Helping you Make Better Decisions

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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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A man contemplating problem solving and decision making as looks forward.

Problem Solving and Decision Making – Two Essential Skills of a Good Leader

Problem solving and decision making are two fascinating skillsets. We call them out as two separate skills – and they are – but they also make use of the same core attributes.

They feed on a need to communicate well, both through questioning and listening, and be patient and not rushing both processes through. Thus, the greatest challenge any leader faces when it comes to solving problems and decision making is when the pressure of time comes into play. But as Robert Schuller highlights in his quote, allowing problem-solving to become the decision means you’ll never break free from the problem.

“Never bring the problem-solving stage into the decision-making stage. Otherwise, you surrender yourself to the problem rather than the solution.”

Robert H. Schuller

So how does a leader avoid this trap? How do they ensure the problem solving doesn’t become the be-all and end-all?

The 7 steps of Effective Problem Solving and Decision Making

A vital hurdle every leader must overcome is to avoid the impulsive urge to make quick decisions. Often when confronted with a problem, leaders or managers fall back in past behaviours. Urgency creates pressure to act quickly as a result, the problem still exists, just side-lined until it rears its ugly head again.

Good problem solving opens opportunity. A notable example of this is the first principles thinking executed by the likes of Elon Musk and others. Understanding the fundamentals blocks of a process and the problem it’s creating can lead to not just the problem but accelerate beyond it.

So, to avoid the trap, and use problem solving and decision making effectively, you should embody yourself with the following seven steps.

1.      What is the problem?

Often, especially in time-critical situations, people don’t define the problem. Some label themselves as fire-fighters, just content with dowsing out the flames. It is a reactionary behaviour and one commonplace with under-trained leaders. As great as some fire-fighters are, they can only put out so many fires at one time, often becoming a little industry.

The better approach is to define the problem, and this means asking the following questions:

  1. What is happening? (What makes you think there is a problem?)
  2. Where is it taking place?
  3. How is it happening?
  4. When is it happening?
  5. Why is it happening?
  6. With whom is it happening? (This isn’t a blame game…all you want to do is isolate the problem to a granular level.)
  7. Define what you understand to be the problem in writing by using as few sentences as possible. (Look at the answers to your what, where, why, when, and how questions.)

2.      What are the potential causes?

Having defined the problem it is now time to find out what might be causing the problem. Your leadership skills: your communication skills need to be strong, as you look to gather input from your team and those involved in the problem.

Key points:

  • Talk to those involved individually. Groupthink is a common cause of blindness to the problem, especially if there is blame culture within the business.
  • Document what you’ve heard and what you think is the root cause is.
  • Be inquisitive. You don’t know what you don’t know, so get the input of others and open yourself up to the feedback you’ll need to solve this problem.

3.      What other ways can you overcome the problem?

 Sometimes, getting to the root cause can take time. Of course, you can’t ignore it, but it is important to produce a plan to temporarily fix the problem. In business, a problem will be costing the business money, whether it be sales or profit. So, a temporary fix allows the business to move forward, providing it neutralises the downside of the original problem.

4.      How will you resolve the problem?

At this stage, you still don’t know what the actual problem is. All you have is a definition of the problem which is a diagnosis of the issue. You will have the team’s input, as well as your opinions as to what the next steps should be.

If you don’t, then at this stage you should think about reassessing the problem. One way forward could be to become more granular and adopt a first-principles approach.

  1. Break the problem down into its core parts
    • What forms the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  2. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
    • How do the parts fit together?
    • What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
    • Name and separate your assumptions from the facts
  3. Remind yourself of the goal and create a new solution

Solve hard problems with inversion

Another way is to invert the problem using the following technique:

1. Understand the problem

Every solution starts with developing a clear understanding of what the problem is. In this instance, some clarity of the issue is vital.

2. Ask the opposite question

Convention wisdom means we see the world logically. But what if you turned the logical outcome on its head. Asking the opposite questions brings an unfamiliar perspective.

3. Answer the opposite question

It seems a simple logic, but you can’t just ask the opposite question and not answer it. You must think through the dynamics that come from asking the question. You’re looking for alternative viewpoints and thoughts you’ve not had before.

4. Join your answers up with your original problem

This is where solutions are born. You’re taking your conventional wisdom and aligning it with the opposite perspective. So often the blockers seen in the original problem become part of the solution.

5.      Define a plan to either fix the problem permanently or temporarily

You now know the problem. You understand the fix, and you are a position to assess the risks involved.

Assessing the risks means considering the worst-case scenarios and ensuring you avoid them. Your plan should take into the following points:

  • Is there any downtime to implementing the solution? If so, how long, and how much will it cost? Do you have backup systems in place to minimise the impact?
  • If the risk is too great, consider a temporary fix which keeps current operations in place and gives you time to further prepare for a permanent fix.
  • Document the plan and share it with all the relevant stakeholders. Communication is key.

Here we see the two skills of problem solving and decision making coming together. The two skills are vital to managing business risks as well as solving the problem.

6.      Monitor and measure the plan

Having evolved through the five steps to this stage, you mustn’t take your eye off the ball as it were.

  • Define timelines and assess progress
  • Report to the stakeholders, ensuring everyone is aware of progress or any delays.
  • If the plan doesn’t deliver, ask why? Learn from failure.

7.      Have you fixed the problem?

Don’t forget the problem you started with. Have you fixed it? You might find it wasn’t a problem at all. You will have learnt a lot about the part of the business where the problem occurred, and improvements will have taken place.

