You know your brain makes mistakes without you even realizing it, don’t you?
In fact, it’s probably making a few mistakes as you’re reading these words. Yep, you read that right. Your mind is full of biases based on your past experiences. And it’s not just you. That holds true for every one of us. It’s like we’re all inmates looking through the bars of a prison cell who have long forgotten that the bars even exist.
See, your beliefs imprison you, and your biases skew your perception. These biases are causing you make errors in judgment — all the time. And the worst part? You’re barely aware of it.
But the good news is that by paying attention to your thought patterns through a regular mindfulness practice you can become aware of mistakes as they happen. Here are 7 mistakes you can overcome using mindfulness:
1. You prioritize avoiding discomfort over achieving your dreams.
Ever sat through an awful movie at the cinemas because you’d paid good money for the ticket? You’re not alone. The truth is most of us would rather suffer through an awful movie rather than do something more enjoyable with our time. Why? Because we want to get our money’s worth.
“Evolutionary science” says that our tendency to avoid threats — as opposed to our tendency to maximize opportunities — gave us the best chance of survival from predators. And this tendency was passed on through the generations over time. You’re hard wired to prioritize loss minimization over opportunity maximization. We all are. But this is no longer required in today’s world. Some great entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs figured this out and lived their lives to the fullest.
A good way to approach things is to ask yourself what you want most out of life. Much like Steve Jobs did when he looked at the mirror each morning. You’ll naturally gravitate towards the things that matter most and give yourself the best chance of realizing your dreams.
2. You incorrectly predict the odds.
Imagine this. You toss a coin, which has 50/50 chance of turning up heads or tails. Let’s say the coin’s turned up tails for the last 23 consecutive times. Surely the next time you toss the coin it’s going to turn up heads. Right?
The truth is the odds don’t change. They’re still 50/50. The past 23 tails don’t affect the probability of the next toss in any way whatsoever. Despite knowing this fact, you have this tendency to expect an irrational outcome based on past results. The gambler’s fallacy is based on this glitch in our thinking.
But there’s a simple solution: use a mindfulness-based approach. Here’s what the approach involves: Pause. Take a deep breath.
Taking a deep breath disconnects you from your irrational mental tendencies. It forces you to pause, and reconnects you with your rational self. It creates some spaciousness in your thinking. Do this and you’re much less likely to be seduced by your irrational thinking. Try it. I guarantee you’ll be impressed.
3. You convince yourself that your bad decisions are good.
Ever tried to convince yourself that buying that extra pair of shoes you didn’t need wasn’t such a bad decision after all? If so, you were hit by cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance occurs when you have two opposing ideas that you can’t simultaneously hold in your mind. You want to think of yourself as an astute decision-maker, and a lousy decision is directly opposed to this image. So you end up convincing yourself that the decision was a good one to make it consistent with your self-image.
The best way to overcome cognitive dissonance? Be mindful of your tendency to rationalize bad decisions, so you’re more aware of when you’re doing it. And when you’re aware that you’re doing it, make a conscious effort to accept that you occasionally make bad decisions (and that’s fine as long as you learn from it). Because you’ve let go of the idea of being an astute decision-maker, you can now accept that you made a bad decision. The last step is to resolve to learn from the bad decision.
So by using mindfulness, you’ll have replaced your tendency to rationalize bad decisions with the ability to learn from them. Your decision-making skills can only improve over time.
4. You pay more attention to information that matches your beliefs.
Ever notice what happens when you buy a new car? You suddenly start seeing a whole lot of new cars on the road! This is because our brains passively seek out information that confirms our reality.
Do you tend to gravitate towards people who share your worldview, or away from them? I’m guessing you most of your friends have beliefs that are aligned with yours. There’s a term for it. It’s called confirmation bias. We are drawn to ideas and information that confirm our beliefs. And this means we become narrow-minded human beings with limited thinking and stifled creativity. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have friends who don’t share similar beliefs. What I am saying is, it is important for us to accept that other beliefs are equally valid, even if we don’t agree with them.
The ability to do this is rare. But it’s essential for creativity and growth. It also means you don’t have to be stuck looking at things in the same way. If you want to overcome the limiting constraints of confirmation bias then use mindfulness to become aware of this tendency.
5. You confuse selection factors with results.
Do top universities like Harvard produce brilliant graduates because they have an awesome program? Or is it because they only select the smartest people to go through their program?
See, my bet is that the high achievers Harvard recruits would be successful regardless of the university they study in. But it’s likely that you incorrectly attribute Harvard graduates’ success to the institution rather than the selection process to get into the institution. Harvard only accepts high-quality candidates who are going to be successful no matter what.
