The Resolve Blog

Helping you Make Better Decisions

thinking in patterns - just as these chairs are laid out.

How Thinking in Patterns Will Make You Think Better

Unbelievably, right now you’re thinking in patterns. Some you might be aware of, but most of them, you can’t see or even describe them.

Take the lost time of daydreaming. Only a few minutes ago my train of thought was gone from me. Vertical blinds decorate the window in my office; the type that twists to block the glare of the sun or hide the invasion of the night. I’m irked, although the blinds are all lined up, hanging against the cloud drifting behind them, their angle against the glass is wrong. The imperfection grates me, my awareness awakening as I stand and reach for the pole. A slight twist adjusts them as I correct the angle, settling the scene before me.

Just as my mind thinks in patterns, so it sees them too.

You see, I’m lost in a pattern of thought beyond comprehension. Subconsciously, my mind is processing a multitude of different patterns. From the itch in my beard to the thirst in my throat. A quick scratch and a slurp of coffee calm those thoughts – for now.

Each response is a step in the pattern of thinking and doing. Each part, the itch in my beard through to the scratch I administer is a pattern – a process of behaviour. One so subtle we’re not even aware of.


Thinking in Patterns – what does that mean?

We have little appreciation for the complex way our minds work. We wake up, often around the same time every day as our brain – energised from its night’s sleep – starts to engage its subconscious patterns.

Often, our first need is to use the toilet. If we’re not awake, the subconscious action turns into a conscious one as we rise and walk to the bathroom. Our minds are using patterns to make us move, use the loo, and get on with our day. It is a marvel lost on us; such is the complexity of what we do every day.

Our brain holds thousands of patterns and we use them all the time. Each of them helping us as we manage our safety and our survival. Mundane tasks, such as eating and drinking, or driving, or turning on the tv; all they are is patterns.

These, and many more besides are examples of thinking in patterns. A computer scientist would declare them as algorithms. Others, such as Daniel Kahneman would explain them as stemming from one part of our brain. System one thinking, a process Daniel explains in detail in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Our brains have two systems of judgement and thought. The first, system one, runs within our subconscious and manages most of the choices we make. System two is the one we are conscious of, and is often underused, as system one wants to do everything for us. This means we end up applying thinking patterns in the wrong way.


Thinking deliberately – in patterns

We all think; it is the one thing we’re doing all the time. But, as I alluded to at the beginning, thinking can take us off on some strange, unproductive tangents. My brain was procrastinating at the start of this article. Daydreaming is easier, as another pattern distracted me from the task in hand.

“We rarely often create deliberate patterns of thought to help us think or make decisions.”

Matt Mullenweg

Subsequently, when we need to think critically, we default to our learned behaviours – meaning system one takes control.

Instead, we should be thinking deliberately.

We should be thinking of patterns to help us be more effective. Applying an application of thought which will help us in our moment of ponderance. Whether it is understanding something, solving a problem, or considering a choice.

As Matt Mullenweg said recently, we rarely often create deliberate patterns of thought to help us think or make decisions. Instead, we allow our subconscious patterns to take control. Sadly, they’re not good enough for the big decisions we must take. 

Matt also makes the point that once we have a pattern, we should practice it. Practice improves performance, ask any athlete – and our goal should be to make the pattern stick. The reason: when you’re under pressure the deliberate pattern becomes a default – just like your subconscious patterns are.  

But what patterns should we be thinking in?

This isn’t an exercise in re-inventing the wheel. Although talk of patterns and thinking might lead you to believe it is. We are fortunate. We have our forefathers who have lived through the same experiences. As nature intended, their experiences – and learnings – have transcended generations.

Today, we know these experiences as mental models. Mental models provide us with frameworks which the fs.blog describes on their page on mental models.

What Are Mental Models?

Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

Of course, there are many different models – for we live in a complex and diverse world. And of course, you don’t need to remember them all, but some you do. Some are vital to enable to understand how the world works, just as some will help solve problems, all helping you to make better decisions.


Practical Thinking in Patterns

You will know some mental models already. You may not be able to name them or you might not even think of them as thinking patterns, but they very much are.

Think of leverage, the notion of using a leaver to move another object. The longer the lever, the easier the move will be.

Another model is second-order thinking. Grandmasters in Chess show how to use this thinking pattern by considering the impact of what will happen before moving a piece. By thinking ahead and considering the knock-on effects, they can choose a move which helps them and damages their opponent.

 There are many others, but for now, here are two models I’ve found to be highly effective.