Use the opportunity to assess what worked, what didn’t, and what would have helped. These are three good questions to give you some perspective on the process you’ve undertaken.

Problem solving and decision making in unison

Throughout the process of problem solving, you’re making decisions. Right from the beginning when the problem first becomes clear, you have a choice to either react – firefight or to investigate. This progresses as move onto risk assessing the problem and then defining the solutions to overcome the issue.

Throughout the process, the critical element is to make decisions with the correct information to hand. Finding out the facts, as well as defeating your assumptions are all part of the process of making the right decision.

Problem solving and decision making – a process 

Problem solving isn’t easy. It becomes even more challenging when you have decisions to make. The seven steps I’ve outlined will give you the ability to investigate and diagnose the problem correctly.

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What are the potential causes?
  3. What other ways can you overcome the problem?
  4. How will you resolve the problem?
  5. Define a plan to either fix the problem permanently or temporarily.
  6. Monitor and measure the plan.
  7. Have you fixed the problem?

Of course, this logical step by step process might not enable you to diagnose the issue at hand. Some problems can be extremely hard, and an alternative approach might help. In this instance, first principles thinking or using the power of inversion are excellent ways to dig into hard problems. Problem solving and decision making are two skills every good leader needs. Using them together is an effective way to work.

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First Principles thinking through the eyes of a child

First Principles Thinking: Why We Need to Ask Questions Like a Child

First Principles thinking has incredible benefits, just ask Elon Musk. The approach has led him to increase battery capacity, making electric cars more practical and from there, building Tesla cars into a multi-billion-dollar company. Not only that, but Elon used the same approach; first principles thinking to dramatically reduce the cost of space travel. So, with examples such as these, why aren’t there more examples of this skill in use?

The answer is a sad one. A failing reality of our education system is it focuses on memory function rather than core skills, such as problem-solving and decision-making. Our schools crush the curiosity found in every child over the age of three or four. The curiosity is first principles thinking…

First Principles Thinking from a Childs Perspective 

My nephew is five. Like every five-year-old, he questions everything. “Why is it bedtime?” “Because it’s dark and time for you to get some sleep,” replies his dad. “Why does it get dark?” And often this is swiftly followed by “Why do I need to sleep?” My brother-in-law humour’s the questioning to a point, but as with most parents’ his patience soon disappears.  

Like every five-year-old, my nephews’ brain is like a sponge, and he wants to fill it. But, even at such an early age, his mind wants to utterly understand what is in front of him. If the first answer he gets doesn’t make sense to him, he keeps asking why until the explanation is something he understands.

“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

Richard Feynman

First-principles thinking is the way children learn until they reach school age, at which point memorization becomes the dominate way they learn.

Young children have an innate urge to want to understand. It drives their questioning and their thinking beyond just knowing something. They want to fully understand what they see and hear.

Richard Feynman said it best when he said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The simple reason being a child will keep questioning. It is first principles thinking in action.

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The Difference between Knowledge and Understanding

As children at school, and then through college and into working life, we become accustomed to knowing. In some specialist matters, we might undertake the learnings to understand something, but often we don’t.

We become conditioned to accept that if we don’t need to understand something, we can get away with having a level of knowledge. When the world of whatever you’re doing works, it’s okay. Knowledge is sufficient to enable you to keep doing the same thing day after day. But what if something goes wrong, what if it fails, or stops working. Knowledge without understanding is useless.

Knowledge doesn’t enable you to think outside the box.

Understanding does.

Understanding comes through using first principles thinking. Breaking down systems or functions to their parts enables you to develop a granular appreciation of how a system works. By getting to this level, you have grasped the process in its simplest form.

First Principles: Asking Questions as a Child Does

We’ve covered how we see first principles at work in young children. I have also explained why we need to develop an understanding over knowledge. So now, it’s time to look at how we can apply first principles thinking as an adult.

Without re-living your education, it’s hard to break the knowledge – and the assumptions – you’ve made. So, therefore, it’s practical to opt to use first principles thinking in selected situations. A good example is the need to solve problems.

Problem-solving is complex, particularly with difficult problems because our assumptions decide our approach and response. A first-principles approach will look like this:

  1. Break the problem down into its core parts
    • What forms the foundational blocks of the system in operation?
  2. Ask powerful questions to get to the truth of the problem
    • How do the parts fit together?
    • What was the original purpose of the system working in this way?
    • Name and separate your assumptions from the facts
  3. Remind yourself of the goal and create a new solution

A child might steam-roller through these, asking pointed ‘why’ questions at each stage. As an adult, we must apply the same logic to solve the problem at hand. “Why does the system work like this”?

Elon Musk, Space X and First Principles Thinking in Action

If we step back to Elon Musk and his explanation of first principles thinking, we can see this approach in operation. A bold problem such as do we get to Mars opens a vast number of foundational blocks. He would have to hire a rocket from NASA, with the cost – a huge amount. Why were rockets at NASA so expensive?

As Elon quickly discovered, it is because each one has a one-time use. From a commercial point of view, Elon had found a big problem. But it only led to more questions. What are the foundational blocks of a rocket? More importantly, what happens once a rocket has jettisoned its payload?

Ask a NASA scientist, and you’ll get a raft of assumptions about why they can’t return a rocket to earth once it’s finished in space.

It is first principles thinking in action and it is breath-taking. Even more so when you consider Space X has launched 650 satellites into space and is making money doing it. Although Space X hasn’t made it to Mars yet, this demonstration shows the logic of problem-solving using first principles.

