Decision-making: Data and intuition

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about decision-making.

It harks back to a lot of stuff I’m been churning over in my head about choice analysis. We have choices over what we think and what we do, which when we think about it, is almost everything.

When I realised this, and realised that the things I chose to think about and the things I chose to do encompassed so much, all the other things — all the other things that were outside my control — suddenly became as good as irrelevant.

Decision-making is slightly different than choice.

Or, to put it another way, decision-making is a subset of the choices I make.

Decisions feel bigger, bulkier, grander, more important. A decision is thinking about something, pondering on two or more distinct options, and choosing one of them. (A key part of decision-making, of course, is the thing you don’t choose as much as the thing you do.)

But I realised that in virtually all my major decisions, intuition is a key factor.

That is, for almost all key decisions in my life — changing jobs, quitting jobs, exploring new business opportunities, starting a podcast, writing this blog or my newsletters — the key factor has been intuition.

On occasion I have gone against my intuition. Heard it encouraging me in a particular direction with its quiet inner insistence, but decided not to heed it.

On those occasions I’ve based my decision on numbers. A project that might pay nicely. A job offer with x bonus or y days off.

The decisions based on data and against intuition have invariably been the ones that went off-course.

And yet numbers are important to me. In everything I do, I try to keep score.

I collect my 5k times, and celebrate quietly when I shave a few seconds off my personal best. I have a spreadsheet for my weight, blood pressure and body fat percentage. For a while I scanned food labels into MyFitnessPal to check my macronutrients. For my day-job I can spend hours sifting through Google Analytics and social media insights for nuggets of information that demonstrate the effectiveness — or otherwise — of what we’ve been doing.

I find keeping score not only essential, but rewarding too.

Even for my daughter’s short-sided soccer matches, when it’s non-competitive and nobody is supposed to keep score, I keep score. (I admit: everyone’s quietly keeping score. The coaches, the other parents, and most importantly my daughter and her teammates…)

And yet I’m not sure how much keeping score informs when it comes to the major decisions.

Perhaps at a subconscious level the numbers are influencing the intuition, but for me at least, intuition feels far removed from metrics.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. Am I weird to place such importance in numbers and data and metrics, and then largely set them aside when it comes to making decisions on what to do next?

There’s a disclaimer that has been a standard add-on to ads for financial institutions in Ireland. “Past performance is not an indicator of future performance.”


Quick hits and slow balms

So many products are designed to satisfy the human yearning for a quick hit.

Everything from Coca-Cola and chocolate to Twitter and Facebook satisfies the urge for a quick spike of dopamine that they so reliably provide.

In the 21st century everything has moved towards quickness. But speed doesn’t necessarily mean effective or even efficient.

The opposite of the quick hit is the slow balm.

Getting very clear on a problem to be solved, a challenge to be overcome, a goal to be achieved, and then taking the slow steps to do it, day by day by day by day.

There’s no dopamine spike but there is a balm that soothes us at a deep level.

Almost every moment of every day we face choices between the quick hit and the slow balm.

Taking the time to get clear on where we’re going, and then moving towards that point little by little every day, can feel hard when we want the quick hit.

But the more we experience the slow balm, the more we realise the power it has over everything, not just our fickle dopamine levels.

Slow and steady wins the race.

On teaching, and great teachers

Teaching, or coaching, or mentoring, have been recurring words in my life over the past two years.

I recall the greatest teachers of my school days were never those who contained the most facts or imparted the most knowledge.

Indeed, this is distilled in one moment that I remember from Room 7 in my old secondary school, when one of the most important teachers of my school life started us on Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The first lines of Hard Times go like this:

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

The words are spoken by Mr Gradgrind, the school headmaster, before a class of schoolchildren — “the little pitchers before him, who were to be filled so full of facts”.

My memory is of one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, taking us through a Dickens book about a very different teacher, about very different teaching mechanisms.

The irony was clear.

It’s often said that people “may forget what you said, but will never forget how you made them feel.”

The worst teachers are those who drill facts into us, who rattle off things that they want us to remember. The greatest teachers — and this applies also to mentors and coaches — make us feel something different about ourselves.

They make us alive to the possibilities within ourselves.

They do not shine a light on those possibilities; instead, they give us the power to shine a light on those possibilities ourselves.

