Category Archives: Self Improvement

Decision-Making: Deliberation Without Attention

doors-1767562_960_720 decisions

“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” – Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist

People feel much more responsible for their actions than their inactions. Joseph Hallinan says in his book ‘Errornomics – Why We Make Mistakes’ that at the moment you think you’re making a decision, it only seems so. It’s really long after the real decision was actually made.

This is an extract from my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’.

Most days are made up of a series of decisions. Some are like which of three cereals should you have for breakfast or which task to start next. Some decisions might be about buying a house or signing a contract to undergo elective surgery. Maybe you agonise over every decision or just the big ones or none at all? The rest you just go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll regret the decisions you make, or choose not to make, and sometimes you won’t. What’s the smartest way to make decisions or help others make them? It depends on the complexity of the decision.

Ap Dijksterhuis out of the University of Amsterdam conducted several studies on just this subject. However, like many of the researchers I’ve read for this book, they used sentences like, “Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions.” And they’re right but wordy. In my words, it’s hard to think about a bunch of complicated things at once.

You might like to imagine you’re a rational, logical person who’ll weigh up the pro’s and cons of each decision you make, especially the big ones, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. But what Dijksterhuis proved was quite different. He studied consumers and shoppers in lab conditions and in actual sales situations – during and after. The ‘after’ is especially important, as that is when the true quality and impact of a decision hit home.

All participants were facing a purchase decision of varying sizes. Half were interrupted and distracted during their decision-making process. All were subsequently followed up on how they felt about their decision post-purchase. The thinking was that the distraction allowed the unconscious mind, which can handle lots of complexity at once, to process the decision. It hooks into the brains emotional centres. This is where ‘gut feelings’ may come from. Plus emotional responses to the decision choices are pre-rehearsed and emotional responses to each assessed by your brain with you not consciously aware of them.

His findings were that “simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies.”

Conscious thought focuses attention on whatever factors manage to squeeze themselves into our limited conscious mind at the time. That distorts perception and can over-inflate the relative importance of certain factors.

Researcher Loren Nordgren joked about Rene Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” That was all well and good but was he always happy with the shoes he chose to buy? Over-thinking doesn’t make for good decisions when it’s not a simple decision.

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

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.

So, what?

I had it drummed into me and I subsequently preached to those I trained about the commonsense of structured event interviewing as a tool for recruiting. I was schooled on the value of decision matrix spreadsheets when evaluating complex contract tender responses. Does this research mean those formal processes have no value? No. Recruiting and big contracts are expensive and the consequences of mistakes are significant. At the very least, you may need to retrospectively justify your decision. (ie Cover your butt.) I think the lesson of deliberation-without-attention is that it pays to try both approaches. If they don’t match, you might need to do some more research and ask some more questions.

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Give Work The Finger?

2d4d2

One of my earlier books ‘Live Work Love: #Add10QualityYears’ was about adding ten years to your productive life. Expanding lifespans in developed countries are tarnished by the physical diseases and decay of affluence. Retirement for many is becoming a shifting goalpost, a political football or an unwelcome concept from last century. Now seems a great time to write about the topic of stretching out the good and productive years. We’re living longer so we may as well live better and make a few more bucks along the way. Or not – on the bucks front anyways. I’m already reading much about how money, above a certain level, doesn’t make that much difference in terms of quality of life. Though below that level, it will diminish the quantity of life you end up with.

A consistent theme throughout the book is overlapping and inter-connectedness – a systems approach. Certainly, when you get to the sections on our bodies and how our physical systems work (or don’t), this becomes incredibly evident.

This next bit might be more of a laugh than anything factually helpful but it is a conversation starter. I use it when MCing conferences to get a buzz going and the noise and enthusiasm levels up amongst the audience.

John Manning studied the relationship between our finger lengths and certain health outcomes. Look at the photo below of my hand and how I’ve marked the difference in length between my ring finger (4D) and my index finger (2D.) Check out your own 4D:2D ratio. They’ve been the same your whole life and they’re not going to change. It’s supposed that their relative lengths are a consequence of exposure to differing levels of testosterone in the womb as a foetus.