Concluding Thoughts

There is a power to first principles thinking which breaks with conventional thinking. It is this step away from knowledge to understanding. The language of assumptions litters our thinking, it limits our decision-making and often stops us from making progress.

It is a behaviour we’re all capable of. We all did it as children, much to our parent’s annoyance. We pushed the limits of our parent’s knowledge and understanding, which sadly ended most of our inquisitiveness.

I see it being a power in decision-making as well. Decisions are all too often made from the assumptions of past behaviour, as we see in our System 1 thinking. The automatic, impulsive act of making decisions comes from an earlier learned experience. And as Daniel Kahneman points out in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, this is a dangerous way to make important decisions. Far better to slow down and use system 2 to think through the choice ahead. Applying first principles thinking will impose a more methodical decision-making process, and that is a good thing.

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decision making process is a series as steps

A Good Decision-Making Process Matters. Here are 5 Steps to Follow

A good decision-making process matters. So much so because a bad decision-making process – as in not having one – is even worse. The downsides open a window to a sky filled with darkness. The error-strewn landscape shows the full impact of allowing our impulsive urges and our misplaced intuition to shape our decisions.

Our primal urge to act quickly in every situation is one which must be overcome. Bad habits fester, growing into the blockers of progress which hold mankind back. The vices of gluttony and sloth come not from spectacular events of horror, but repetitive episodes of impulsive and badly thought through decisions.

To prevent the continued spread of the disease of habitual failure, we need a strong decision-making process. One which supplies a pathway to progress, of a means to fill engaged and forward-thinking, rather than standing still.

A Five Step Decision-Making Process

Five steps form the foundation of a good decision-making process. Here they are: –

  1. Stop
  2. Assess the information you have
  3. Name your Biases
  4. Gain a different Perspective
  5. Decide

Each step offers a means of improving your outcome, and although we can’t eradicate the role of chance, we can take consider its impact.

But first, let’s get into the decision-making process one step at a time.

1.      Stop

If everyone stopped before deciding what to do, things would be vastly different. A pause, a holt, a break, call what you want, but just the act of stopping changes the dynamic of every decision. If you don’t stop, well, you just run into your intuition which may be okay. The chances are though, your intuition won’t have an earlier experience; it will think what has gone before was a good fit, but it won’t be.

Stopping has the power to prevent impulsiveness. It is the circuit breaker to poor decision-making. It also gives you the space to begin to think…

2.      Assess the information you have

So, you have paused deciding what to do next. Now you’re in the right place, you start to assess the information you have about the decision in front of you. Questions prompt you to challenge what you know and most importantly, to find out what you know to be true.

Blinded by the bright lights of information, we often find ourselves dazzled, unable to see the reality of the choice we face. Although it is difficult for us to be objective, it’s crucial to assess the situation by proving the facts to ourselves. We must exclude opinions and emotions to exclusively consider the truth of the decision we are about to make.

3.      Name your Biases

Aside from the facts, cognitive biases feed us an alternative view of the decision we face. Confirmation bias limits our acceptance of the truth. We will seek one piece of confirming information to support our choice, conveniently ignoring all the other evidence to the contrary.

We are all gamblers; biased in favour of potential gains and too accepting of the losses. Such is the impact of loss aversion, another proven cognitive bias. There are many, many others. Too many to mention, but each of them has the potential to steer us away from the correct choice.

By naming your biases, you become aware of them.

Having awareness is a window into the limits of our objectivity. It creates some ability to limit what you see through the dimension breaking lenses of our biases. A lack of awareness is horrifying to the outsider who knows better. Therefore, it is imperative you name your biases. Then you have a chance of defeating them.

4.      Gain a different Perspective

Your decision is still fraught with incorrect influences. Information from sources we trust can turn out to be incorrect, but trust blinds us to the error. We can’t see it. The sequence of fact-checking risks exposure to our biases and further compounds a faulty view of the choice ahead and the outcome on offer.

An unfamiliar perspective can change everything. One of the greatest blindsides of a decision is in the moment. Feelings – both ours and others – provoke an emotional response to the choice ahead.

Our only thought is about how we feel now.

An alternative perspective, whether yours or someone else’s gives you the insights not previously considered. Asking yourself how you might feel about the decision in ten minutes, ten days or ten months can change a lot. Removing emotion, which time does changes beliefs.

Asking someone else is another way of shifting the viewpoint. A friend, mentor, or coach can give insights not visible to us when we’re caught up in the heat of the moment.

5.      Decide

Decisions matter. Deciding what to do is the end of the decision-making process I’ve mapped out here. Having made the effort to stop and assess the information you have, to name your biases so you can limit their impact, and seeking a different perspective you can now make the choice.

Deciding what to do isn’t about saying yes, it’s also having the means to say no. Arming yourself with knowledge offers progress. It empowers you to decide.

Decision-Making Process – a means to behave logically

As an ending, I’m going to offer a warning. It’s a warning of the perils of not using the five steps, of opting to go with one, or two, or even four of the steps to this process.

Typically, we face a multitude of decisions every day. Take the act of crossing a road, a behaviour so simple we don’t stop to even think about it. Our intuition normally takes control, ignoring the known dangers.

Sometimes, we dart across the road impulsively. Chance doesn’t favour us, as the red lorry struggles to stop in the rain, you’ve misjudged the lorry’s speed as it hits you, sending flying to the floor.

