-opportunity all along the way).

It’s a system that works for me, and it keeps my day-to-day strategic planning organized and complete. I complete what I need to and don’t have to worry about “death by a thousand cuts”, and I very rarely forget to do things, because I get things done immediately as they crop up as opposed to waiting. To return to the Infinity example one last time, partway through one of my games this past weekend I noticed a nice set of opportunities– neither were part of my strategy for the turn, but they were valuable enough that I could deal with them immediately and return to my longer-term plan. Dealing with them made my long-term strategy easier and less stressful, and while it was a minor setback in terms of time, it brought me out ahead in the end.

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