So what? Manning’s study of Liverpool heart attach victims’ fingers found a high ratio (like mine) has a correlation with lower heart attack risk. It’s good for sport. It’s bad for depression. It’s terrible for autism. Manning himself describes his findings as, “Persuasive but not yet definitive.” Why am I even bothering to finish this paragraph? You’re too busy trying to stretch your fingers or finding a friend to check out their fingers before you tell them why…

The point is that, even if this is true, there is nothing you can do about it. These are cards that have been dealt. But, on average, our genetics are only a third of our future. Two thirds are our choices, and we can al do something about that.

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Just A Thought On Thought Leadership

thinker

I recently posted in the professional development LinkedIn group I run (https://www.linkedin.com/groups/4458256) and threw in a phrase that occurred to me in the moment: ‘thought distributor’. Everyone’s a thought ‘leader’ these days and, if everyone is, is anyone really? I was recently pitched some marketing material on how to commoditise and monetise my own thought leadership. Like the nutrition pyramid, there should probably be one for thought leadership; some thoughts have more carbs and less nutrients.

Most days I think I’m pretty great. (Self-employed have to). But there’s enough humility in me most days to keep myself in check. The last time I exhibited true thought leadership was when I upsized my combo and the three people in line behind me did the same. BUT I aspire to work my way up that thought pyramid and in my work help others do the same. SO, rather than hubristically (not a word) declare myself a thought leader, I’ll settle for now as a ‘thought distributor’, ‘thought curator’, ‘thought tester’, and ‘thought connector’.

Just a thought. www.brainbasedboss.com

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Why Does Going Home Seem Faster?

home

This article goes into an experiment by Ryosuke Ozawa and other scientists from Kyoto University who found that subjects perceived a journey from A to B as seeming longer than B to A. In this case, ‘A’ is home.

You can read the article yourself but first I’ll quickly summarise the possible reasons why, then I’ll suggest how we might use this finding on ourselves and those we lead or influence in order to nudge ourselves into more positive mindsets and better results – or, at least, results about which we might feel better.

The first reason centres around familiarity. The bits of our brain that were on duty back in caveman times (caveperson) were really attuned to not getting eaten by predators. Back then the food chain wasn’t just an abstract concept to humans. Something new was noticed and time and energy in the brain given to assessing it. Could it eat us? Could we eat it? Could I start a family with it or at leats give it a go? That’s about it. It’s that time and energy given by the brain to the unfamiliar that may generate a perception of longer time. Similarly, under stress oneof the physical effects you may not have noticed is the dilation of the eyes’ pupils. This is let in more light so we can react more quickly in a fight or flight situation, doing punches ‘Matrix’-style. I guess we’ve evolved from successful fighters. With stress memories seen through dilated pupils, those memories seem bigger and slower than actual reality. Interviews with victims of armed robberies regularly report the robbers as being significantly bigger than they actually were.

For those journeys away to unfamiliar places, perhaps for an event that might stress us like a new client, job interview, presentation, etc, we may well perceive as longer due to the strangeness / unfamiliarity. Returning home, the stress is less and there is at least one previous experience of the route.

A morale for this story – if you’re trying to be creative or inspire someone, take them for a walk away from the familiar workplace. I’m not suggesting you drive them into the woods at midnight – just hit up a different cafe from the usual watering hole.

“OUR BRAINS KEEP TRACK OF TIME USING VERY DISTINCT SYSTEMS”. – Dan Zakay

The second reason was overestimation / overconfidence. Before the first journey is taken, most people usually underestimate how long it will take. On the return, we over-correct and over-estimate so relative to our 2nd guess, it seems quicker. Disneyland and such themeparks regularly use this effect for queue management. A sign may suggest this point has a 45-minute waiting time whereas it’s only 20 so when you fly through in 20-25, it seems quicker. (Either way you’re probably buying an over-priced soda on the way).