But what if we paused; what if we assessed the information to hand? What would we learn? We would see cars, buses, and occasional lorry going about their day. We might also assess the weather, becoming aware of the wet road surface as rain makes the tarmac slippery.

Getting to the second step of the decision-making process alerts to factors ignored in our dash to get to the other side. As we consider naming our biases, loss aversion appears. We forget about the downside of being run over, instead favouring the muffin and the caramel latte calling you from the café across the road. Confirmation bias alerts us to the speed of the car passing in front of us but ignores the red lorry that can’t stop as quickly on the wet surface.

At the third stage, you might still run for it. But what about an alternative perspective? “Should we go now?” You ask your partner. Her view suggests the pedestrian crossing a short walk away.

The outcome

Your decision made at the end of the decision-making process is not to cross the road. Instead, you decide to use the pedestrian crossing and remove the risks found when you assessed the information but also factored in your biases and an unfamiliar perspective.

A simple story, but one which proves the power of using the decision-making process in everyday life can change your outcomes.

It is exactly what a good decision-making process should offer.

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Quick decision making looks like these cars speeding past

Quick Decision Making is Bad for You. Here is Why you Need to Slow Down

Quick decision making is rarely a clever idea unless you’ve received training on how to make quick decisions, then you’ll be okay. Armed with pressure-driven crisis management tools, you’re poised to assess the situation quickly and respond accordingly.

Most of us don’t have the benefit of a teacher to explain the fundamentals of decision-making, let alone quick decision-making. A good school will teach you everything to do with spelling, reading, and experimenting through the wonders of English, Maths, and science, but nothing on how to make decisions.

And that’s bad.

It’s a little sad too because decision making is the most important skill you can have. You should be aware quick decisions normally have a bad outcome unless lady luck is lingering. A quick decision often ignores the situation, instead relying on your intuition to guide you towards your preferred outcome.

Intuition isn’t as good as we believe it to be. You see intuition is a learned response from an earlier experience. Sadly, learned responses only develop through repetition. If the song isn’t stuck on repeat, then you’re unlikely to learn the words. Instead, you’ll choose your own words, you’ll hum, you’ll even mumble your way through.

We do the same with our intuition when it comes to quick decision making. We fudge it, we make an earlier experience fit the new one we’re in. Downsides come thick and fast, and serendipity hasn’t even lent a hand yet.

Forget Quick Decision Making – Slow Down

Direction over speed. When travelling, going in the right direction matters more than the speed you’re going. Going fast in the wrong direction is bad. We’re only travelling to get to a destination.

Making decisions is the same.

A decision made in haste offers little thought to the outcome. It takes no account of the situation we might find ourselves in. Little or no assessment of the facts, all of which matter in every decision. Don’t fool yourself but be aware, no one fools us like us.

Slowing down your decision gives you the platform to assess the situation. You can find out the facts, considers the probable outcomes, and ponder the behaviours of others in the decision you make.

You might consider your emotions and your biases, as you become influenced by the time you’ve spent on the task in hand. Loss aversion, confirmation bias and the sunk cost fallacy are all demons sent to blight our considered choices. You might not see them, but they are there, ever ready to pounce and spoil the outcome.

Without slowing down, you don’t even get the chance to consider the part they might play.

Defeating the Quick Decision

Our habits tend to drive quick decisions; we become accustomed to reacting quickly. A simple example is what time you go to bed. Your binge-watching: the clock on the polished fireplace is creeping ever closer to eleven, but the programme you’re glued too is so good. As the credits start to roll a button appears on the screen, the glowing box a hook to keep you seated for the next episode.

Do you accept it? Or do you stop it and go to bed?

An assessment of the situation might declare to you your eight hours sleep has become seven already, and another hour will make it six hours sleep reducing your time in bed by a quarter.

As you ponder the stark loss of a quarter of your sleep, you become aware of the impact; you’ll be tired, grumpy, and unable to function properly at work. Logically, the answer should be to hit the off button and head for bed.

But logic rarely exists in a quick decision. The choice in the heat of the moment is an easy one, intuition takes over meaning you don’t even have to decide.

You’ll keep going. One more episode won’t hurt, and besides this series is amazing.

To defeat quick decision making isn’t easy. It will require self-awareness of every choice you have to make, and then you’ll need to stop. Take a moment to pause and then begin a new decision-making process.

Bad habits are defined by bad decisions that litter our world like trees in a forest. Like an overplanted woodland, it’s time for some pruning.

It is the first step to getting away from quick decision making.

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A Successful Habit Needs More Than One Decision

It needs a hundred

A successful habit isn’t just one decision, it’s a hundred decisions. A habit is a sequence of repetitive tasks over a period. The writer of Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about building a system, of forgetting the goal; that’s how you build a habit.

James isn’t wrong, but we fail because we don’t grasp that a system, no matter how easy it is to start, still needs a decision. The great fallacy of building habits is the belief that the commitment to the system is one decision.

The One Decision Habit

Most new habits come from a desire to be healthier or wealthier. There is always a goal; an outcome we look to achieve. Don’t delude yourself a habit is anything less than a pathway to achieving this. We create a running habit to become healthier, we set up behaviours to save money for the holiday we want. There is always a goal.

With a goal in place, logically a system is the best way forward. There are good systems and bad systems. Good systems are easy to start, have low barriers to entry and offer the hook of satisfaction at the end, so we can congratulate ourselves for the effort.

Accountability, along with the tease of reward prod and poke us into keeping the habit. We are supposed to become slaves to the process, repeatedly following the system and seeing the gains we make towards our goal.

