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How Mentally Strong People Make Wise Decisions

How Mentally Strong People Make Wise Decisions

On a sunny day in early August, my wife Agnes Vishnevkin and I came to a Rationality Dojo in Columbus, OH. Run by Max Harms, this group is devoted to growing mentally stronger through mental fitness practices. That day, the dojo’s activities focused on probabilistic thinking, a practice of assigning probabilities to our intuitive predictions about the world to improve our ability to evaluate reality accurately, and make wise decisions to reach our goals. After learning the principles of probabilistic thinking, we discussed how to apply this strategy to everyday life.

We were so grateful for this practice in early September, when my wife and I started shopping for our new house. We discussed in advance the specific goals we had for the house, enabling us to save a lot of time by narrowing our options. We then spent one day visiting a number of places we liked, rating each aspect of the house important to us on a numerical scale. After visiting all these places, we sat down and discussed the probabilities on what house would best meet our goals. The math made it much easier to overcome our individual aesthetic preferences, and focus on what would make us happiest in the long run. We settled on our top choice, made a bid, and signed our contract.
This sounds like a dry and not very exciting process. Well, we were very excited!

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Why? Because we were confident that we made the best decision with the information available to us. The decision to get a new house is one of the biggest financial decisions we will make in our lifetime. It felt great to know that we could not have done any better than we did through applying the principles of probabilistic thinking and other rationality-informed strategies. Of course, we could still be wrong, there are no guarantees in life. Yet we know we did the best we could – we grew less wrong.

These strategies are vital for improving our thinking because our brains are inherently irrational. Research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral economics, and other fields from the middle of the twentieth century has discovered hundreds of thinking errors, called cognitive biases. These thinking errors cause us to make flawed decisions – in finances, relationships, health and well-being, politics, etc.

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Recently, popular books by scholars such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, Chip and Dan Heath, and other scholars have brought these problems from the halls of academia to the attention of the broad public. However, these books have not focused on how we can address these problems in everyday life.

So far, the main genre dedicated to popularizing strategies to improve our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns has been in the field of self-improvement. Unfortunately, self-improvement is rarely informed by science, and instead relies on personal experience and inspiring stories. While such self-improvement activities certainly help many, it is hard to tell whether the impact comes from the actual effectiveness of the specific activities or a placebo effect due to people being inspired to work on improving themselves.

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However, research in the last decade, from Keith Stanovich, Hal Arkes, and others revealed that we can fix our thinking, sometimes with a single training. For example, my own research and writing shows how people can learn to reach their long-term goals and find their life meaning and purpose using science-based strategies. This scientific approach does not guarantee the right decision, but it is the best method we currently have, and will improve in the future with more research.

Yet a budding movement called Rationality has been going through the complex academic materials and adapting them to everyday life, as exemplified by Rationality Dojo. This small movement has relatively few public outlets. The website LessWrong is dedicated to high-level discussions of strategies to improve thinking patterns and ClearerThinking offers some online courses on improving decision making. The Center for Applied Rationality offers intense in-person workshops for entrepreneurs and founders.

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For example, if I want to exercise more, I would take a rational approach to it. Rather than just a vague resolution, I would outline my specific goals for exercising, such as decreasing my weight by 20 percent. I would then evaluate the various exercises to see which ones targeted weight loss, and commit to one. I would then set up mechanisms to motivate me, such as publicly announcing my intentions, creating a social commitment to go with a friend, tracking the times I go, and rewarding myself for each successful visit.

As another example, say I wanted to become a more moral person and do more good in the world. I would evaluate specific steps to do so, such as giving more to charity. After making that determination, I would set aside a specific sum of money per year to give to charity, for instance 10 percent of my income. Next, I would research what are the charities that do the most good for my dollar in a cause area I am most passionate about, such as education. For the last step, I would choose a charity that I see as doing the most good and donate that money.

All of these steps are informed by specific research-based strategies for making and implementing decisions rationally to maximize the possibility of achieving our goals. You do not have to be nudged by policy makers and CEOs. Instead, you can be intentional and use rationality to make the best decisions for your own goals! Consider how much you can benefit from adopting similar strategies, and share this article with others so that they can benefit as well: they will be grateful to you.

Featured photo credit: Decisions via flickr.com

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

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

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Last Updated on March 31, 2020

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

Why We Procrastinate After All?

We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

Is Procrastination Bad?

Yes it is.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

How Bad Procrastination Can Be

Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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Procrastination, a Technical Failure

Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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