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5 Strategies to Help You Make Winning Decisions

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how to make the best decision

Have you regretted any of the decisions that you’ve made? I’ll take a wild guess here and say “yes.” We all have walked in Remorse-land many times and have made mistakes we would gladly erase if given the chance. So then, if someone comes to you and offers you a time machine to go back and alter some of your not-so-bright choices, you would take it, right?

Of course, this all makes for an enticing plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but in reality, such kind of magic doesn’t exist. How about then if you are given the next best alternative, the tools to make better decisions from the outset, rather than living with regrets and wishing to have the power to bend time?

Here are five strategies which will help you become better at picking the winning option:

1. See the future you

In his widely-popular research, Hal Hershfield, a UCLA associate professor who has studied for years how people can make better long-term decisions, asked participants to envision themselves in 10 years. fMRIs detecting brain activity showed that we think about our older selves the same way we do about complete strangers.

But when part-takers were shown computer-altered pictures of themselves looking near retirements age, things changed— they allocated twice as much money to their retirement fund vs. buying something new today.

The rather salient takeaway here is that, to make better decisions, we must imagine how they will impact our future selves. If you believe a choice will help you get you closer to the future happy and successful you, then, by all means, take it. But if you are unsure, better have another think.

2. Expand your pool of options

An excellent piece in the NYTimes describes a study by Paul Nutt—a Professor of Management at Ohio State University, who, in the early 1980s carried out a study among senior managers at public and private companies in the U.S. and Canada on how they made decisions. He found out that half of the decisions in companies failed because people tended to take shortcuts and didn’t spend sufficient time looking for alternatives and evaluating them (only 29% did so).

And this can cost us. According to other research, when we ignore assessing other options, our chances for success are about 50 %, while decisions involving at least 2 choices lead to a favorable outcome in 2 out of 3 cases.

To come up with some quality ideas, in addition to expanding the size of our canvas, we should involve other people in our brainstorming endeavor, draft a list of the choices and assign weights to each. The highest score wins.

These approaches will enhance our decision-making skills, which, in turn, will give us a shot at something much bigger; a chance to reach our goals, be happier and have a more fulfilling future.

“Panic causes tunnel vision. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to more easily assess the situation and see the options.” – Simon Sinek

3. Limit your pool of information

Yes, this idea goes directly against the above point and sounds counterintuitive, but if you get to think about it—it does make sense. Studies from Princeton and Stanford Universities, have revealed that when we immerse ourselves in a sea of information, we may end up pursuing non-instrumental data, which we then use to make decisions.

Naturally, the quality of that outcome will be questionable. Sometimes, we may end up with a choice that we wouldn’t have made altogether (and possibly regret it later on) if we didn’t rely on this irrelevant information.

How do we end up in such a position? It’s driven by our aversion to uncertainty. Simply put, our brains hate volatility and try to resolve it any way they can. One way is by seeking any information that seems like a good candidate and hastily pick it.

Phew, problem solved! Move on. But, as research tells us, seeking out more details do help make a decision, but it may not necessarily be a good one.

4. Take a page from Darwin and Franklin

When Malcolm Gladwell published his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking in 2005, the world was fascinated by the idea that we can make complex decisions with very little effort—just by trusting our gut instinct and by ‘snapping it.’ That is, the book offers some research to support the idea that quick solutions based on intuition can yield surprisingly successful outcomes.

Sounds great but many subsequent studies don’t quite support this. What’s more, sticking to the “old school” ways of making decisions such as conscious thinking and evaluation of alternatives, can lead to more high-quality results.

Just take a note from Darwin who used the pros-and-cons list to make the most important decision of his life—whether to marry. Ben Franklin, similarly, always used this same “simple” method when confronted with challenging choices. Sometimes, the conventional non-fancy ways to make decisions happen to be the best options.

“Warren Buffett told me once and he said always follow your gut. When you have that gut feeling you have to go with, don’t go back on it.” – LeBron James

5. Kill the Company

“Kill the Company” is a best-selling book by Lisa Bodell—the CEO of a consulting company which helps businesses embrace change and innovation. The basic premise of the exercise is that executives are asked to brainstorm all of the ways in which their company can go down. Then, packed with this insight, they work backwards to try and remedy the loopholes in their processes, strategies and choices.

The idea has proven very effective and easy to practice. Just imagine that a decision you pick today turns out to be a complete failure in the future. What will you do to ensure a better outcome?

In the end, our decisions are the foundations of the future lives we build for ourselves, as they have the power to directly affect our success trajectories. While taking the wrong turn may not always have catastrophic consequences, we are also rarely given a do-over in life.

And why is it so vital that we keep honing our choice-making skills, you may ask? It’s very simple—YOLO.

Which one of these strategies to make winning decisions resonated most with you and why?

Evelyn Marinoff is a writer and an aspiring author. She holds a degree in Finance and Marketing,  works in client consulting, and spends her free time reading, writing and researching ideas in psychology, leadership, well-being and self-improvement. On her website evelynmarinoff.com, she writes tips and pieces on self-enhancement and confidence. You can also find her on Twitter at @Evelyn_Marinoff.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. chetan mohakar

    Jan 9, 2019 at 12:49 am

    This will definitely make my life better.