And still, we fail.

The Reality of a Habit; Another Decision

I start and break habits with jarring frequency. Loathing the fact, I take the warm, pulse calming comfort of the duvet over getting up to go running. I enjoy running; being at one with nature as pound up the path, with the first rays of the morning sun lighting up the route ahead for me. The moment the elements are at their toughest is the moment I feel most alive. When the rain cascades in sheets, soaking me to the skin. With the leaves swirling in the wind, blowing me one way, then the other. These are the moments I run for.  

I love them, but still, I can’t escape the bed.

There was the decision at the beginning, but now I’m having to make another one. I wasn’t prepared for this. My mind is arguing with itself. Why would I want to get up I ask myself? All sense of the goal has gone, all I have is a choice between a warm bed and a chilly morning run. The big picture has left, lost to the more urgent choice of warmth over cold.

A Successful Habit takes a Hundred Decisions

We don’t get our running kit out the night before, leaving it cocooned in its drawer. We ignore the alarm when it interrupts the sun-drenched beach with the waves lapping gently against the shore. Dreams are also more inviting than our current surroundings. We forget the system, stalling on starting. What went wrong? Why did we stop?

At the beginning of every day is a new requirement. A need for commitment, a request to make a new decision. A habit is a pathway to your goal. Don’t kid yourself its anything else. Delivering the goal takes decision after decision.

Success comes from recommitting yourself every day.

The failure to keep a habit stems from this oversight. It doesn’t matter easy it is to start (although it helps), you still have a decision to make.

Habits fail because we don’t prepare ourselves for the hundred decisions ahead. The decision is one where we recommit ourselves to the goal we’re chasing. Renewal brings a fresh commitment; removing the need for smaller decisions which get in the way. In the first stages of habit building, recommitment is vital. Without it, the only decision is a local one. One which ignores the goal.

With time, by repeating the habit over and over, it becomes part of your intuition. The decision is an automated one. Your mind has come to accept the habit as something you do, just like you eat, sleep, ride a bike or drive a car. To make a habit part of your intuitive behaviours you must recommit every single day.

It’s why a successful habit is so much more than one decision.

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A Blaack Swan

Black Swans; The Hard Truth of Life

How seemingly extreme events aren’t the preserve of the global community, but affect us individually

A sharp breath from me was the only outward sign of how tight my wife was hugging me. Our embrace grew closer as my body became tense, neither of us wanting to let go. The clock, with its continuous ticking nudging the second hand onwards, was the only other sound in the hospital ward.

The door swung open, as first a nurse, and then a porter appeared. It was time.

We pulled away from each other, our stares not faltering as we searched for signs of weakness in this final moment. There was time for one last kiss, a final smile from me and a whispered “good luck, I love you” as the porter and nurse took my wife to the operating room.

A squeal from the rubber wheel echoed around the empty room as they departed, leaving me to worry whether this was the last time I might ever see my wife alive.

A Real-life Black Swan

I didn’t know it then, but my wife was experiencing a black swan.

A black swan is a moment in life when the unexpected happens to you. It isn’t bad luck or a freak of nature, but something that affects us all. It is more than an outlier, more than a thousand in one chance that one might befall us.

You see, a black swan is identifiable when it conforms to the following three structures.

  • It’s an outlier
  • It has an extreme impact
  • Humans will make it explainable and predictable

Allow me to expand.

It’s an Outlier

Something happens that’s outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.

Extreme Impact

When this event happens, it has an extreme impact. Whatever it is, it can change your life – or someone else’s.

We will convince ourselves it was a perfectly rational event

Yes, despite the event being an outlier and extreme in its impact, we will concoct a story, an explanation that tells us that we should have seen it coming.


It doesn’t take a lot for my mind to fill with the horrible outcomes I could envision that day. These visions – nightmares – couldn’t hold back the numbness that first stirred in the seat of my pants as it spread, first, down through my legs and then up to my back. I needed to awaken the circulation that had slowed from the hours I had spent sitting.

Up I rose, slowly and without grace, much like someone far more senior in years would. I stretched, reaching up high to the ceiling far above. A sign of the ensuing restoration of circulation was the short stabbing pains, the so-called pins and needles.  

How many hours had my wife been in the operating room now? Three or four hours at least.

Fear once again began to take hold as I guessed the future. What if the surgeon cut her brain stem? She might be stuck or in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. How would we manage, especially with an eighteen-month-old daughter? What if she didn’t wake up after the operation. How I would I cope? How would my daughter cope?

I couldn’t think like this I told myself, as thirst took my attention away from the downward spiral I was on. I hadn’t moved, other than the stretch since my wife went down. I’m sure there was a coffee machine outside. But that would mean moving, and not being there to see my wife after the operation. What if she came back, and I wasn’t here, I would feel terrible?

The thirst won.

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The operation was to correct a hernia in my wife’s head. Her brainstem was compressing the fluid that surrounds the brain, thus giving rise to intense pains. Often, she would pass out, collapsing on the spot. Left untreated, it would eventually kill her.

Not long after the birth of our daughter, my wife became ill. As she describes it, her head would explode in a rush of pain. As quickly as it appeared though, it would disappear. The cause was unclear with my wife believing she had a brain tumour. Our doctor couldn’t hold back the laughter at my wife’s attempted diagnosis.

A second appointment a month later drew a referral to see a neuro consultant.

