13 September 2014

How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World

(Perhaps this is a pertinent article, with the Scottish Independence vote coming up very shortly.)

Time I learnt this one, as I've been on this planet for the past 60 or so years!  But they say 'it's never too late', so here goes:

Take Time Out: we live in an environment where Tweets, emails, advertising and Facebook posts compete for attention (and these blogs!), and where one edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average 17th century person was exposed to in a lifetime.  

Finding mental space amidst all this can be challenging so it's essential to carve out time to think when making an important decision.  Create time to gather and consider the right information and to think about other possibilities.  Go for a walk, step outside the office or turn off the computer for 10 minutes.  Under time pressure we're more likely to settle for the easiest answer.

Be Observant: learn to identify your emotions so you can detach from feelings that might distort or bias your decision-making. Research shows that when we're stressed we're more likely to make short-term choices and, when angry, we're less likely to trust others' advice.  Improve emotional self-awareness by introducing a regular mindfulness exercise to your day - try the Raisin Practice (on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYDXQQBojk8), or download a mindfulness app such as Simply Being.  Write down exactly how you are feeling when at the point of making a decision to factor in your emotions.

Listen to your body: low blood sugar levels make people - including rational, objective decision-makers such as judges - more impulsive .  Be sure to eat regularly and not to make big decisions on an empty stomach.  Decisions are similarly impulsive when you are tired: you are more likely to take unnecessary risks, and tiredness causes memory debilitation.  Surgeons make 22% more errors when fatigued.  If you can't get a good night's sleep, ask someone for help and advice.  (also being too hot or too cold or wanting to go to the loo all affect me)

Shake up Social Networks: it's important to expose yourself to alternative and challenging perspectives to ensure that your decision-making is diversely informed.  Most of us are naturally conformists and our decisions are easily influenced by what those around us say, think or do.  The danger is that we are prone to surrounding ourselves with people similar to us, online and off, whose advice, ideas and opinions amplify our own beliefs.  Research shows that teams of different gender, race, age and background are better at creative problem-solving. Try following people on network sites with different interests from you or seeking out bloggers from other countries.  (Or even reading a difference newspaper occasionally).

Look at Sources of Information: we crave certainty in complex and confusing times and have a tendency to listen to people who tell us what to do.  Remember: experts are humans, prone to thinking errors and biases too.  Be the difficult client - challenge the information you are given, and think about that which you're not shown.  Get second and third opinions from experts and seek testimonies from people with experience of the same issue.  Navigate online reviews with your brain switched on: it's estimated that up to a third of online consumer reviews are fake, and people are likely to alter their reviews based on what others have already written.

Don't dither - Don't be too impulsive
Remember the old adage 'sleep on it'

'Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World' (William Collins, £14.99), by Noreena Hertz, is out now.

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