Feelings of doubt are natural when making decisions with uncertain outcomes. Here is a super-simple filter to introduce into your thought process that might catapult you to a previously unimaginable life.
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Fight, Flight, Freeze
The Pivot – be the Warrior Monk
Why does this Trick Work?
1234Chronic Low Stress
Tips for Action
1234Pay-as-You-Go to the Rescue
Information, then Decisions [top]
You too will have been in situations where you either have to choose to do something new or to make a choice between two or more options or to entirely stop doing something that you have been doing.
Almost 5 years ago, I spoke to you about Information and Your Happiness. Information is the input. On a regular basis, faced with a situation, based on some information that you have, you have to make a decision. Today’s simple practical pivot for decision-making is easy to implement and can help you make significant changes to your future.
Safety Warning: please don’t use this for decisions that affect the lives of others significantly e.g., deciding to get married, or having a child, or getting a puppy. Although I can help you think through those, and this tool has its use in those, I want you to restrict the use of this tool for situations that won’t bind you to another life (along with the related responsibilities) for a non-trivial duration of time.
Examples in Your Life [top]
You know you should be going to bed earlier. You know that you should be eating clean instead of junk and minimizing or eliminating animal products and alcohol from your diet. You would like to spend less time on social media. You know you would feel good if you got more exercise. That Netflix subscription is doing more harm than good as you are watching quite a bit more than a dose ‘just to unwind’ that was your justification for getting the subscription in the first place. There is also that hobby you wanted to get back to in addition to some meditation and reading.
On top of all that you know you would like to do during your waking hours, there is the thick layer of the outside world that typically makes the time-effort-management problem tougher by demanding your attention. Your boss, extended family, your various social circles.
So, how can you take that constructive first step down a better path?
The Root of the Problem [top]
Humans are not the rational calculating machines that classical economists have assumed in order to write academic papers, many of dubious practical value because of their flawed assumption.
Even those with an MBA and an ability to correctly solve a decision science problem in a theory exam, then struggle and make the wrong choice when presented with a situation in real life. Not just MBAs of course, we all experience this phenomenon. Think about the number of cardiologists who don’t eat healthily and don’t exercise! [pssst… if you are a busy cardiologist or some other type of sickcare professional and would like to learn how to tweak your life in a practical manner to get better health for yourself, do get in touch]
Your inability to make optimal decisions at a practical level can be because of a whole host of cognitive biases. Here is a pretty exhaustive list of cognitive biases. I won’t make you swim in that ocean today. My goal is to give you a handy sharp knife that I created and guide you on its use.
THE SOLUTION [top]
I have practical solutions to most decision problems you might face. Today, I present a simple filter, a question, a mental check that needs you to invest just a few seconds and you could nudge yourself in a better direction in terms of action.
Fight, Flight, Freeze [top]
Fight, flight, freeze. Typically, you do not think of the vast majority of situations in your waking hours as being extreme so as to make you consciously consider these as your options. Although you’re not in a state of chronic high stress that might make you fight, flee or freeze, at a practical level you are still doing that. You do fight (and go ahead with the challenge of change or a new project) or flee (walk away from possibilities of growth because of the pain that accompanies it) or freeze (procrastinate with making a change or continue with your current choices).
Although these situations that crop up in your safe life are not like facing a wild hungry tiger, observing that such a label is possible allows us to think about how to deal with decisions.
The Axis [top]
From an evolutionary perspective, we are primed to spot and respond to the slightest sign of danger. You will be good at dealing with the types of dangers your prehistoric ancestors faced – the sight of a rock falling from above, the sound of an animal growling, a rustle in the bushes, days without food. [For some fun, see The Indian Jackie Chan]
Our socio-economic lives have changed very fast, especially in the last 100 years, but we haven’t evolved biologically to deal with the new types of situations (simple examples? electricity and bright light after sunset, 24×7 access to food, air-conditioning, cars, elevators and escalators!).
It is important that you fear dangers. It is important that you are aware of your weaknesses. It is important that you have the courage to fight. It is important that you have the strength to deal with the obstacle that needs moving or walking around.
But how could you use these 4 possible states to your advantage with optimal decision making?
First, think of a Courage-Strength vs Fear-Weakness axis. Both courage and strength being on one side of that axis. And, fear and weakness on the other side. Visualized that? Next, the ‘trick’.
The Pivot – Be the Warrior Monk [top]
All my ‘trick’ involves is asking yourself the following question: “Am I making this decision from a position of courage and strength or from a position of fear and weakness?” If the answer is “fear and (or) weakness”, simply switch to the other side, courage and strength, and then think through your decision again. Think with the wisdom of a monk.
I say “with the wisdom of a monk” because it is important to be wise when using the trick. We all have friends who foolishly turn around and fight instead of walking away.
Why does this Trick Work? [top]
There are 2 parts to why I think this trick works – [a] loss aversion [b] chronic low stress
Loss Aversion [top]
Humans hate losses. FOMO is a manifestation of that. This loss can be anything, of course, and a common one is an aversion to losing money. Modern humans hate losing money. The aversion to losses is not the problem – the problem arises because of the decisions and actions taken to avoid losses. Even experienced traders sometimes buckle under the pressure of loss aversion and are suboptimal in the returns they generate.