MRI’s, blood tests, and a lumbar puncture awaited my wife when we visited the neurology department. The first two tests resulted in a rapid visit from a doctor. His warning was a profound one. “You must not have a lumbar puncture. If you’re approached to have one – refuse. It could kill you. The consultant will see you shortly.”

The tests had found something, that was for sure.

Black Swans; The Hard Truth of Life Pinterest Tile

My Wife’s Black Swan

Despite the explanations of the condition and the knowledge it had troubled my wife throughout her life, it was clear to me this was a black swan.

As outliers go, this was one for my wife. What odds would her parents have gotten on her having a brain condition, let alone a rare one? 1 in every 1,000 people have a Chiari Malformation, but most don’t know as they don’t suffer from it. For those who do suffer, the frequency changes to 1 in every 1,667. Compare it to cancer where it is 1 in 3 and you can see how much of an outlier this condition was.

Then there is the extreme impact of the condition. Passing out from the intensity of the pain isn’t something most of us experience. At one point before the operation, this was affecting my wife two or three times a day.

Of course, the crowning glory of a black swan is our ability to make it explainable. In my wife’s mind, the pain from the condition was with her when she was a child. Straining to go to the loo was one such trigger of the explosion of pain, something my wife remembered. She was joining the dots up and explaining her pain and the condition.

Bring these three elements together and you have my wife’s black swan.

Your Black Swan

You won’t know it, but you will have experienced a black swan already in your life. Chances are, you have experienced a few. How many events in your life have been completely outside the realms of your normal life? How many of them led to an extreme impact? Death, a loss of your home, a car accident, or some other life-changing event.

Crucially though, you have a reason.

You’ve got a story that makes sense. Don’t kid yourself, life is far more complex than we understand. We all want to understand. Our imaginations kick into action, stringing together any sort of excuse to enable us to tell others why. It is the narrative fallacy in all its glory.  

‘I don’t know’ might be the most sensible answer, but often, it is the most unaccepted.

Black swans are a part of life. For the control freaks, the super-forecasters, the people who want to make permanent decisions, this is unwelcome news. Just like my wife’s Chiari Malformation, we have no way of foreseeing these events. We must accept the uncertainty.

Twenty years have passed since I sat and waited for my wife to return from the operating room. A thousand lifetimes passed before my eyes, each of them offering a different outcome to the operation my wife was having. The longer I sat there, the worse each version ended. It was a tortuous five hours I will never forget, the pain only ending when the nurse came to get me.

My wife was alive. She was heavily sedated, with morphine numbing the intense pain. A pain so bad, the surgeon would describe as the worst headache anyone would ever experience. She had her black swan and lived.

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Dynamic of decision-making as captured by the city lights

The Easily Forgotten Dynamics of Decision-Making

The 3 dynamics of decision-making to consider when making any decision.

We make decisions all day, every day and often without thought. We think of decisions as a binary choice; of yes or no – and then, we make them quickly.

Sometimes, we pause to consider the consequences. Other times, we jump straight in – to hell with the outcome. Regret and hindsight all kick in when things go wrong. But we rarely pause to try and learn from our mistakes. Blame often falls on the other party, like it’s God’s fault when it rains.

It’s always someone else’s fault.

No longer consumed with hunting to survive, improving occupies our minds. No matter the subject, we want to know more, learn more and be better than before.

When it comes to our decisions, we must open our minds to the process of reflection. Before we can improve our decisions, we must understand the factors within one. I’ve labelled these factors dynamics because they’re not consistent. They change and evolve, complicating every decision we ever make.

What are the dynamics involved in making decisions?

As I said, dynamics are the variable factors that influence every decision we make. And although we nit-pick at the shifting sands of the choices we make, they come down to three factors.

• Information – before we can decide, we need to be aware of the information we have. Where most of us fail is that we don’t question the validity of the information.

What do we know to be true?

Ray Dalio

Ray Dalio features this question a lot in his work and life principles. Applying this question to your information forces you to recognize where it is incomplete – a fact we ignore most of the time.

• Emotion – whether we like it or not, emotion influences our decisions all the time. How we feel changes, often within the blink of an eye.

Being aware of your emotional state is an essential skill in decision-making. Once you have awareness – you have the insight into its impact.

• Chance – Maria Konnikova’s excellent book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win highlights an ugly truth.

Even with the best hand, you can still lose.

Maria konnikova

Accepting what you can control, and what you can’t control is crucial in decision-making. The impact of chance is everything that’s beyond our control. It plays a huge part in the outcome of our decisions. And yet, we blame it when we fail, and we ignore it when it goes for us – claiming the success ourselves.

The Awareness of Choice

Being aware of the three dynamics of decision-making gives a glimpse to the depth behind every choice we ever make. Awareness brings visibility – providing you’re open to it. If you are, well, you’ll start to see how ignorant we are of these factors.

We consider information, but we rarely question the validity of it. We certainly don’t ask ourselves what we know to be true, as Ray suggests. Consider the inverse of this question; what information can’t we be certain of? 

Incomplete information is where our assumptions reign supreme.

How many of us assess the weather by looking outside? We decide what to wear for the day, based on a glimpse of the sky. By not checking the weather forecast we are accepting incomplete information. Think back to the last time you cursed the rain falling from the sky. Did you check the weather forecast?

Of course, emotion plays its part in every decision, and often it’s the emotion of someone else who’s affecting your feelings. Looking back, we have the chance to reflect on our emotions.

Put yourself in the helicopter pilots’ seat as you replay the decision; what can you see?

