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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

More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Last Updated on July 8, 2020

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

This is why setting priorities is so important.

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3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

1. Eat a Frog

There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

2. Move Big Rocks

Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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3. Covey Quadrants

If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

  1. Important and Urgent
  2. Important and Not Urgent
  3. Not Important but Urgent
  4. Not Important and Not Urgent

    The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

    Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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    You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

    Getting to Know You

    Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

    In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

    These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

    More Tips for Effective Prioritization

    Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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