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Not A Good Decision Maker? You Will Know How To Be One After Reading This.

Not A Good Decision Maker? You Will Know How To Be One After Reading This.

We’ve been told that making good decisions is all about standing our ground. It’s about being strong and deliberate. It’s about being sure of ourselves. What if we’re wrong? What if a good decision requires just the opposite? What if we need to become more open-minded?

In 1995, Psychologist Jonathan Baron coined the term “actively open-minded thinking.” According to Baron, the primary purpose of deliberate thought is to form beliefs and make decisions based on those beliefs. Actively open-minded thinking is the process of consciously considering a wide array of options when forming those beliefs and making those decisions.

It sounds nice in theory, but does actively open-minded thinking actually help you make better decisions? Wouldn’t it, instead, make you more uncertain? Won’t considering too many options cause to flounder in doubt and become indecisive? Well, to answer these questions, I’ll first consider the opposite of actively open-minded thinking. Let’s call it “actively close-minded thinking.”

The Perils of a Closed Mind

In a recent experiment, researchers from the Yale Cultural Cognition Project sought to understand how political ideologies influence our ability to make accurate judgments. To do so, they split a thousand participants into four equally sized groups, each containing more or less the same amount of liberal democrats and conservative republicans. Each group was asked to look at a chart and perform a basic mathematical calculation in order to draw a conclusion about the data.

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The first two groups were attempting to understand whether a new skin cream had caused subjects in trials to get worse or to get better. To do so, they had to calculate the ratio of the subjects who had taken the cream and gotten better to those who hadn’t taken the cream and still got better (control group), to the ratio of those who had taken the cream and got worse to those who hadn’t taken the cream and still got worse (control group).

For one of these groups, the data was presented favorably for the cream. For the other, the data was presented unfavorably for the cream. Though neither group demonstrated excellent quantitative abilities, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans scored equally well in each of these groups. But what if the topic was a little more politically charged? What if the issue wasn’t about skin cream? What if, instead, it was about Gun control?

For the second two groups, the researchers kept the data exactly the same, but they changed “the introduction of a skin cream” to “the introduction of a gun ban.” Then, they asked the subjects to calculate whether the gun ban led to an increase or a decrease in crime. How do you think these results came out?

Both not surprisingly and downright shockingly, the politically—charged context dramatically changed how participants answered the question—even though it was the same basic math problem. In the group with results favorable to the gun ban, conservative republicans were far more likely to get the question wrong. In the group with results unfavorable to the gun ban, liberal democrats were far more likely to get the question wrong.

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Why, in the second experiment were people more likely to make poor judgments? Because they already had their minds made up on the issue. They didn’t need to think it through, because they already knew the right answer. Or, so they thought.

It turns out that being certain doesn’t help you make better decisions; it just helps you make faster decisions.

The Profits of an Open Mind

Now, back to “actively open-minded thinking.” In a separate experiment, published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, a team of researchers sought to put actively open-minded thinking to the test. The researchers first administered a standard test, measuring how prone the participants were to thinking open-mindedly. Then, they tested how well the participants could predict the outcome of a football game from a previous season (not known by the participants) in the National Football League.

On a screen, each participant was shown a home team and an away team. At the bottom of the screen, they were given two options. They could 1) ask for information or 2) make an estimate. If they requested information, they were given clues such as the teams’ win-loss records. The participants were permitted to request up to 10 pieces of information before making an estimate.

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After all the participants had made predictions on ten different games, the results were tabulated. As you might expect, the people who opted to gather more information were much more likely to make accurate predictions than those who guessed right away.

And what about that “open-mindedness” test? Yes, it turns out that those who sought out more information were also those who scored highly on the test. The takeaway: being open-minded causes you to seek out more information. And, seeking out more information causes you to make better decisions.

A Posture of Curiosity

There’s another less academic word for “actively open-minded thinking” that we use much more often in our everyday conversations. That word is “curiosity.” Everyday, we’ll encounter major decisions that will impact us for the rest of our lives. We’ll have to decide whether or not to marry our significant other. We’ll have to decide whether or not to accept a job offer. We’ll have to decide whether or not to go to graduate school. Approaching such situations with a posture of curiosity will almost always help us make better decisions.

When making these major life decisions, the closed mind will focus only on one variable. Does my mother/father approve? Is it a high enough salary? Will the degree get me a better job? The curious mind seeks out more information. What do her/his parents think? Twenty years from now, will it matter what my parents think? Is salary the only thing I should be concerned with? Will I get along with the people that currently work there? Do I just want to go to school to get a better job? Aren’t I also interested in learning more about my field and becoming a more well-rounded person?

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When you’re curious, you ask these questions. When you ask questions, you get answers. And when you get answers, you make better decisions.

The idea that the person who makes quick, forceful decisions without any doubt is somehow making better decisions—that’s a myth. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons point out in The Invisible Gorilla, those who are most confident in their decision-making abilities are often those who are least competent in their decision-making abilities.

If you want to make better decisions, doubt your intuitions. Test your assumptions. Seek a wider range of possibilities.

Become curious.

Featured photo credit: Pretty young woman making a decision with arrows and question mark above her head via shutterstock.com

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Last Updated on October 22, 2019

How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity

How to Focus and Concentrate Better to Boost Productivity

We live in a world of massive distraction. No matter where you are today, there is always going to be distractions. Your colleagues talking about their latest date, notification messages popping up on your screens, and not just your mobile phone screens. And even if you try to find a quiet place, there will always be someone with a mobile device that is beeping and chirping.

