Mental Shortcuts In Our Decision-Making

fat burger

Mental ‘ticks’.

Our brains are really into shortcuts, especially when it comes to making decisions like what to eat and whom to trust.

Subway displays and promotes detailed nutritional information. This is to their credit and for this they wear a ‘health halo.’ A study by Brian Wansink assessed the recall of Subway customers versus McDonalds customers on nutritional information and their perceptions of how much they’d eaten, then compared their perception to how much they’d actually eaten.

3x as many Subway customers recalled seeing nutritional information but only a tiny fraction could recall specifics. All they remembered was that Subway displayed it. People tend to remember and perceive such things as black and white. It’s either healthy or it is not. Our brains aren’t into ‘less bad’: Subway’s display of nutritional information gives them a psychic tick and once there, most people order whatever they want cart blanche because ‘everything’ gets the mental tick.

Tom Hanks has done some lame movies but I will watch every Tom Hanks movie.

At work, what shortcuts do you or your people have that enable tick-shortcuts in their decisions? How valid are they? Even if they were once on-point, are they still? How defensible are they?

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Pull The Trigger On Change

tiny habits

How can we enhance our #personalproductivity, an essential skill in uncertain & volatile economic times? One approach is to deliberately develop your #selfdiscipline ‘muscles’ with selective ‘triggers’.

We act on triggers all the time already. We see a red dot with a number on our email app icon and we check our email. Someone reaches out their hand and we do too to shake. It’s conditioning & could be voluntary or imposed, accidental or deliberate, personal or societal, helpful or hindering (particularly that email trigger!).

To be more effective, we need more of the voluntary, deliberate, personal, & helpful.

We need to start small, in the target zone in the diagram below – barely outside our comfort zone where it’s not quite easy & we’re barely motivated enough. Through practice & repetition, the behaviour becomes embedded.

There’s obviously a lot more to it, too much for a LinkedIn post. But the ‘When I –> Then I’ll…’ technique has certainly helped my #personaleffectiveness, especially when I piggyback desired new behaviours onto existing ones that are already embedded.

Learn more from my books at terrywilliamsbooks dot com

To be or not to be (Authentic, that is)

staring at film

Not too long ago, I scored 3 significant (by my standards) business opportunities in quick succession. In conversation with all 3 of those clients, it arose that part of their assessment of me was checking me out online, particularly LinkedIn.

As they mentioned this, the film editor part of my brain was frantically reviewing clips of the stuff I’ve posted that might not portray me in a super businessy light. For example, using the word “businessy”.

I asked if my writing and speaking about business, work, and leadership through a humour lens put them off. They said no, quite the opposite, it helped make complex and challenging info more accessible, and particularly now at a time when a lot of people could really use some lightening up, it set a positive tone.

So, I chose to accept feedback that what I was doing was working. I do pause to reflect on my bias here. I don’t and won’t hear from potential clients who ARE put off by it. I’m not going to change and I probably wouldn’t enjoy working with such folk (nor they me) but I might if it meant tripling my income.

How rigorously do you edit your online activity in terms of how it might attract or repel clients to your personal style? #authenticity #networking

Creativity: Repurposing existing ideas

When opinions differ i always refuse to agree to disagree 2

There’s an unprecedented use of the term ‘unprecedented’ to describe these times we’re in.

It would be cool if we could magic up some new ideas. I’ve been delivering a virtual presentations in recent months around re-purposing existing ideas. I delivered it yesterday and people found it useful. Kind of a kiwi number-8 wire vibe but with ideas not just physical resources. Think McGyver.

For example, a company whose business was providing partitions for events no longer has events. They now use those same partitions for retailers wanting to support the separation of staff and customers. Old idea + new application = neat.

However, we shouldn’t abandon efforts to come up with new ideas but a lot of people say of themselves, “Oh but I’m not creative”. Even creative people aren’t creative ALL THE TIME so they come up with mechanisms to generate creativity until the inspiration pixies get back from their break.

I recommend Edward DeBono’s book ‘Serious Creativity’. He basically skimmed the world of joke writers etc, then created academic models & processes to apply to production, marketing, etc. Force-fitting 2 unconnected concepts is one such technique (as illustrated in the joke pic above).

innovation creativeproblemsolving creativethinking

Compared To What?

steven adams resort

I try to be a professional speaker but I’m bush-league compared to this guy.

Kiwi NBA star Steven Adams when asked how he’s coping with life in the NBA bubble: “Let’s be clear, mate. This is not Syria, mate. It’s not that hard…We’re living in a bloody resort.”

Perceptual contrast is an effect with which we’re all familiar. What we’re feeling right now is greatly impacted by what we were feeling immediately prior. Walk from the cold outside into a cool room and it’s ‘warm’ to you. Had you walked from a sauna into that same room, it would be ‘cold’ to you.

Adams isn’t comparing his current situation to his recent sport-celebrity ones; he’s comparing them to perhaps his own no-frills life growing up, or looking beyond himself, reading the room and comparing to many lives doing it hard.