The third reason was a contrast between worring or anticipating about the purpose of the trip and generally positive feelings about home after some sense of completion. Other research has shown that time does fly when you’re having fun and drags during calculus class (or whatever your ‘calculus class’ was). Also, time flies, at least in your brain, just after you’ve had fun.

So, leaving aside driving to places for gigs, interviews, etc, in what situations might the ‘return-trip effect’ be useful to us developing more positive mindsets and better results?

If you’re planning a project, you need to programme in some last steps to ‘return home’ – to compare and appreciate how far you’ve come. If you’re in a relationship and blocking out date nights, don’t stick to the same safe favourite place. Mix it up. If you do the regular family holiday, consider the pro’s and cons of always going to the same place. Cost-aside, the brains of your family will remember more positively and for longer the unfamiliar. Ironically the word familiar, of course, is derived from family.

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Self-Discipline: How To Refill Your Willpower Tank

brain gym

You’ve only got so much self control; Don’t waste it!

This article in ‘Psychology Today’ by Susan Krauss reports on Roy Baumeister’s work about how our self control can be sapped through overuse.

Personally, I’ve always had a mental model of willpower / self discipline / self control as a muscle that you could exercise and get to grow stronger. It turns out to actually be a tank that gets emptied but can be refilled and we can rely on random chance to do it for us, or be proactive and consciously and deliberately take actions that refill our willpower tank.

Oddly, the only thing proven to do so is consumption of small amounts of actual sugar. As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as rational creatures who, through strength of character, can be better people, maybe our natural level of self control is set through natural random chemical chance? It’s like those old Donald Duck cartoons where he’s in a dilemma and on one shoulder a little duck angel appears and on his other shoulder appears a little duck devil who argue it out into each of his ears. This ‘strength’ or ‘ego depletion’ theory implies that the angel gets weary and the devil gets his way until the angel rests up. And the best advice is to slip the angel a barley sugar or a powerade like it’s on a triathalon.

Krauss argues, and I agree, that if the model is that of a muscle that gets tired, then maybe the same progressive development can be applied to our willpower muscle that bodybuilders apply to their actual muscles. Keep working it out and it’ll get stronger over time but you need to keep increasing the weight / temptation to build it up. No pain; no gain.

No weight trainer or body builder says, “I’m going to curl this 20kg with my bicep forever,” yet you’re supposed to say, “I’m never going to have chocolate cake ever again.” That seems unrealistic, demoralising and potentially counterproductive. Weight trainers say, “I’m going to curl this 20kg weight 8-12 times or until I can’t, then rest, then do that set two more times. After time, that’ll get easier and I’ll increase the weight.” I don’t know what the cake equivalent is but it isn’t, “None ever again.” Work up to it.

Employers probably aren’t directly interested in employees’ cake avoidance or body building abilities but willpower / self control is likely a contributor to perseverance and grit which, as I write about frequently, are the most common precursors to success at work (or anywhere else for that matter.) So, if you’re leading someone at work who gives up, can’t focus for long enough or is constantly engaging in temptations that are distracting them from activities that should be adding value to their work and their lives, what can you do?

Well, if we’re stick to our weight training metaphor, you become their personal trainer. Not one of those old school cliche ‘Drill Sergeant’ types who shout, “You’re worthless and weak!! Give me twenty!!” Set challenging but realistic micro-goals that progressively build towards the desired target. Each success builds on itself, they’re more likely to buy-in to it and participate and, ultimately, you and they are more likely to achieve the end goal. But even the fluffiest of personal trainers aren’t pushovers. They don’t accept excuses and they demand honesty and effort.

And the irony is, given that sugar refuels our willpower tank, even if you do eat the cake, you may regret it but you’re less likely to eat more cake. So, in a tenuous way, you can have your cake and eat it too. Try a handful of dried cranberries. They’re the supposed ‘Superfruit.’ You never hear of ‘Supercake.’ (If you have heard of ‘Supercake’, please do let me know…)

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How Open-Minded Are You?