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What Les Misérables Taught Me About Our Values

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Who am I? The ultimate question many of us try to answer. When I think of values, I think of Victor Hugo’s 1862 book, “Les’ Miserables”. In Hugo’s book, Jean Valjean, is used as a protagonist to highlight the power in redemptive love and compassion. Valjean goes into prison for stealing a loaf of bread, entering as a simple and decent man. His time in jail seems to have an unrepairable effect, where he emerges from the chain gang as a tough, bitter criminal who hates society for what it has done to him. (more…)

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7 Ways You Can Increase Your Concentration Right Away

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In today’s world, an overabundance of information and a large number of distractions is making it increasingly difficult to concentrate on performing the necessary tasks. In this article, I propose 7 simple methods that will train your ability to concentrate, while not taking you from your usual activities. (more…)

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5 Simple Hacks to Help You Develop the Habit That Will Transform Your Life

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Why Do We Have An Unconscious Bias and How Can We Manage It?

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When I hear someone using my name once in a while throughout the conversation we are having, I cannot stop myself thinking “this person must have read Dale Carnegie’s books or must have been influenced by someone who read them…” Have you just recalled a similar moment and it felt nice?

As Dale Carnegie famously said, “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and the most important sound in any language”. Why did Dale Carnegie highlight the importance of an individual’s name to that person in his “How to Win Friends and Influence People” book published in 1936?

Each and every one of us wants to feel special and unique. I guess he recommends using the person’s name in the conversation because that is one of the easiest ways to grab that person’s attention so that we can enhance the chances of getting our point across. However, I am more interested in this from the other side; hearing our names directly addresses our individuality, our need or desire to feel special and unique.  

Let’s park this one for now and we will come back. 

Categorization is essential to our survival

There is countless scientific research telling us about how our brains recognize similarities and put things into categories, which has been crucial to our survival in evolution and still helps us with a lot of things from learning new things to coping with the continuous influx of massive amounts of information through our senses. 

The continuous influx of information is mostly handled by our subconscious mind rather than conscious. It is estimated that our brains receive about 11 million bits of information every second through our senses, of which only 40-50 bits can be processed by our conscious mind. We process more information than we are aware of. The magic here is the subconscious mind.

An example is when you are at a very loud party where you hear a lot of words flying around without you recognizing each one of them, then suddenly, you immediately catch it when you hear your name. Your subconscious had been processing all of those words, without your awareness, but informed your conscious mind when your name was out there because it was relevant to you.

In order to most effectively process this much information and inform the conscious mind with only the relevant ones, our subconscious employs categorization as one of its strategies.

When our ancestors encountered some deadly predators in the African savanna, their subconscious prompted their conscious mind to immediately fight or flight by categorizing the information gathered through their senses into “predator / life threat / take action”. Most probably we are not descendants of the ones that were frozen rather than fighting or flighting! 

Although it is a completely different situation, the same strategy applied in remembering lists. Let’s look at the below two lists.

  1. lion, eagle, shark, leopard, hawk, whale, panther, falcon and dolphin 
  2. lion, leopard, panther, eagle, hawk, falcon, shark, whale and dolphin

The second list is easy to remember because it is reordered into relevant groups even though the content of the both lists are identical.

Subconsciousness is the magic and categorization is one of its key strategies. It is essential to our survival, learning new skills and processing information as well as bringing back the information we had processed and stored. 

This amazing skill has its drawbacks

As a result of our brains’ categorization strategy, we also categorize people, especially if we don’t know them as well as our closest ones.

Imagine I am sitting at the table next to yours while you are having your favorite coffee and working on your computer or reading your novel at your neighborhood coffee shop. I stand up, very calmly grab your bag, and start walking away. Your reaction might be quite different depending on my outfit. It could be much more vocal and harsh if I have a dirty T-Shirt and a pair of torn jeans on. However, if I have some navy colored, 3-piece suit and well-pressed white button up shirt on, you might even say something like “Excuse me, you might have picked up my bag by mistake”. (There is an experiment done by social psychologists which reported similar results)

Similarly, I would not be surprised to hear that my co-worker’s spouse is very skilled and knowledgeable in English grammar and literature because he is an English teacher. However, I would not expect it from my co-worker herself because she is an outstanding chemical engineer.  

This is defined as unconscious bias or stereotyping, as a result of our subconscious brain’s categorization strategy. The outfit I have at the coffee shop impacts your response to my action, because it puts me into a different category in your mind depending on my outfit. My co-worker’s and her spouse’s backgrounds make me put them into different categories, which might mislead me sometimes.

Just like we categorize things, it is very natural that we categorize people.  

The key question here for me is; how do we truly treat people as individuals so that they feel unique, just like as they would want, while we know that our brains categorize people

We can overcome unconscious bias 

Leonard Mlodinow, in his enlightening book “Subliminal”, suggests that “if we are aware of our bias and motivated to overcome it, we can.” That doesn’t mean that we need to fight our brain’s categorization strategy. We just need to employ our conscious mind more when we are working or dealing with individuals. 

Our unconscious bias might tell us scientists are bunch of technical nerds who cannot understand abstract concepts that marketers are talking about or it might say that marketers are some daydreamers who need to be grounded by scientists to the real world all the time. I am an engineer and I love thinking in abstract terms and I worked with quite a lot of marketers who thought primarily in factual and concrete terms. 

Spending some effort to learn more about individuals will help overcome unconscious bias. Gathering more information and qualities about them will make it easier for us to treat them as individuals rather than a member of the category we put them in our minds. 

The moral of the story here is to recognize the fact that our brains do categorize, and it is essential; but also, to recognize that every individual wants to feel unique. When we appreciate these two and keep reminding them to ourselves, we are one step closer to figuring out our own way to overcome unconscious bias and treat people more like individuals. 

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