A useful question in many workplace conversations is some form of, “Compared to what”?


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Put Your Willpower Where Your Goals Are

dont feel like it

To succeed at self-discipline, you must observe yourself and discover where you fail. Kelly McGonigal says we need to learn to “observe ourselves with curiosity, not judgement”. A lot of her students are trying to quit smoking, lose weight, save money, and achieve many of the things we all sometimes struggle with – thanks to willpower scarcity.

Roy Baumeister moots self-control as a metaphorical muscle that we can exercise and strengthen. Matthew Gaillot sees it as energy management. There’s only so much willpower to go around. Wang and Dvorak suggest that our brains treat energy like banks treat money. They’ll let us have it for things we don’t really need, but when we really need it they hang onto it for themselves.

We have plenty of self-control until we need it. Use it on something meaningless and there won’t be enough left when you really need it. If you’re forcing yourself to avoid chocolate all day, don’t be surprised when you scream at your kids after work with less provocation than usual. It’s a scarce resource – put your willpower where your goals are.

#accountability #selfdiscipline #results #focus



People shouldn’t label themselves as ‘failures’. Failing is a behaviour and there are different kinds. I’m starting to use the term ‘failer’ (TM):

Someone, with improvement as their purpose, deliberately operating at the edge of their ability which inevitably leads to learning opportunities.

If we don’t do the learning bit, then we can give ourselves a judgey label. Perhaps, ‘doofus’?

This comment started as a joke comment on a FaceBook post but I liked where it went, and thought to myself, “This is going straight to the pool room. ( I mean, my blog…)”

#failing #failure #learning #personaldevelopment #continuousimprovement

Interpreting & adapting to unexpected events (Making your own luck)

good luck

I was driving. Phone rang. Luckily a carpark magically appeared.

3 weeks ago, I’d answered a call. It was a request to run a personalised workshop, an unusal one, one I might not normally have taken on. No content. Nothing off the shelf. Just me & whatever was in my brain, alongside 2 biz owners with an idea & questions. What the heck, who knows, I’m curious, let’s do it.

That gig was Wednesday. It had been fun, interesting, well-received & seemed to help.

The call I took in the car was from the same person who’d booked me. Effusive praise, another booking, plus synergy opportunities that had never occurred to me. Hey, I’ll pretend not to care what people say about me as much as the next middle-aged dude but that was unexpected & cool, especially so given my respect for the booker’s opinion.

Lucky I took the call. A left message might’ve skimped on the kudos. Lucky I accepted the initial offer. Lucky that carpark magically appeared. To a large degree, we make our own luck.

Much of success comes from interpreting & adapting to unexpected events. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

What do you DO to generate luck? How do you take control of interpreting the luck that falls in your lap?

#success #hustle #learnedoptimism #mindset #positivethinking


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School of hard knocks


One of my all-time favourite comedy shows was Blackadder.  In the third series, the cynical butler played by Rowan Atkinson enviously lamented to the lowly Baldrick how poorly his life had turned out in comparison to the luxury enjoyed by his ‘bit of a thickee’ master Prince George.  On the subject of education, Blackadder remarked that he was “a graduate of the University of Life, the School of Hard Knocks and the Kindergarten of Getting the Shit Kicked out of me.”  (Kids today love Blackadder too, although they must get confused to see Prince George is actually Doctor House and Professor Johnson who wrote the dictionary is actually Hagrid from Harry Potter.)  I choose to interpret Blackadder’s comments as a commonly held belief that formal education and qualifications are but one small plank in the platform of lifelong learning that should support us in our career and other aspirations.  Indeed, isn’t the primary aim of the NZQA to give recognition to people who have learned from the school of hard knocks?  Perhaps I over-simplify?  I was after all educated during the era of School Certificate.

Any employer going through a recruitment process has some form of checklist of what they’re looking for – a list of skills, competencies, experience or whatever.  Applicants need to be able to do X and they need to be able to do Y.  It may be true that they need to be able to do X and Y today but there is no guarantee that X and Y will be relevant or even exist in five years’ time.  The top item on that recruitment shopping list of skills should be the skill to develop new skills.  Many of us would have received that homemade PowerPoint email doing the rounds with the goose-bumpy overly-dramatic orchestral soundtrack stressing the increase in the rate of change and the impact on learning.  True or not, or to whatever extent exaggerated, it was quite a provocative little number.  Is it true that the annual number of PhD graduates in China exceeds New Zealand’s entire population?  Is it true that halfway through the third year of a four year engineering degree that half of what you learned in your first year is now obsolete?  Is it true that two thirds of the children starting school this year will finish school in the not-too-distant future and begin a type of job that doesn’t even exist today?

Assuming even a skerrick of truth in the above predictions, it would seem that if employers were genuinely looking at capability development and productivity improvement that they should look at not only hiring people with a proven track record of learning ability but to also strengthen that skill in their existing people.  We should help our people learn how to learn more efficiently and effectively.  We all learn all the time but we’re mostly a bit random.  For example, today I learned the word “skerrick”:

sker·rick   / Pronunciation[sker-ik]

–noun Australian. A small piece or quantity; a bit: Not even a skerrick of cake was left.