Minds are like parachutes

This blogpost might be challenging for some. It was for me. I like to think of myself as open-minded. (Actually, I just like to think of myself generally. But that’s something else I need to work on). But am I really that open-minded? How would I know? Is there a scale of 1 to 10 upon which I’m a 7?

Psychologist Carol Dweck led the way with research on fixed versus growth mindsets. Crudely and sweepingly summarised, there are two types of default thinking positions and if you don’t effortfully choose one, you likely have a default. The post explains more. I especially like point 2 – when you meet an idea, do you start in response with statements or questions? That was something of a relief to me as three of my five sentences in paragraph one were questions.

There’s a quote that the ability to change your mind is a superpower and another that the true test of intelligence is the ability to have two opposed ideas in your mind and retain the ability to function. If I’m having a good day after a good sleep and have eaten wisely without deadlines yelling at me, then I’m in a resourceful state and I’m certain I could manage that. Other days not so much. It’s the other days that can cause us and our people some problems. It’s for those other days that wee need to prep and practice so when it gets tough, our open-mindedness keeps goings.

Do read the article but if you’re having a low resourcefulness day, here’s 7 quick questions to assess yourself against:

  1. How do you respond when your ideas are challenged? (My new thing is ABC – always be curious – WHY are they challenging them?)
  2. Are your first responses statements or questions?
  3. Do you seek first to be understood or to understand?
  4. Do you use the phrase, “I might be wrong but…”
  5. How often do you interrupt?
  6. Can you simultaneously hold opposed ideas?
  7. How much effort do you put into testing your own views? Do you deliberately seek evidence to the contrary?

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Career 2.0

volcano lightning

Taking photos of volcanos in action must be scary. That’s probably part of why they do it. Changing careers for many of us might be the scariest thing we ever do, or, more likely, contemplate doing but never actually do.

I threw myself into the internet to glean a bit of inspiration for this post. Not literally, we can’t actually throw ourselves into the internet… yet. Online research is fine but some sort of Tron-like immersion within the ethereal plains of the worldwide web seems impractical and risk-prone. If you think you have a problem now spending a lot of time ON the internet, just wait until you can spend a lot of time IN the internet.

I found one article about career transition and it used the metaphor of the software upgrade: Career 2.0. I think that’s part of the problem. Going from career 1.0 to 2.0 is blunt and quite a leap. Why not take an incremental leaf from Apple’s upgrade strategy and have career 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc rather than one substantive chasm-leaping transition straight to 2.0 when it’s thrust upon you? I know it’s a freakin’ pain every three days when those upgrade messages splash themselves across your screen or interrupt your other activities. Maybe this software upgrade imagery doesn’t stretch too far with career upgrades? For a start software can “live in the cloud,” whereas your job cannot. That said, I do have a guy on fiverr.com who does all my illustrations for me.

The term seems to have a bit of baggage and mixed perceptions too. One Forbes article seemed in favour of transitioning to something more in line with your values after slaving away for a while, having built up your CV, garnered some experience and contacts, and built up some reserves just in case it all goes south. (I don’t know why “in case it all goes south” is an expression for something going horribly wrong? I’m from the south. It’s awesome. If you want horrible, I’d go west). With a positive outlook, Forbes proffered some tips that I’ll share shortly.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR), on the other hand, took a dim view of career transitions. Their first article was about having to explain it when someone called you out on it, as if it would be an embarrassing blip. I know we could all use some tips on explaining gaps in the timelines of our CVs when potential employers ask about our unrevealed years in prison or that time we faked our own death. Any employer who claims to want to employ someone with problem solving skills, initiative and learning flexibility should realise that career transitioning is an absolute finishing school for that sort of thing. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about this, unless you ever get interviewed for a job as a reporter for the Harvard Business Review, in which case, you have been warned.