Although money is a very modern human invention, the loss aversion experienced literally goes back 500 million years to your reptilian brain (the part of your brain known as the amygdala). Long before Netflix and ice cream.
Chronic Low Stress [top]
In an ideal environment, you would be in states of stress for only short segments of the day. The rest of the time, you’d be in a state of zero stress. Imagine living in a Shaolin monastery – only part of the day in demanding physical training, the remaining part of the day in study, meditation, stipulated chores and restful sleep. You would make most of your decisions in a calm state of mind.
Instead, what happens is that, most likely, you are in an urban or semi-urban setting, with a chronic low-stress status. There are a zillion things that have happened, are happening and that you think might happen that keep you in this state. This is not entirely your fault – it is the environment.
The problem is so chronic that you will not even consciously notice it anymore. You tend to notice its absence when you arrive at a beach or when you sit down in a quiet park off a busy road you were walking down and sense the stress you hadn’t noticed suddenly being lower. Chronic stress, we know, leads to a host of long-term health problems. What I want to bring your focus to for today is the fact that when that underlying state exists, you are naturally biased towards making choices based on your non-zero chronic stress level.
… in Combination [top]
Given your aversion to losses and the unnoticed low-but-chronic stress, it is natural to be heavily biased towards making decisions with a fear and weakness mindset.
By using the ‘trick’ question above, you will reposition yourself, you will give yourself an introspective reality check and offset your natural bias to make decisions that may be suboptimal because of the fear of loss.
You may not entirely shift yourself from a state of stress to one of relaxed wisdom but you have, very consciously and very actively, used the analytical thinking part of your brain to assess your state, reframe and then answer the decision question. You are forcing yourself to use your analytical brain (prefrontal cortex) to give yourself a chance to offset the dominance of the fear-sensitive (amygdala) part of your brain. All you needed to do was ask yourself the ‘trick’ question.
Tips for Action [top]
When making the decision, while crossing over to the Courage-Strength side of the axis, it’s useful to have a few additional things to bear in mind. Here are just a few:
Just ask yourself a follow-on question “what’s the size of the loss likely to be anyway?”. Often the answer will be something like “a bit of money” or “a bit of effort for a couple of minutes” or “some discomfort that isn’t unbearable pain”. These easy answers will make you realize how foolish it was to stand on the wrong side of the Courage-Strength-Fear-Weakness axis.
If you have experienced the power of thought control for your state of physical stress (e.g., heart racing sitting on a sofa but thinking of something stressful that happened in the past) you may have also experienced that you can do that with your breath. You can control your state of stress or relaxation with your breath. Before you use the ‘trick’, I recommend that you get your heart rate down with your breath. Of course, the beauty of this ‘trick’ question is that it doesn’t make it necessary for you to switch from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state in order to be of use.
[If you want to learn how to be sitting on a couch and still get your pulse from 60 to 100 and down to 40 beats per minute all within a span of 3 minutes, I can teach you how!]
Small Steps [top]
Often things can be done in small steps. Here are some examples.
Instrument – You haven’t touched the guitar in ages. On day-1, just pull it out and clean the dust off it, don’t play it. Just put it out in an easily accessible location where it is also visible when you walk in and out of the room.
Singing – You are intimidated about learning to sing but, fortunately, the teacher has offered a pay-per-class option. What’s your maximum loss? Pretty much close to zero financially if you don’t do more classes. The upside is that you might gain a lot with a totally new path ahead to experience.
Physique – You have a membership of the gym that you haven’t visited in ages. On day-1 just go to the gym, meet the people there, don’t work out, just come back home. Do that on day-2 and 3 even… soon you’ll want to engage with some of the equipment.
Pay-as-You-Go to the Rescue [top]
There was a time when you’d have to pay an annual fee for a gym membership. You were stuck with the local takeaway’s food or defrosting frozen meals if busy. Even if you wanted to try a different type of nutrition plan it was not easy. Today, pretty much everything is available on a pay-as-you-go scheme. You can access raw ingredients, partly prepared meals to put together yourself or entire meals from many parts of the world with the swipe of your smartphone. And, yes, gym memberships are easy to get on a monthly scheme, and sometimes even pay-per-visit!
Final Message [top]
You already deal with daily decisions in life using rules of thumb that you have built up over time. For instance, avoid decision fatigue, just “eat the same breakfast daily”. At lunchtime, “eat salad to start the meal” to ensure some offsetting of the downsides from meat consumption. In the evening, “have screen devices on automatic night mode” to fall asleep easily at bedtime. And so on and so forth.
I hope that from today you can also place yourself on the appropriate side of the Courage-Strength-Fear-Weakness axis to continue to make the right choices for an awesome life ahead. Remember to just ask yourself, “Am I making this decision from a position of courage and strength or from a position of fear and weakness?”
If your life often feels overwhelming and complex, and you would like to be guided in detail to have the best life possible, you know how to reach me.
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.