I have a personal love for first principles thinking. It is a mental model found in young children, as they look to understand everything in front of them. Like a sponge in a bath, a child’s brain looks to suck up great quantities of knowledge. 

School eradicates first principles thinking. Instead, we drown children in a sea of information. Not to give them understanding, but to cram their memories full. After fifteen years of education, the mental model of first principles thinking is a forgotten power. But, once remembered and reused, it unlocks an array of learning opportunities.

Check out my article on First Principles thinking; why you need to ask questions like a child.

Inversion   

Despite our urge for simplicity, we live in a complex world and as a result, problems often occur which need solving. Using inversion as a mental approach is a powerful way to gain a new perspective on a problem. We often seek excellence without realising it is easier to do the opposite, which is to don’t be stupid.

Inversion shifts the focus from the normal view to one where you consider the alternative.



Concluding thoughts

Thinking is a task we commit hours to, with little thought about how to think better. This approach limits our ability to think critically, to solve problems, and to make effective decisions.

Overcoming this means understanding how our subconscious works. The much talked about system one is a foundation of established patterns, all of which work and help us navigate life. We fall when we use a pattern in a different situation. The outcome is one we don’t want.

As Matt Mullenweg explains, we rarely stop to think in patterns deliberately. When we do, we open our minds to the opportunity to think better. We can significantly improve our thinking by using mental models; thinking patterns which qualify predetermined facts.

It makes the complex simple.

We move to new perspectives, ones which enable us to think more rationally, solve complex problems and make better decisions. Thinking in patterns won’t just make you think better, it will improve your outcomes.


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Loyalty – Do You Mean it like the Bad Boys Mean it?

Loyalty – Yep – the one word we think we understand, but we don’t. We delight in telling our bosses we are loyal to them, to the company we work for, but we’re not. Would you still be ‘loyal’ if your bank showed your salary payment was half what it normally is? Would you still put yourself through the grind of starting early and finishing late if the money dried up?

No, you wouldn’t.

Ask Mike Lowery what loyalty means, and you’ll find an altogether different answer. Mike is a police detective in Miami, working with his partner Marcus Burnett. One phrase sits between them, a statement of commitment and partnership which means so much to them both.

“We ride together, we die together. Bad boys for life”.

Bad Boys

Partnerships require trust, commitment, faith, – and togetherness – even more so in high-risk situations. All attributes best summarised in one word – loyalty. Loyalty in Mike and Marcus’s eyes is a deep understanding of their partnership. It feeds them – driving to take risks beyond the norm – such is their understanding of how they live and breathe together.

When your life is on the line, that’s loyalty. It isn’t kissing the company logo or declaring your loyal in a performance review. It is about having a bond of trust – one that flows both ways as it binds partners and colleagues together.

Ask yourself would you ride and die with the person or company you’re declaring your loyalty too as Mike and Marcus would?

That’s loyalty.


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Reflect and Renew – Upgrade your New Year Resolutions

Reflect and renew is a great upgrade to the date act of a New Year’s Resolution. A resolution is a false promise of a new beginning – often crushed within a few days of the year commencing. Why? Because the act itself is flawed. A bold commitment to lose weight by eating less, or to stop consuming coffee by the gallon is whimsical and ill-thought-out.

But every year, with the changing of a digit we surrender ourselves to the aspiration of a new year resolution or two. The version in our heads of rarely matches reality. Instead, the outcome tends to look like the distorted reflection we see in a fairground mirror.

How can you change this outcome?

Two words spring to mind – reflect and renew. Two critical steps which, should always be a part of your decision-making process.

Reflecting on the year gone by, question the place you find yourself in today. What did you want to achieve at the beginning of the year? Have you achieved your goal? If you have – why and how did this happen? What works so you can repeat it?

If you didn’t achieve your goal – why not? What would have helped?

From this process of reflection, you will find some principles of behaviour. It is these you must renew and use as the platform for the year ahead as you adapt your goals for the year ahead.

Reflection and renewal will serve you far better than a new year’s resolution.


Annual Review time

The 1 Lesson We Should Take from This Year’s Annual Review

Dam…it’s nearly Christmas and amongst the many traditions of the year, I’ll be doing my own annual review. Yep, for the last three years, I’ve dismissed new year’s resolutions in favour of a more reflective assessment of the year gone by. I try to objectively reflect on the past year, compare where I am to where I wanted to be, and seize upon any lessons I can take to make me a better person in the year ahead.