Let’s get back to those tips from Forbes. If anyone knows about career transition tips for mere employees, it’s the media outlet that relies on their listings of the 500 richest people on the planet in the same voyeuristic way that Sports Illustrated relies on their swimsuit issue. Now, I was primarily drawn to the Forbes article as their first example was that of a Navy Captain who became a circus manager. Possibly not that much of a lateral shift but definitely the adult version of running away to join the circus. Their key tips: know the underlying reason why, get fit, do it in stages, find a mentor, prepare for setbacks, volunteer or moonlight first, have some ‘rainy day’ money set aside, and do something every day to move towards what you’re after.

I MC’d an HR conference a while back where one of the speakers demonstrated a very useful technique I’ll call ‘Timelining’. You scribble an X/Y axis on a sheet of landscape paper – the bigger the better. The horizontal axis (X – c’mon team) is time, so mark out the years of your career. The vertical axis (Y) is satisfaction on a scale you’ll have to imagine yourself. You then mark out the various highs and lows and milestones on three timelines – career, personal and relationships. The second part is self-analysis – when were the sweet spots of mutually-intersecting highs and, vice versa, the lows? Then you ask yourself for both, why, what was happening in each type of scenario? I was coaching a forty year old man once with this activity and he had the epiphany that he hated working indoors. It had never occurred to him, then he transitioned on a dime and now he never met a grapevine he didn’t like. It’s a great technique – google a book called ‘Taking Charge’ by Chris Johnson.

I’m not going to completely dismiss HBR’s advice. How can I ignore phrases like “compelling narrative” or “professional reinventors”? If working for a living doesn’t pan out for me and I end up a crazy old guy in a shed, I’ll be an inventor working on my compelling narrative. And a time machine.

 

Debriefing: A Powerful Problem-Solving Tool (For the Whole Family)

debrief

This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach FAD, repeated over and over:

  1. Frame the activity
  2. Activity
  3. Debrief the activity

I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently  summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory Sunday night family dinners.

To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…

The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:

  1. Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
  2. Create a learning environment
  3. Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing?
  4. Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)

 

Mindset

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Here’s my latest podcast – this one on the subject of mindset. A quick 5-minute summary of some of the research around this and how it can affect / constrain / direct our decisions and behaviour (and the decisions and behaviour of the people we lead.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feedback: The Comedy Lab Experience

labI blog about engaging people – employees, customers, people generally. One major tool for achieving that is feedback, in the broadest sense of the word. I also have a bit of a sideline as a stand-up comedian. I have a show in the comedy festival coming up in May. As part of that, the festival folk run a series of shows beforehand as mini preview workshops. It’s a weird and surreal experience as a performer. Performing stand-up isn’t that normal generally but this is really putting ourselves out there.

The format has an MC who’s more of a facilitator. The ticket is free and the show is advertised as what it is – not a normal show. The crowd on my night was a whole lot of people who seemed to really know their comedy as consumers or fans or officionados. They were a good test crowd generally. They laughed if they thought it was funny and they didn’t if they didn’t. Which is what you want as a performer trying out stuff en masse for the first time. Each performer did 15 minutes then sat on a chair on stage for 10 minutes while the MC facilitated out questions to the audience. I’ve been doing comedy for 10+ years and I regret not having an experience like this sooner – undiluted, instant, specific reactions. Plus a fair few new ideas to build the content.

I thought it might be a good blog topic as I walked away, abuzz to get writing and re-writing the comedy but with a parallel thought as to how much this would be a useful idea to anyone in any kind of job. Plumbers, salespeople, neuro-surgeons (they don’t like being called ‘brain surgeons.’ You know what they say about brain surgery? It’s not neuro-surgery!)

The very next day I was running a training workshop (or as I like to call them, a ‘learning workshop. It was on communication for a team of sales reps for a wine brand. I told them the comedy lab story and they took it on board and put it in play for their own workshop.

It really worked.

Maybe ask yourself, how can you set up an environment at your workplace for newbies or not-so-newbies to bolster their ‘performance’ and hone their ‘material’ in a safe but constructively challenging way?

 

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