#1 See the Tiger and the Snake
In a world of data deluge, distraction and uncertainty, a world in which we increasingly have to determine ourselves which information we should use to make our decisions, it’s understandable that we tend to focus on particular forms and types of information over others. Ultimately, it’s a kind of coping strategy.
But what we are most naturally or most instinctively drawn to may not actually be the best information to help us make decisions. What’s in the foreground, what’s most glittery, what’s biggest and boldest, stands out the most and grabs our attention, as do numbers over words, information that reinforces what we want to hear over information that jars, and the past, with its promise to be our lodestar. Yet all of these are potentially tigers consuming all our attention, while a snake slithers dangerously towards us on the ground.
We need to be aware of this; to re-calibrate how it is we see the world, re-adjust our focus and deploy others around us to help pull off the blinkers.
But once our blinkers are off, there’s more to consider. In keeping with life’s complexity, making smart decisions can be thwarted for other reasons too. For we are massively influenced by how others shape and form what it is they convey to us – by the words they use, the colours they choose, and even, as we will see, by touch. By factors in the ether that we’re not even aware of.
- Look beyond the most obvious data. What you are most drawn to will not necessarily be most relevant. Ask yourself what additional information might be of use. Challenge yourself to think about what you might have missed.
- Practise becoming more observant. Introduce a regular mindfulness technique to your day, such as the “raisin practice.” This will have a tangible effect on the quality of your decisions.
- Remember that numbers only tell a partial story. What are the numbers not telling you? What other information do you need to consider?
- Be aware of the form in which you’re receiving your information. Is it too reductionist? What is the PowerPoint slide not revealing? What is the Executive Summary not telling you? Who can provide you with the requisite nuance or detail? Is there a more in-depth report you need to get your hands on? If so, can you set the requisite time aside to read it and properly absorb the information?
- Don’t confuse a generally happy disposition with unrealistic levels of optimism. When you’re next told that something bad could happen to you, remind yourself of our natural tendency to ignore or underplay this kind of news. Try to contemplate whether your assessment would be different if you took your optimism down a notch or two. Who around you is of the glass-half-empty mindset? They might have a more realistic take on the information. Are you touching base with them frequently enough?
- Don’t just seek out information that confirms what it is you already believe or think. It’s vital to actively seek out information that could prove you wrong. Who in your life can act as your “Challenger in Chief” to remind you to do this?
- As a general rule, carve out more thinking time for yourself. If Barack Obama can prioritise this, so can you. Can you batch your emails so as to free up thinking time? Schedule thinking time into your diary as you would any other appointment? What on your to-do list can be postponed or ditched?
- Slow down, to avoid making thinking errors. Give yourself time to consider alternative diagnoses and possibilities. We risk accepting the most easy-to-reach answer because we are so rushed for time. Develop a strategy that helps you avoid this. For some it may be a checklist, for others it may be that Challenger in Chief to talk the options through with.
- Identify those day-to-day distractions which take up too much of your focus. Can you limit the number of times you check Facebook or the football scores? How about downloading software that stops you from being able to surf the web for specified periods?
- Don’t use the past as too fixed a steer. There is great danger in assuming that the past will light the way to the future. Think of your favourite Dick Zanuck movie, or that special magician from Hogwarts, as a way of avoiding this thinking error.
- Have Plans B, C and D in your back pocket, and be willing to change tack. Accept the fast-moving nature of our world and how quickly things can change. This demands that we monitor our landscape on an ongoing basis.
- Where possible, don’t make big decisions way before you actually need to. Make your decisions as late in the day as you can, so that you can take into account the hyper-rapid changing nature of our world.
- Stretch yourself to imagine the unimaginable. What might future scenarios look like? How might circumstances change? How might they differ from right now? And how does this impact your thinking and the decisions you should make?
- Accept that not all outcomes can be anticipated. What can you put in place to mitigate worst-case scenarios? Can you buy insurance? Hedge your decision?
- Don’t allow success to make you complacent, or failure to define you. Recognise the transient nature of both, and that learning opportunities can arise from either.
#2 Ditch Deference and Challenge Experts
experts are not a homogeneous group. Their ranks are made up of a diversity of opinion, ideology and competence. Not all are equal. Some are clearly better than others, and many get much wrong.
Remember this when you are seeking out an expert, and don’t automatically give them a free pass. It’s imperative both to recognise the limitations of experts, and to keep the independent decision-making part of our brains switched on.