The annual review builds upon my goal to become a better person. So, I look to answer the following questions…

  • What were my goals?
  • Did I achieve them?
  • If not, why not?
  • What could I have done better?
  • What would have helped?
  • If I did, why?

As I’ve begun to reflect on what has happened, I realise my 2020 review is going to be unique. Not only will my annual review hold the drama of COVID-19, so will everyone else’s. We have faced a global pandemic, one which has taken the lives of many people but also turned the way we live on its head. I – and probably you – have had to cope with lockdowns, face masks, social distancing, possibly even illness and loss – all of which have disrupted my life and others.  


Our Annual Review

An annual review isn’t only about your goals and whether you achieved them or not. It should also offer us a platform for some introspection. To look and assess our decisions – our choices – and how they worked for us. Vital to this is to reflect not only on the outcome but also the process of decision-making we followed.

2020 offers some insights to some different lessons for us though. Most of us live ‘normal’ lives, rarely are we tested by something so powerful as a pandemic. We get a view of how we deal with ‘life and death’ pressure. Now, how we see, how we orientate ourselves on the information we have, and then – the decisions we make – and the action we take matters far more than it ever has.

For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of my annual review. Never have I had the circumstance of a pandemic to gauge my decision-making process.  Through my annual review, one lesson stands out. I suspect it will be many other reviews too.


We still don’t know what we don’t know

Our ability to assess risk has never come under greater scrutiny than it has in 2020. COVID-19 has shown how masterful confirmation bias is in us all - and that’s bad. It isn’t only confirmation bias which has affected our thinking.

We don’t understand the law of large numbers, we do not see loss aversion at work, and we accept the words of laypeople over experts.

In practical terms, our phones and TV’s are full of graphs and words we think understand, but we don’t.

Exponential is one of those words we don’t seem to get. Just as we can’t grasp probabilities, so we cannot get our heads around the much-referenced R-number. We marvel at the power of compounding without fully understanding how devastating it is in the hands of a contagious disease.

We don’t know what we don’t know.


Our biases are killing us

Blind to our biases, we do not see or challenge assumptions. We all have agenda’s - some more than others - and when the narrative doesn’t fit, we seek evidence to ensure our stories fit. Politicians have worried more about their future election successes, than the lives of the people they are there to lead and protect.

When it came to lockdowns, wearing masks, and social distancing, we did what suited us. In the beginning, the threat felt real, so we followed the rules. As time went by, and the more distant the threat felt, the less we followed the rules. Even though the virus was still with us.

The sad fact is, we don’t know what we don’t know. We make biased judgements all the time - often based on confirmation of information which suits our needs. If the facts don’t fit - we ignore them.

2020 has seen a year littered with evidence of our biases working against us. The people who we thought knew what they were talking about became compromised by incentives, more interested in their self-worth than the health of humanity.

Politicians started to put wealth before health. Pressured by those more concerned for their dividend payments, politicians buckled. “We’re following the science.” Well only until it didn’t suit them.


Our annual review lessons

Of course, 2020 has also shown had adaptable we are. Somehow, I have made it through the year without doing a Zoom call. Yes, I have used other video applications, but Zoom has escaped me - others haven’t been so lucky. We’ve also learnt to work from home, turning our dining rooms into makeshift offices at the same time.

Lockdowns have rewarded the introverts in us with peace - and cast extroverts into a world of gloom and suffering. The cost of solitude for those in need of company will no doubt become clear as we move on from this pandemic.

But we can’t escape what we don’t know.

It lurks, poised to defeat our ability to be rational when making decisions. It rails our assumptions into false positives, and it is, as I see it anyway, the biggest potential lesson from this year’s annual review.


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Assumptions Need to be Challenged – It Will Help You Make Better Decisions

Assumptions are the beliefs we carry in our heads – drawn from experiences of events or thoughts in our past. Each assumption comes loaded with risk because the present isn’t the past.

We assume what happened before will happen again.

Sometimes chance favours our assumption, and we get away with it. Where we come unstuck is, we don’t see it as ‘getting away with it’, we see it as good judgement, good luck, or simply great skill on our side.

Our confidence rises as we begin to believe we know better, as we puff our chests out and flex our shoulders. Of course, self-belief compounds the situation as we do not see the confirmation bias blinding our systems of judgement.

We can do no wrong.

And then, one of our assumptions fail. The chances are the failure occurred when we applied an assumption to a big decision. One where we need the outcome to go in our favour, but it doesn’t. We will bemoan luck or the unexpected as the reason, as we do not grasp the consequences of accepting an assumption.

