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How To Avoid Giving Regret

How To Avoid Giving Regret

I want to share my story to help you avoid the kind of regret I experienced as a deep churning in my stomach when I found out what bad decisions I made by giving to my favorite charity for many years.

Make-A-Wish Foundation helps kids with terminal diseases achieve a grand wish. For example, it could take the child and her family to Disneyland. It then shares the stories of these kids through their marketing materials. These stories are truly heartwarming. I fell for it, and donated every Giving Season, as I wanted to help kids have good lives.

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However, my close friend Max Harms pointed out that Make-A-Wish Foundation makes 300 million per year telling these stories. Our brain is wired to have positive emotions from such stories, and therefore people like me donate.

By comparison, Max told me to consider the Against Malaria Foundation. It buys malaria nets that protect children in developing countries from mosquitoes carrying this deadly disease. Would not my goal of helping kids have good lives be achieved better by protecting them from death?

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That question stopped me in my tracks. I had to think hard about why I gave to Make-A-Wish. I realized it was because they had heartwarming stories and great marketing that brought the stories to my attention. Our brains focus on things that come to our attention and not necessarily on things that are actually important for our goals, a thinking error called attentional bias.

What I failed to consider was the stories of children saved from malaria. I imagined a specific child, Mary, who did not get malaria because of my donation. I envisioned how Mary’s mother rocked Mary to sleep. I imagined Mary’s fifth birthday party, with her family all around. I imagined Mary’s first day of school. I imagined her first kiss. I imagined Mary growing up, becoming an adult, getting married, and having her own kids. My last mental image was of Mary knitting in a rocking chair, enjoying her grandchildren’s laughter.

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It was wonderful to imagine Mary’s life. By comparison to giving one positive story through Make-A-Wish, I could give Mary a lifetime of heartwarming stories. Besides, a bed net costs a few dollars, while a trip to Disneyland costs many thousands. For the same money, I can save not only Mary, but John, Ella, Sergio, Paula, Sarnur, Christian, and so many others. It was no contest.

Now I have nothing against Make-A-Wish Foundation. They do what they promised to do. It was a failure of my imagination that caused me to make bad decisions. From this experience, I learned that charities that are most effective in achieving my actual goals for donations are often not the ones with the best stories, and thus do not get funded.

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Max then told me about Effective Altruism, a movement specifically set up to deal with such thinking errors. It uses data-driven strategies to promote charities that do the most good for the world. He advised me to check out GiveWell in particular, which provides research reports on the most effective charities. He also suggested The Life You Can Save, whose charity impact calculator enables you to put in your donation amount and learn immediately about the impact it makes.

I was sold! I never wanted to experience that deep churning in my stomach. So the next time you hear a great story from a charity that moves you, stop to consider the alternatives. Where else can you give your money to achieve the same ends with more impact per dollar?

I hope sharing publicly about my bad decisions helps you avoid giving regret and be truly effective in your altruism.

Featured photo credit: Regret via flickr.com

More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

President and Co-Founder at Intentional Insights; Disaster Avoidance Consultant

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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