Ralf Dobelli says that professional swimmers don’t acquire swimmer’s physiques because of rigorous training. It’s the other way round: they become professional swimmers because they were born with physiques suited to swimming. In other words, their physiques are a factor for selection and not the result of their training.
So, why is this a problem? Because you attribute success to these wrong factors and (incorrectly) expect to succeed.
Here’s another example: Seeing a skinny model on TV drinking a calorie-packed drink leaves you with the impression that the contents are good for you. But we all know that nothing could be further from the truth. And yet, those images on the TV screen influence you to buy sugary drinks that will only take you further away from that perfect body you have been taught to crave.
So what can you do to counter this? Don’t take things at face value. Be mindful of the messages that are coming at you every day. More importantly, be mindful of how these messages impact your behavior.
6. You allow your perception to be manipulated.
Ever bought a car at a 20% discount from the advertised price? What about that pair of jeans that you saw advertised at $100 yesterday, but that is on sale at $50 “for today only”? Bargain, huh?
Now, what if I now told you the pair of jeans was actually worth $20? Still a bargain? Not so much. You’ve just fallen victim to the anchoring effect.
The anchoring effect is a cognitive bias that gets you to rely too heavily on the first piece of information you receive. It assigns that first piece of information as the reference point – the anchor. Stores use it to convince you to buy all the time.
Imagine this. You walk into a clothing store. You’re greeted by this big sign, which reads, “SALE – ALL OUR SHIRTS ARE REDUCED FROM $100 TO $40. HURRY, SALE ENDS TODAY!”
And you think to yourself: “Wow, I wasn’t exactly in the market for a new shirt but this is such a steal. Over 50% off! After all, well-made clothes last longer than cheap ones.” So you buy it. The thing is, if the shirt had originally been priced at $40 you probably wouldn’t have felt like it was such a good deal. But when you saw it marked down from $100 to $40 that got you interested.
You were subconsciously influenced by the first $100 price you saw — presented to you by the store that was trying to sell you the shirt. We’re wired to make estimates based on comparisons. And in the absence of any other information, we unconsciously lean towards the first value we heard.
So how do you overcome this tendency? Be mindful of the anchoring effect. Be aware of this tendency to be subconsciously influenced by the first price you see. Be aware of where that first piece of information is coming from.
It all comes down to paying careful attention to what is happening in the present moment. And that essentially, is what mindfulness is all about. Being fully in the moment will help you to focus on all the relevant factors — right here and now. And this is bound to improve your decision-making abilities.
7. You don’t take control of your overwhelm.
Have you ever faced a situation where you had too many choices and ended up not making a decision at all? Welcome to the paradox of choice.
When we have too many options before us we often shut down. We get overwhelmed and walk away from the situation altogether. At other times we simply choose anything just to get the process over and done with. In today’s world of information overload this is increasingly a problem.
The solution? Narrow your options down. Systematically eliminate choices that are clearly not relevant to you before you start feeling overwhelmed. Pay more attention to what you want to get out of the situation and less attention to the choices. It helps to be really clear on your objectives.
A great way to do this is to revisit your goals regularly. Be clear on what you want to accomplish each day and make a targeted to do list. Do this, and you’ll realize that a lot of the “choices” that are presented to you in the form of advertising aren’t relevant to you at all. You’ll spend more time on doing things that matter to you — and pay less attention to distractions that don’t really matter.
Here’s an analogy I use to explain mindfulness:
Imagine sitting on a beach watching the waves (your thoughts) on the ocean (your mind). You’re watching the entire ocean — including the waves as they rise and fall. It’s really peaceful and expansive. Sooner or later your attention gets caught up in one of the waves. You begin to identify with that one wave (one thought), and in that moment your awareness contracts. You’ve lost sight of the big picture (your mind and it’s patterns). The moment you become aware of this fact, you gently bring your attention back to your breath and broaden your focus so you’re watching the entire ocean again (your mind).
Doing this consistently is mindfulness practice. I see it as ‘meditation in action.’ And as your awareness grows you’ll become more conscious of your limiting thought patterns. You’ll become a lot more productive and you’ll live better.
The real secret to overcoming your brain’s tendencies to make mistakes.
For the next six months focus on creating a mindfulness practice. Using your breath as an anchor, watch your mind and its mental patterns in the present moment. Pay attention to what’s happening here and now. Do that, and you’ll be amazed and how many of these seven mistakes you overcome through self-awareness.
If you want to be free of the invisible chains that bind you, then commit yourself to a mindfulness practice. Become aware of your mental patterns. And then free yourself from these shackles that hold you back.
Featured photo credit: YanLev via istockphoto.com