Ray Dalio, in his book, Principles, uses one simple challenging question to every decision he faces. What do we know to be true?  

Assumptions aren’t facts. They are beliefs born from a moment when the facts aligned with the circumstances of the situation. Circumstance changes, life changes, luck changes – everything changes – which is why we must challenge our assumptions. We should always ask the same question Ray Dalio does.

Then we might be safe from our assumptions.


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Winning the Long Game of Life Is What We Want, but We Forget How to Play

The long game, the long view, strategic thinking. They are all the same thing – a process of not living for the short term but looking for longer-term payoffs. And yet we don’t live like it. We live in ‘the moment’ – guided by our short-term urges as we become ignorant of the laws of life.

The law of large numbers is one such example of a law we know of, but don’t understand.

We see 1% as a small number but ignore the impact of it on an enormous number. Take the mortality rate of COVID-19. If it was 1% – well that’s okay, we tell ourselves. One percent of a population the size of the US – well that’s a vast number – over three million. That’s not okay.

Not grasping this insight from the law of large numbers is one of two points we don’t understand.  When we see summaries from vast sums of data, we naively believe the same dynamic applies to a smaller group. We think a 1% mortality rate won’t affect us, but the disease doesn’t take one from a family – it takes whole families.

We know this, but we don’t understand it.

We can’t grasp the risks; we can’t see the danger we have become ignorant of. We would rather go shopping on a busy high street to satisfy an urge for the joy of a day than stay safe by not.

We have forgotten the rules of playing the long game.


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Thinking from First Principles: Why You’ll Need a Mindset Shift to Think Like This

Thinking from first principles requires a mindset shift which will challenge most of us. Often, we are too comfortable living with our assumptions to want to change.  

Assumptions litter our thinking. They define our beliefs, our behaviours, and often our outcomes. Guided by our earlier experiences we build assumptions – and live by them. We don’t grasp the consequence of luck, the impact of others, or entropy on future outcomes.  

When tasks before us are simple and repetitive – assumptions are fine. They make life easier to live. The problem comes when we apply old assumptions to new situations. We don’t expect the unexpected. So, when things go wrong, or the outcome isn’t to our liking – we rarely see it is our assumptions that have failed.

Thinking from first principles changes everything. Instead of living with assumptions, you go looking for them. You question them, you pull them apart – as you look to find the underlying elements of your assumptions. Now, you’re questioning everything. You’re asking questions as a child does; why, why, why?

Now you can see the horror of the ‘because it does’ answer parent deploys to their kids.

As you find them so you must challenge them with open questions, test your conclusions and then tweaking them and tuning them as you redefine what you know, by seeing what you don’t know.

Thinking from first principles is hard. Living by your assumptions is easy – it’s your choice.

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Why is Decision Making Important?

Why is decision making important?  It is a question which forces us to pause as we consider the complexities of it. In business, it galvanizes energy – all in the pursuit of growth. On a personal level, we see it as a consideration of choices. It is often less urgent, and more emotional.

Decision making is selecting one from a series of choices we face. Each choice gives us options based on our current situation and offers a path for the future. It is the future we are concerned about. Although we live in the present, we imagine our futures and we dwell on our histories.

We can’t predicate our futures, but we can prepare for them. And therefore, the importance of decision making makes itself clear. Decisions for today affect today – but also tomorrow.

It is this grasp of the future we do not understand.  

We do not see beyond today. Only the present – and it leads to a sense of sadness when we reflect on our past. Each decision matters, but our weakness is how we see each possibility as binary – both in choice – and outcome. Life is a game of trial and error, of less certainty and more enquiry.

The importance of decision making isn’t the outcome, but the process. The correct process should be one of testing, seeing, learning, adapting, and repeating. Life is complex – too complex for a binary outcome.


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The One Thing Most of us Miss with Musk’s Use of First Principles

We use first principles to solve problems. Getting to the granular level of a problem, reveals the fault.  

The story of Elon Musk of wanting to reach space is legendary. Faced with a huge cost, he asks why? By deconstructing a rocket down to the materials, he discovers it isn’t rocket science to build one himself.

He then started Space X, and reduced NASA’s rocket costs by 90% in the process.

For many, the lesson ends there.

We miss the not-so-secret sauce. What makes us different to Musk is we think of reasoning from first principles as a process with a decision at the end. With Musk, first principles thinking form’s the foundation of his brain software.

It is the way he thinks.

Crucially, he is forming hypothesis’s and testing them – everywhere. It forms the building blocks of his wants, his – and others – ability to deliver them, and his goals and strategy to deliver them.