We can’t afford not to, especially when the stakes are high. So, treat each expert’s advice with appropriate caution. Remember that they are human, and therefore subject to a whole host of potential failings. At best, look upon your expert as an investigator bringing you different assertions, rather than as the custodian of definitive facts.
Always be willing to challenge them, but also be ready to challenge your own response to what it is they say.
- Take on the challenge of becoming an expert yourself. Do your own research. This gives you the best chance of asking the right questions and reaching the right outcomes. If you can’t understand something, who can act as an interpreter for you on your journey?
- Shop around – not all experts are equal. Their ability, expertise and intellectual open-mindedness will vary a great deal.
- Get second and third opinions, at least. Seeking out just one “expert opinion” may well leave you with flawed information. A range of perspectives will give you the knowledge you need to ask the right questions and understand all your options.
- Don’t confuse arrogance with competence. They are not the same thing. You don’t want an arrogant expert. Intellectual curiosity and a lack of ego are often the signs of the most impressive experts.
- Look for the expert who admits to not knowing everything, rather than the one who claims certainty. He’s more likely to get things right.
- Make sure you’ve looked at your expert’s track record. If it’s a surgeon, you want to know how many times they’ve performed the procedure; if a management consultant, who they have worked for and what did they achieve there. Work out a way in which you can find out how good this person really is at their job.
- Discover how up-to-date your expert is with the latest research and techniques. If they dismiss this question, they are dismissing your right to play an active part in your own decision-making, and they may just have something to hide. At this point you might want to find someone else.
- Check your expert’s reasoning, and ask to see their evidence (future Steps will help you brush up on how to evaluate this). It’s OK to ask: experts do get a lot wrong.
- Remember, experts are human, which means they are prone to a whole host of thinking errors and biases. You are too. (We’ve already touched upon this but more still to come.)
- If your expert won’t engage with you, or patronises you, they’re not the right person to be seeking advice from. You need a dialogue with your expert, not an expert who expects you to receive their decrees from on high.
- Never forget that you have a mind of your own. And never unthinkingly hand over responsibility for the decisions you make to another person, even if they are wearing a white coat.
#3 Monitor Your Emotional Thermostat
We are not robotic decision-makers, dispassionately weighing various bits of information and coming to our choices in a purely logical fashion. We saw in earlier Steps how our pasts could steer us in particular directions, as could colours, words, touch and smell. Here we have seen that how we feel and our physical state have a profound impact on our decision-making too.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Often our emotional steers help us from making disastrous decisions – fear can, after all, be a very useful warning signal, as our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew all too well.
Yet, unchecked, unacknowledged and uncontemplated, our emotions can lead us to make pretty bad choices. Especially as, in a world as complex as ours, our adaptive evolutionary feelings will not always prove either appropriate or intelligent.
The good news is that there are positive measures we can take to ensure that our emotions and animal impulses do not rule us unwittingly. We can remove ourselves from extraneous stressors, close our doors, unplug, delegate non-essential matters to someone else. We can pare down the number of decisions we have to make, so as not to take on more than we can handle. We can note our emotions, and also take that proverbial beat before we respond.
- Don’t let your blood sugar fall. Eat regularly, and don’t make big decisions on an empty stomach.
- Try to get enough sleep before making important decisions. If that’s not possible – say you’re in the midst of a crisis – make sure that at least some of your team or support system are properly rested, and bounce your sleep-addled thoughts off their fresh-thinking minds.
- Note how you are feeling before you make a decision. Are you stressed, happy, angry? Get better at this through meditation practice or carrying out self-audits.
- When you can, wait before you act. Take that beat. This isn’t always going to be possible, but if you can at least pause, it can really pay off. If you’ve written an angry email, wait until the morning to send it. When you return to it in a calmer frame of mind, you may well make some changes.
- If you know you’re stressed, watch out that you’re not falling back on innate and probably unconscious stereotypes or prejudices. Ask yourself if you would be treating the person before you any differently if they were of the same gender or colour as you.
- Seek to reduce workplace stressors. Angle for your own office. If that’s not possible, invest in noise-reducing headphones and identify a place at work where you can shut the door if you’ve an important decision to make.
- Unplug when possible. Step away from your computer and emails, even if only for a short time, so you can think clearly about the one key thing at hand.
- Pare down your decisions. What trivial decisions can you park or get someone else to deal with on your behalf?
- Identify who can serve as your gatekeeper. Who can help keep the demands on you at a more manageable level?