We can’t forget chance, the bringer of luck and the factors we have no control over. Understanding that chance affects our decisions, and their outcome is hard. Managing risk is something good decisions encapsulate.

Limiting risk is reducing the impact of chance.

As Tim Ferriss says; the chance of being in a road traffic accident is low, but we still wear seatbelts.

Concluding Thoughts

We live with the three dynamics of decision-making all the time, but we are rarely aware of them. Only through awareness of the three dynamics can you reflect on your decisions.

Reflection is the door to learning.

It offers a way for us to assess our decisions. To consider how we react with information – both complete and incomplete. To see our emotions and understand how the emotions of others influence our choices. Luck, chance, call it what you like, it swings with us and against all the time. 

By reflecting on these dynamics, we can learn to make the right choices to manage the impact of them. We mustn’t confuse decisions with outcomes. A good decision won’t always result in a good outcome, but you can minimise the downside.

It is easy to forget these variables, especially when the outcome sucks.

But denial won’t help us. It won’t improve our decisions and it certainly won’t help improve the outcomes we want.

Don’t ignore the dynamics of decision-making.

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Reflection: Helping you Make Better Decisions

The best decision-makers reflect – and so should you.

In this article, I’m going to show you how reflection can you help you make better decisions.

You’ll come to understand the flow of a decision and see how easily decisions change. Reflection will give you the awareness to see this and much more. It will mean stepping outside of your decision and analysing why you made the choice you made, and that’s good.

We succumb to the reward of the outcome and in doing so we tend to ignore all the important parts of a decision.

For example, do you stop and consider the following?

  • The facts
  • The situation
  • Which information is incomplete?
  • Your biases
  • The outcome

Each of these impacts on every decision we ever make. But how often do we stop to consider them before we decide what to do?  I’ll let you ponder the answer to that one.

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Decision Flow

Decisions come at us thick and fast throughout the day. Most of them we make without a second thought. As Daniel Kahneman noted, our system one, our intuition just takes over and we make decisions seamlessly. Well, that’s how it feels.

 What most of us don’t realise is that system one has a presence to think it can decide everything for us. Thus, we find ourselves eating unhealthy food over healthy food, or opting to stay in bed rather than going for a morning run.

System one see’s these decisions and takes the easy path. Food is food – and your hungry – so eat it. It is an intuitive response.

When it comes to more significant choices, system one is scanning our historical decisions to see if it can replicate the choice again. If there is an earlier decision that looks anywhere near similar, then your system one will seize control.

It is a decision flow that happens all the time – and I mean all the time.

Big Decisions

Big decisions – the life-changing decisions are the ones we want to deliberate on. System two as it is known, steps in as we pause, stop, and think through the choices ahead of us.

Even then, the decision is far from simple. Framing, biases, emotion, temporary feelings, and the influence of the situation all impact on what we might decide to do. And that’s before the appearance of lady luck, the mysteries of what others will do and chance.

Decision-making is tough.

And yet, we live or die on the outcome. We become wealthy or we become poor, we get married or we stay single, we buy or a house or we rent, we live to a set of values or we become consigned to mediocrity. Sometimes, a heap of stuff you can’t control happens and you’re left in the position you’re in.

Shit happens.

Despite the stuff you can’t control, there is a ton of stuff you can control. Whether you decide to do something by using your intuition or using deliberation, you have the chance to reflect and learn.

Reflection: Why and How

We all spend time thinking about decisions. We become consumed by the outcome; if it was a good outcome, we’re happy, if not, we’re sad.

Thinking about decisions in this way is terrible.

Reflection is a process of structured thinking to help you analyse your decision. It means being open-minded, honest, and using self-awareness to reflect on your decision-making process, not the decision itself.

As I said, we become occupied with the outcome. We mistake this as a guide in assessing the choice we’re about to make. The harsh reality is that we take the credit for a decision with a positive outcome when chance or luck plays a part. This is a false narrative of which we are the greatest authors.

The process of reflection means we need to ask ourselves some tough questions. These questions evolve from the following decision fundamentals.

  • The facts
  • Situational awareness
  • Incomplete information

The outcome is irrelevant in the reflection process. What matters is what you knew – and didn’t know before you decided on your course of action.

The Facts

What were the facts before you took your decision? Ask yourself what you knew to be true. Don’t sugar-coat it, tell it as it was. What were the facts? Did you, as often happens, assume information as facts when they weren’t.

What filters could apply to prove the facts for next time?

Situational Awareness

What were the circumstances for the decision? Who, if anyone was influencing you? How did you feel about the situation?

Reflecting on the situational awareness means taking looking at the situation from above. Think of yourself as a helicopter pilot, looking at the ground before you. Taking the stance gives a perspective devoid of emotion, it opens you up to your blind spots. The parts of the situation you can’t see when you’re in the thick of it.

Incomplete Information

We receive incomplete information all the time. There is a lot that happens that we don’t know or can’t see. Others might be playing a part in your decision, but you can’t know what they will do and when they might do it.

Reflecting, you should be looking to find this incomplete information. Label it for what it is and learn to use it correctly when deciding what to do.

Pinterest Image

Learning from Reflection

The process of reflection gives you a unique opportunity. To learn, to improve and to adapt your approach to decision-making. By adopting this approach, you are starting to think about how you make decisions.

Without realising it, you’ve put in place an iterative behaviour.

It’s iteration because as this habit becomes more stable, so you’re assessing the decision, not the outcome. Each time, assessing through reflection the steps you took as you made your choice.

