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Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

Luck, Accidents, and the (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    What in your life can you control?

    Not much, as it happens. In fact, most of the areas we feel most in control of are riddled with uncertainty and unpredictability: business, health, parenting, finances. In a lot of cases – like picking which stocks to invest in – the average person actually underperforms random selection. That is, when it comes to picking stocks, a monkey with a dart board and a copy of the stock page can do a better job picking winning stocks than most ostensibly informed humans.

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    Why is that? In the case of selecting stocks, it’s because while a random selection has a 50/50 chance of going up or down, we humans tend to invest our choices with emotional weight that keeps us in markets too long or too short – unlike randomness, we act on hunches, fears, and hopes. More generally, we tend to be poor judges of risk and uncertainty, yet we have brains that are more than willing to impose patterns and meaning that cover up rather than address such unknowns. So we act as if we knew what we were doing, and as if we had some level of control over the situation, when really we’re at the mercy of luck – and the more uncertain the situation, the more likely we are to act as if we were in control.

    The (Mistaken) Sense of Control

    Consider this situation: Let’s pretend you have an infant girl, and one night you get a call at 1 am from a friend across town who desperately needs your help. As you prepare to drive across town to meet your friend, you have a choice – leave the child sleeping in her crib, or bundle her into a car seat and take her with you.

    For most parents, this is a no-brainer – of course you’re going to take her with you. What if something happens in the house while you weren’t there, like an electrical fire? What if someone broke into the house and kidnapped her? What if she stopped breathing?

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    The reality, though, is that the single riskiest thing you could do to an infant at 1:00 am is to take her driving in a car. Far more people die every year in car accidents than in all the potential risks to your child alone at home combined. In your car, she’ll be exposed to danger from poor road conditions, mechanical failure, and worst of all, other drivers – who at 1:00 am are likely to either have been drinking or be exhausted, neither of which makes them safe to be sharing the road with.

    But with our child with us, we feel in greater control than if she was left at home, unattended. There’s no rational basis to this feeling – it’s entirely grounded in emotion, a poor comprehension of risk, and an over-assessment of the degree to which our own presence has any significance.

    Our failure to understand risk and the role chance plays in our lives is profound and cuts across a wide swath of our lives. Consider the efforts we make to assure our children grow up with decent values – and how often parents raise kids that completely reject their values. Or consider how many businesses go under every year, and how many of them were headed up by people with strong qualifications, solid training, and a clear sense that they knew what they were doing. Or, in the financial sector, consider how many stock brokers, financial analysts, and others are caught entirely by surprise by massive shifts in the financial sector, like the recent collapse of the credit system – if there were really a pattern, and people really understood it, they all should have seen it coming.

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    Dealing with uncertainty

    If we’re really bad at understanding risk, and if we’re led astray by a mistaken sense of control, then what should we do? Should we just throw up our hands and accept whatever Fate throws at us? Should we lock ourselves in our homes, wrap ourselves in padding, and huddle in a corner until our lives mercifully end?

    Fatalism and despair are, thankfully, over-reactions to the uncertainty of life. As it happens, there are quite a few things we do control, even in the midst of uncertainty. For instance, while even the best poker players are largely at the mercy of luck as to what cards they hold, good players can control enough of the situation – their facial gestures, how much they bet, when to fold, etc. – to come out of even several lousy hands in a row ahead (at least sometimes).

    While we can’t eliminate uncertainty, there are ways we can act to minimize its effects – at least in some instances. If the Moon spins out of its orbit and collides with the Earth tomorrow, all bets are off. But for more everyday sorts of uncertainly, it pays to:

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    • Be prepared. Good planning leaves enough “slack” to adapt readily to unforeseen circumstances. For example, many people keep a “rainy day fund” to make sure they’re prepared for an illness, loss of a job, accident, or other emergency.
    • Diversify. Balancing high-risk options with low-risk ones can help make sure that a sudden freak occurrence wreck everything. It’s the classic “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” theory – balance your investment portfolio, hedge your bets, pursue multiple medical treatments (where possible), and so on.
    • Get a second opinion. Or a 100th. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds shows how the cumulative voice of the many can be more accurate than any one individual, even an expert. Whenever undertaking a risky endeavor, make sure to consult as many people as possible – and find a way to split the difference. Get another doctor’s opinion before embarking on a course of treatment, Discuss investment options with more than one financial advisor. Get feedback from a range of employees before instituting a radical new policy or process. By sampling a variety of people, you’ll have an opportunity to “cancel out” conflicting worldviews that, in most cases, have little to do with the reality at hand.
    • Create habits. Uncertainty often leads us astray most when we respond directly to fluctuating and random events. For instance, maybe you go to Vegas with a $300 budget to spend on slot machines, but when you see a particular jackpot is up to $12 million you throw caution to the winds and drop $800 into the machine. Creating habits that you stick to religiously can help minimize the desire to act based on emotional factors that have little to do with the actual level of certainty or uncertainty involved.
    • Recognize risk. There is a far higher injury rate for softball players than for base jumpers. Why? Because softball is seen as a safe sport and so players take few precautions, while base jumpers train heavily, invest in solid equipment, and approach the risk inherent in their sport seriously. When you recognize risk and respect it, you act smarter – which helps you to stay more in control when that’s possible, and to minimize harm when control isn’t possible.

    Life itself is inherently uncertain – and that’s a good part of its beauty. That uncertainty shouldn’t paralyze us, it should energize us – it should make us doubly aware of our surroundings and doubly appreciative of our successes. By ignoring risk – or pretending it doesn’t exist – we make ourselves stupider, which ironically leads us to act in riskier ways. By respecting and even embracing uncertainty, we can often come out even further ahead than if we tried – usually in vain – to control inherently uncontrollable situations.

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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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