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How to make better choices? Start by reading this!

In this hyper-connected world we are inundated with information, between TV, social media and our phone we are constantly seeking the ‘updates’ that now drive our ‘feel good’ factor (the dopamine release) –welcome to the addictions of the 21st century. Since all decision-making is preceded by information, it stands to reason that if the information […]

In this hyper-connected world we are inundated with information, between TV, social media and our phone we are constantly seeking the ‘updates’ that now drive our ‘feel good’ factor (the dopamine release) –welcome to the addictions of the 21st century. Since all decision-making is preceded by information, it stands to reason that if the information we use to make our decisions is faulty, we will undoubtedly make flawed choices. And with all the information rage across all mediums, how do we decide what to believe? After all, one study suggests one thing and another one recommends a completely different approach. So, in essence, our problem today is not lack of information, it’s an overload of data. The question then is – which sources of information should I trust?

If the goal of our lives is to constantly improve our capabilities and ultimately the trajectory of our lives towards some major milestones, then we need to improve our decision-making abilities. The pre-requisite to good choices is reliable information. Between all the choices we make during a day, if we can optimize our “major decisions” then we are truly doing everything in our power to direct the course of our lives (be the best versions of ourselves), or perhaps just leading a happier, more carefree life (whatever floats your boat).

We make hundreds of decisions during a day, most are inconsequential,e.g. what clothes should I wear today? What pair of socks to choose? Should I take the North side and exit on the highway or should I go South and take the loop?What should I have for breakfast today? One way or the other, these small decisions prime you for your key activities during the day. These key activities could be, working on that big marketing campaign at work or writing your novel – whatever builds up towards your life’s work or the key activities that keep you preoccupied on a daily basis.

However, it is the major decisions in our lives that change the course of our lives. Should I take that course in project management? Because I really enjoy the excitement of managing people and resources through the life cycle of a project. Should I marry that charismatic guy who treats me like a princess and seems absolutely flawless? While hindsight is 20/20, foresight is essential in order to improve our choices before we make them. And in order to make the optimal decision in any situation, we need two critical elements:

  1. Access to the most accurate information
  2. Sound critical thinking and decision-making criteria

Some decisions are simpler and easier than others; while some have resounding effects throughout our lives, others not so much. However, in order to make optimal decisions we must cultivate a habit of assessing our sources of information. Suppose, you want to get your hair-extensions done, you tend to ask one of your friends who frequently gets her hair done. Since you trust the feedback (information) she offers, you seek her review before you decide where to go.

Essentially, all of our decision making follows the same loop:

How we make decisions

If the information is flawed, you are bound to make subpar decisions, which is inconsequential for minor things (what shirt to wear to work), but can have huge implications for major decisions (which school to pick for my Master’s degree). In the information age, with a deluge of false information we must be extremely critical of all/any information we receive before we use it for decision making purposes.

The key to developing great decision-making capability then, rests foremost on developing sound sources of information. These sources of information could range from trustworthy publications, authoritative scholars, books, friends and family, and personal experiences.

A major flaw of the human condition is that despite the best of intentions and years of works, sometimes we are just wrong in our assertions. For instance, a recent study cited at University of Southern California states that wine in moderation is good for you. Here’s an alternative study, cited by Time magazine that states any amount of drinking is bad for you. Two authoritative sources, offering completely opposing conclusions. Depending on which source of information you use, your decision making would be different, assuming you have the same pre-defined criteria to make a choice.

Here’s another one: One study at John Hopkins notes, there are no benefits to taking multivitamins, whereas, an alternative study from the Harvard school of Public Health asserts, multivitamins are a great source of nutrition. If you do enough research you can pretty much find a study to back most claims you can make. This coupled with an abundance of so-called “experts” then leads to mountains of information, and inherent confusion. In some ways then, the greatest danger lies in using flawed sources of information.

So how do you overcome this problem and become a super-star decision maker:

Use the sources of information you do but assess the information to see if it helps you make better choices. For instance, if wine is good for you in moderation, does it make you feel more active and agile in the long-run?

Self-experimentation: If your sources of information suggest that multivitamins are good for you,introduce a regimen of multi-vitamins and see if they improve well-being. Try that for a set period of time e.g. 1-2 years. Now stop taking the multi-vitamin sand see if they have an impact on you.

Barring access to reliable information, make it a habit to try things out for yourself. See the impact on your life by introducing something and the impact without the element being tested.

Friends/Family/Scholars/Experts: Assess the person doling out advice. If you are taking weight-lifting advice from someone who themselves have a sedentary lifestyle and are 20kgs overweight, there is a serious problem with that. Getting relationship advice from someone who is single or had a messy divorce? Probably not a good idea. Just because they are your sibling or friend, should not be a criterion to use the information they provide. The premise is, if the advice they are offering worked for them it will work for you too. Ask long as you are critical of the information you are using before it becomes a part of your knowledge base, you are already doing better than most people.

The decision-making loop than becomes like this:

Feedback improves the decision making loop

Stay inquisitive and conduct experiments in your life to see what works and what does not. That is the single greatest source of information you have – If better choices lead to better outcomes – take that the first step towards improving those choices by developing a more reliable knowledge base.

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.

Ralph Waldo Emerson
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