Musk is living in a continuous feedback loop.

The rest of us make some decisions and live out our lives accordingly. It’s as if we’ve walked into a puddle of quick-drying cement.

Life is a process of trial and error. You form an idea – you test it – and you learn from the outcome, revaluate and test again. With success, you can push the boundaries to make further improvements.

It is this continuous process we miss with Musk’s use of first principles.


The power of a pause with a coffee

The Power of a Pause. Why It Helps to Stop Before Deciding

To make better decisions you need the power of a pause. If you asked me what’s the one piece of wisdom everyone should take from the Resolve Blog, it would be to pause before deciding.

It is as simple as that. No mental models, no insights into cognitive biases – although being aware of them certainly helps, no defined decision-making process either. All you need is the power of the pause to make better decisions.

A pause might have saved the lives of 398 people who died because of trying to cross the road in 2013. The same study revealed the highest causes of death or severe injury were from a failure to look properly, or the pedestrian was careless, reckless or in a hurry. These behaviours all show a lack of a pause before acting.

There are plenty of other examples I could offer, such as eating unhealthy food, losing our tempers and so on. Given the negative impact of making decisions without pausing, it is fair to ask why.


Without a pause, we make fast decisions

When we don’t pause before deciding, we end up making a fast decision. Choices made quickly inevitably stem from our system one way of thinking. For those of you unaware of system 1 and system 2 – allow me to explain.

Daniel Kahneman authored a book called Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011. The book held a detailed explanation – supported by experiments – of how we think and decide on what to do.

System one

System one is the part of our brain where we make decisions quickly. We often decide without even being aware of it – we are barely conscious of our choices. Best explained it means we:

  • Decide quickly
  • Allow emotions to influence our choices
  • Use previously learned responses to automate our behaviour

Without out a pause, our brain looks to act quickly. If the situation is different, and most of them are, the brain looks for a similar learned response and uses that experience to dictate how we decide what to do.

System two

Whatever system two is, system one isn’t. It means with system two we are slow, more rational, and highly aware of our thinking. In summary, it means we:

  • Think logically
  • Take our time
  • Consider the pro’s and con’s

Our brains, like us, don’t like to do hard things. Thinking the way system two does is hard. Hence, why system one will always try and take control. It’s easier for the brain – and it likes doing easy things.


The power of a pause is hard

Making big or important choices means you should be pulling on the strength and character of system two. But we are lazy, we don’t like thinking. We like to daydream and procrastinate our way through life, our minds a fog of spiralling thoughts.

So, every given time we’re faced with a choice – we will opt to take the simple path. The system 1 path of thinking, because it’s easy.

In a life where we make thousands of choices every day, system one is a godsend. You can’t begin to imagine how hard life would be without system one. We would have to think slowly and rationally about the most mundane tasks. A conversation with a friend is a good example, as you exchange greetings and discuss the weather, you both can intuitively know what each of you is saying and talking about. System two would have you analysing the mannerism’s used, the tone – let alone considering the meaning of each word used.

A simple conversation using system two would last a lifetime.

System one has become our default method of thinking, which makes taking a pause so hard. But, as I’ve explained, there are many times in our lives when we need the power of a pause.


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The power of a pause – a pathway to system two thinking

When you stop and take a pause, you stop your mind engaging system one and reacting without conscious thought.

Of the 398 who died, how many of them could have received help from system two. Instead, their system one takes control. They used earlier learned behaviours to judge the speed of the oncoming car, of the road conditions, and their footwear. Speed is a variable, and just because a pedestrian crossed the road in front of an oncoming car okay before, doesn’t mean they can again.

The pause, the power of stopping forces a rational reassessment of speed, conditions, and ability. All are logical traits of system two thinking.

By taking a pause, we open our minds to a unique way of thinking – a lifesaving way of thinking.


Concluding thoughts

I, like most of you, could do with the power of a pause when deciding what to do. It is a skill, but one which will improve our ability to make better decisions. As I mentioned at the start, if I could offer one thing as a ‘take this and nothing else’ lesson, it would be the power of a pause.

Understanding how system one and system two work is the first step to making better decisions. System one isn’t bad, and equally, you shouldn’t want to use system two to decide what to do all the time.

As I said, that would be bad – and terribly slow.

The better way is to always be pausing. Let yourself question where you are and what you’re about to do. Have you experienced this before? If the answer is yes, then get on with it.

If not, then it is time to use the power of the pause and think more deeply about the options in front of you.

It is the power of a pause.

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