This is a logical sequence. It’s also a self-improving sequence that can give you the ability to upgrade your decisions. Of course, life isn’t quite that simple. The myriad of facts, circumstances, and incomplete information makes every decision unique. 

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Temporary feelings sometimes make us angry

How to Stop Making Permanent Decisions with Temporary Feelings

A mental model to rationalize your decision-making

Temporary feelings ebb and flow through our minds all the time. And yet, despite our knowledge of them, we still make bold permanent decisions under their influence. It is a reckless way to decide on what to do.

So, I wanted to frame a couple of ideas that would help manage the risk of making a critical decision, especially when we’re affected by temporary feelings.  

  • A way to manage your temporary feelings better
  • Using a mental model (the 10/10/10) to shift perspective

How we feel changes all the time. In fact, most of our feelings are momentary. Many aspects can affect our feelings; the environment around us, the things that other people do or say, and even the moment we are in.

Let’s think about the title for a second; How to stop making permanent decisions with temporary feelings. Surely it would be better to try and manage our passing thoughts with less emotion, as you’ll see. 

Temporary Feelings – How Anger Rises

Blood surged through my body as my heart rate increased. The adrenaline was doing its job accordingly, as anger triggered my body’s senses to react at what I had just witnessed.

As I approach the traffic lights, so they changed. I almost jumped them but hesitated and decided not to. So, I pulled in next to the tall pole with its box of lights mounted at the top, the red stop light glowing brightly – even in the morning sun.

The two vehicles behind me had other ideas, one a car, and the other a van. Both pulling out to overtake me and speeding on down past the cones that cordoned off the ongoing road works. “What the hell…” I spluttered to myself at the shock at what was taking place.

I was furious, rage and anger rising from within – all because someone else had jumped the lights. Those two drivers had broken the rules, a red light means stop.

I wanted to educate them; I wanted to shout and tell them they had done something dangerous. They could have caused an accident. I could feel the rage growing inside me as I digested what had happened. My momentary anger found its vent; first with me striking the airbag in the middle of the steering wheel, and then again when I found the button for the horn.

A Stoic Approach to Passing Feelings

I’m sure you can relate – the stoics do – as this quote from the daily stoic suggests.

Something may happen today that upsets you. Someone might be rude, your car could break down, an employee might mess something up despite your very careful instructions. Your instinct may be to yell and get angry. It’s natural.

But just because it’s “natural” doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Remember Marcus Aurelius’ observation, “how much more harmful are the consequences of anger…than the circumstances that aroused them in us.”

Yelling might make you feel better for a second, but does it solve the problem? Of course not. Arguing with a rude person only offers them more opportunity to be rude. Getting worked up over car trouble doesn’t fix the car, it just raises your blood pressure. Berating an employee who messed up? Now they’ll either resent you or they’ll be more likely to screw up again in the future because they’re nervous and self-conscious.

Anger only makes things worse. Remember that today.

the daily stoic

My ‘road rage’ highlights the just how impactful, and conversely – short-lived – passing thoughts can be. I couldn’t stop those drivers from doing what they did. So why waste energy on it.

Anger only makes things worse.

The Power of the Pause

I’m constantly reminded of a quote from Stephen Covey.

“In the space between stimulus (what happens) and how we respond, lies our freedom to choose. Ultimately, this power to choose is what defines us as human beings. We may have limited choices, but we can always choose. We can choose our thoughts, emotions, moods, our words, our actions; we can choose our values and live by principles. It is the choice of acting or being acted upon.”

Stephen R. Covey

Use that space wisely. Hopefully, by now I’ve convinced you to separate your decision-making from your emotion. If not, this mental model might make all the difference.

The 10/10/10 mental model decision rule

A mental model is a thought process that can help us with thinking and decision-making. There are many different mental models – mostly designed for making thinking easier.

The 10/10/10 decision rule offers three questions to help give some perspective to the decision your about to make.

Quite simply:

  • How will you feel about this decision in ten minutes?
  • How will you feel about this decision in ten months?
  • How will you feel about this decision in ten years?

Asking yourself these questions offers you the chance to put some distance on the ‘now’. Right now, emotions – both good and bad – will be swirling in your head, creating a fog of temporary feelings.

Let’s consider buying a new car. How would you feel about it in 10 minutes?

  • Excited about having something new and relieved you have now got a reliable car, but what about 10 months from now?
  • How will you feel about the monthly repayments and the effect it is having your disposable income?
  • In 10 years from now, you might not even have the car. You might have sold it, or the re-payments were too much, and you have damaged your credit rating as a result.

When you put an unfamiliar perspective in place, other factors that won’t have entered your mind at the time come into play. You may still decide to buy the car, but it will on the back of a more considered & thought out decision.

Concluding Thoughts

My earlier road rage would have benefited from a pause and the 10/10/10 mental model.

Ten minutes let alone ten months would have shifted my view of the incident completely. I would have realized that I couldn’t undo what had taken place and moved on. Those drivers alone were responsible for their actions – not me.

For me, this is the whole point of using mental models because they give an immediate shift to your point of view. Mental models offer powerful ways of applying well thought out models to our thinking. When it comes to making permanent decisions – the model offers a filter to gain an alternative perspective.

Of course, there are many other types of mental models you could use. Many biases can muddle our thought processes. Our inbuilt aversion to loss – or our views on the sunk cost fallacy all cloud our judgement.

The 10/10/10 rule isn’t perfect. But it is a start to help you make permanent decisions with temporary feelings.

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