With all these distractions, it is incredibly difficult to concentrate on anything for very long. Something will distract you and that means you will find it very difficult to focus on anything.

So how to focus and concentrate better? How to focus better and produce work that lifts us and takes us closer towards achieving our outcomes?

1. Get Used to Turning off Your Devices

Yes, I know this one is hard for most people. We believe our devices are so vital to our lives that the thought of turning them off makes us feel insecure. The reality is they are not so vital and the world is not going to end within the next thirty minutes.

So turn them off. Your battery will thank you for it. More importantly though is when you are free from your mobile distraction addiction, you will begin to concentrate more on what needs to get done.

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You do not need to do this for very long. You could set a thirty-minute time frame for being completely mobile free. Let’s say you have an important piece of work to complete by lunchtime today. Turn off your mobile device between 10 am and 11 am and see what happens.

If you have never done this before, you will feel very uncomfortable at first. Your brain will be fighting you. It will be telling you all sorts of horror stories such as a meteorite is about to hit earth, or your boss is very angry and is trying to contact you. None of these things is true, but your brain is going to fight you. Prepare yourself for the fight.

Over time, as you do this more frequently, you will soon begin to find your brain fights you less and less. When you do turn on your device after your period of focused work and discover that the world did not end, you have not lost an important customer and all you have are a few email newsletters, a confirmation of an online order you made earlier and a text message from your mum asking you to call about dinner this weekend, you will start to feel more comfortable turning things off.

2. Create a Playlist in Your Favourite Music Streaming App

Many of us listen to music using some form of music streaming service, and it is very easy to create our own playlists of songs. This means we can create playlists for specific purposes.

Many years ago, when I was just starting to drive, there was a trend selling driving compilation tapes and CDs. The songs on these tapes and CDs were uplifting driving music songs. Songs such as C W McCall’s Convoy theme and the Allman Brothers Band’s, Jessica. They were great songs to drive to and helped to keep us awake and focused while we were driving.

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Today, we can create playlists to help us to focus on our work. Choose non-vocal music that has a low tempo. Music from artists such as Ben Böhmer, Ilan Bluestone or Andrew Bayer has the perfect tempo.

Whenever you want to go into deep, focused work, listen to that playlist. What happens is your brain soon associates when you listen to the playlist you created with focused work and it’s time to concentrate on what it is you want to do.

3. Have a Place to Go to When You Need to Concentrate

If you eat, surf online and read at your desk, you will find your desk a very distracting place to do your work. One way to get your brain to understand it is focused work time is, to use the same place each time for just focused work.

This could be a quiet place in your office, or it could be a special coffee shop you use specifically for focused work. Again, what you are doing is associating an environment with focus.

Just as with having a playlist to listen to when you want to concentrate, having a physical place that accomplishes the same thing will also put you in the right frame of mind to be more focused.

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When you do find the right place to do your focused work, then only do focused work there. Never surf, never do any online shopping. Just do your work and then leave. You want to be training your brain to associate focused work with that environment and nothing else.

If you need to make a phone call, respond to an email or message, then go outside and do it. From now on, this place is your special working place and that is all you use it for.

Every morning, I do fifteens minutes of meditation. Each time, I sit down to do my meditation, I use the same music playlist and the same place. As soon as I put my earphones in and sit down in this place, my mind immediately knows it is meditation time and I become relaxed and focused almost immediately. I have trained my brain over a few months to associate a sound and a place with relaxed, thoughtful meditation. It works.

4. Get up and Move

We humans have a limited attention span. How long you can stay focused for depends on your own personal makeup. It can range from between twenty minutes to around two hours. With practice, you can stay focused for longer, but it takes time and it takes a lot of practice.

When you do find yourself being unable to concentrate any longer, get up from where you are and move. Go for a walk, move around and get some air. Do something completely different from what you were doing when you were concentrating.

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If you were writing a report in front of a screen, get away from your screens and look out the window and appreciate the view. Take a walk in the local park, or just walk around your office. You need to give your brain completely different stimuli.

Your brain is like a muscle. There is only so much it can do before it fatigues. If you are doing some focused work in Photoshop and then switch to surfing the internet, you are not giving your brain any rest. You are still using many of the same parts of your brain.

It’s like doing fifty pushups and then immediately trying to do bench presses. Although you are doing a different exercise, you are still exercising your chest. What you need to be doing to build up superior levels of concentrated focus is, in a sense, do fifty pushups and then a session of squats. Now you are exercising your chest and then your legs. Two completely different exercises.

Do the same with your brain. Do focused visual work and then do some form of movement with a different type of work. Focused visual work followed by a discussion with a colleague about another unrelated piece of work, for example.

The Bottom Line

It is not difficult to train your brain to become better at concentrating and focusing, but you do need to exercise deliberate practice. You need to develop the intention to focus and be very strict with yourself.

Set time aside in your calendar and make sure you tell your colleagues that you will be ‘off the grid’ for a couple of hours. With practice and a little time, you will soon find yourself being able to resist temptations and focus better.

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Featured photo credit: Wenni Zhou via unsplash.com

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