Many employers have a policy or several when it comes to supporting study.  Give us a receipt and a certificate to show you passed and if we consider it to be directly work-related then we’ll reimburse you for the tuition but not the books.  That sort of thing.  Sounds fair but I take issue with the “work-related” bit.  It’s very short-sighted to hire a widget-polisher and train them only in widget polishing.  What about creative thinking to stimulate widget innovation?  What about conflict resolution to encourage less disruption on the polishing line?  What about problem solving and the raft of other skills that a myopic bean-counter might not consider to be directly work-related?  What if widgets are replaced by a new piece of functionality in the 2009 i-Pod?

It’s encouraging to sit in a primary school classroom today and see evidence that not only are kids being taught content; they’re being taught how to optimise their own ability to learn.  From the biomechanical healthy snacking and rehydration to wall charts displaying DeBono’s six thinking hats, kids are getting some useful tools to set them up for the rest of their lives beyond school.  There’s a large mass of older people who either don’t know or care that their thinking is being impaired by their lack of water drinking.

I’m cautiously encouraged by the practice (or prospect) of Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) working with schools.  If any groups should have their fingers on the pulse of trends in society’s changing skill requirements it should be ITOs and they would be best positioned to tool up schools on what skills are currently required or are going to be.  If nothing else, it might lessen the number of lawyers and accountants in society and this can only be a good thing.  I’m constantly staggered that I can’t get a decent plumber for a reasonable price but if I throw a stone into a crowd I’m bound to hit at least two lawyers.  Now, there’s a thought.


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How Can You Help Your People Make Better Decisions?


You don’t need to carbo-load to make better decisions, try distraction to leverage the power of your much wiser unconscious self.

A study by Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs out of the University of Amsterdam cleverly reveals how thinking too much and poring for ages over the logical list of pro’s and cons you’ve made about that big decision you have to make can actually cause a much lower quality outcome. (Which is bad if you’re choosing a new toaster but terrible if it’s a new car, employee or husband / wife.) This particular study focuses on creativity and originality but Dijksterhuis has another study more specifically about making decisions – examining the ‘deliberation without attention’ hypothesis.

I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.

Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and , down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.

If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.

My shorthand version of a useful process is:
1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options if they exist yet
2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity*.
3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.
4. Live with it.

* By distraction activity, they’re not talking about painting the beach house or enlisting in the foreign legion (although if that whole husband / wife thing didn’t work out, it’s always an option.) No, it’s something simple. Their test involved having subjects follow a dot on a screen for three minutes. Thus they had to focus and actively concentrate on something unrelated to the problem for only a short period but nonetheless long enough to get the loud conscious mind to shut the hell up for while. I’ve started testing one that doesn’t need any capital investment in screens which seems like a hassle in the real world outside university studies. Try counting to 100 three numbers at a time, reversing the order of every second set of three numbers. Even the instructions are quite distracting! It’s simple really though but it does clear the mind of anything else, especially that pesky problem. 1,2,3,6,5,4,7,8,9,12,11,10 etc. (Don’t write them down. You’re supposed to to do it in your head. That’s the point – distracting focus.)

Despite the best efforts of everyone I know to recommend i-Phone game apps to me, I have only one – Word Warp. Six random letters appear and I need to make as many words out of those six letters as I can in six minutes, scoring points, but I lose out entirely and revert to zero if I fail to make at least one six letter word in that two minutes. There is, of course, a ticking clock in the background that cranks it up in the last ten seconds. I’ll play the game on flights when the person next to me I’ve been chatting to decides to fake sleep. Sometimes I’ll get interrupted during a two minute spell to reject the offer of airline food. I’m always astonished at my much improved performance upon my return to the game. Our much smarter unconscious selves get into gear once they’re allowed to, thanks to the distraction.

We can’t have a flight attendant distracting us all the time, at just the right moment to allow our minds to process decisions, utilising deliberation without attention. (Except JetStar, I think they’ll do that.) We need to manage our decision processes at work and those of our people to, not just allow, but insist upon, a managed period of controlled distraction. You’re paying the wages of their unconscious minds; they may as well get put to work too.

In case you’re wondering (and we should spend a lot of our time wondering, don’t you think…) what the pasta image has to do with anything, here’s what. The creativity study tested the subjects by getting them to think up names to for new types of pasta. If it ended in the letter ‘i’, suggestions were deemed to be uncreative. I have a similar rule when it comes to attending operas – I’ll only attend an opera whose composer has a surname ending in a vowel, and sometimes Tchaikovsky .


Oct 15 in Auckland and Oct 16 in Christchurch, I’m co-facilitating Accountability Builder workshops.

Linked to the best-selling book ‘The Oz Principle’ this powerful, practical, and simple methodology will promote and build accountability for achieving results within you and your teams.

Sounds good? Is good! Check the link for details.

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