Monday, April 3, 2017

What I Learned From Changing Train Stations

It took me almost half of a year to solve a very simple transportation problem, and the reason it took so long is instructive in how we look at problems and their solutions.

Since November, I have been commuting to New York City one day a week. I live next to New London, so it made sense to get on the train at the New London station, but there was a problem.

If you are not familiar with Connecticut shoreline geography, New London is about 130 miles from New York City. The Metro North line runs to New Haven, and Shoreline East runs from New Haven to New London (sometimes).

Source: Google Maps
I would take the 5:50 train from New London, and I would sit at a nice comfortable table on the Shoreline East train all the way to Stamford, then take Metro North to Grand Central and a subway to the office. 3.5 hours, but most of that time is productive working time.

The problem is when I go to return home. I kept missing the train in New Haven that got me home at a reasonable time, so I had to take the 9:00 train and get to my car at 10:00. Thus, my day that began at 5:50 AM finished up around 10:10 PM. Not optimal.

I kept thinking that I just needed to catch an earlier Metro North train, but it turns out that I'd have to leave the office a little before 4:00 to catch the earlier New London train.

One of the 5:50 New London trains I rode.
It had been suggested that I drive to Old Saybrook, which has more trains, but it seemed silly to drive 25 minutes then take a train for 3 hours, when I could spend 3.5 hours on the train and have half an hour more productive time on the train. (I'm writing this article on the train, for example.) And, so, I got home super late every Monday night, exhausted and drained.

The solution, as it turns out, is simple: drive to Old Saybrook, catch the same train that goes to Stamford, then on the way back catch one of any number of trains to Old Saybrook and get home two hours earlier. Simple. Easy. Duh. How'd it take half a year to solve this problem?

I was trying to solve the wrong problem. I was trying to solve:

What is the most efficient way to get from New London to New York by train?

The problem I should have been solving was:

What is the most efficient way to get from Groton to New York?

You see, I don't live in New London. I live in Groton, one town east of New London. I thought I had the problem partially solved, knowing that the train left from New London, so I didn't reexamine that part of the puzzle. It's a matter of mental efficiency. We don't tend to look at the parts of the puzzle that are already solved. Why would we?
Train selfie on the Shoreline East

In life, often, what appears to be an effective preliminary step is not, and we need to reexamine the underlying "solutions" that we are basing our ultimate solutions on. By stepping back to the original question and away from the assumptions I had developed, I was able to conclude that Old Saybrook was the place to catch the train. I lose 25 minutes of working on the train, but I gain about 2 hours at home. Pretty good deal.

Next time you are struggling with an intractable problem, be sure that you are framing it correctly. Are you starting from assumptions, or are you starting from the raw situation? This will make all the difference.

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