The greatest teachers, mentors and coaches empower us in ways we could never have imagined without them.

All of us need great teachers in our lives, and all of us, with a little thought and intention, can also be great teachers to those who need it from us.

One minute about faith

Today is Good Friday, the date that commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus in Christian church teachings.

Christianity is a worldview, a belief system shared by hundreds of millions of people around the world.

All religions and faiths and creeds rest on their own belief systems.

None offer any proof. The contract is one of faith.

Organised religions are based on collective faith, and the collectiveness is important.

That collectiveness gives us the human connection that we all crave.

But collectiveness is not essential for faith.

When it comes to the gods and the cosmos, faith is an individual matter.

You can believe one thing and I another and the world continues to turn.

When we remove our ego and our pride and our desire to bend someone else to our will, our individual faiths co-exist peacefully, even beautifully.

My faith is for me and me alone. Yours is for you.

If whatever it is we believe gives us strength on the hard days, that’s probably the best we can ask for.

A zero-cost investment with a massive impact

Energy is the currency of the world.

Energy spreads from person to person every moment of every day.

Energy is not neutral.

If we’re not spreading positive energy, it’s almost certain we’re spreading negative energy.

Setting this one intention — just to be conscious of the energy we bring to every room, every exchange,every situation — is probably the best investment any of us can make.

It costs zero and can reap significant rewards.

For us, yes, but also for all the people who share space and time with us every day.

Episode 14: Is the workplace working? Psychologist Dr Celine Mullins on how teams and organisations can make the world of work a win-win for everyone involved

For Holy Week, a message for peaceful meditative reflection for everyone

In the calendar of Christianity, this is Holy Week, the period of seven days that precedes Easter Sunday.

Coming up we have Holy Wednesday, also known as Spy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, respectively the days when Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, hosted the disciples at the Last Supper, was arrested and crucified to death, and then lay in the tomb before the Sunday Resurrection.

The scholars who will say how Christmas overtook the Pagan midwinter feasts will also admit that Christmas has now been overtaken by feasts of a different kind.

Easter is different again. Easter goes to the heart of what it is to be Christian. It is the story of the suffering and death of Jesus, betrayed by one of his inner circle and publicly executed by the Romans, and of his subsequent Resurrection on the third day.

Easter is the essence of Christianity.

It is possible, though, to be non-Christian — to belong to a different faith, or to be avowedly atheist in your views — and still take something from Holy Week.

Irrespective of your belief system, anything that can spark peaceful, meditative reflection — reflection on the self and reflection on the world around us; reflection on the past and reflection on the type of future we would like to play a part in creating — can only be a good thing.

The spectrum of the human condition includes everyone

The human condition is everything, and by the very definition — we are human — it affects all of us. Let me go further: The human condition is all of us.

But first, a definition (as offered by Wiktionary). The human condition is

the characteristics, key events, and situations which compose the essentials of human existence, such as birth, growth, emotionality, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.

Wise old Shakespeare gave his take on the human condition memorably as the seven acts of being in his “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It.

The human condition — this state of being human — contains everything: joy and sadness, love and grief, certainty and doubt, clarity and overwhelming ambiguity.

In this era of extraordinary and unprecedented technological change (I hesitate to say “progress”), it contains all the collective state of figuring-things-out that all of us now experience simultaneously.

This can become manifest in anyone as fear or anxiety or violence or addiction or depression or self-sabotage.

The difference, at an individual level, is not between those who experience suffering and doubt, and those who do not.

The difference, knowing that suffering and doubt affects everyone, is in how we respond to it.

To learn from the past but not wallow there. To plan for the future but not become slave to its multitude of possibilities.

To choose to stay present as much as we can, to decide what is the next right thing to do, and to do it as best we can.

60 Seconds to Better Handle the Fear of Failure

This post is less than 200 words long. By most read-speed estimates, it will take about 60 seconds to read. I hope it helps you think differently about the fear of failure.

There aren’t many things that prevent us from things we might really want to do.

Mostly they’re governed by fear.

And mostly that fear can be broken down into two categories.

  1. The fear of judgment
  2. The fear of failure

Fear of judgment — we’ll tackle that another day.

When it comes to fear of failure, it runs deep in almost all of us.

The way I like to thing of it: 90% of people feel fear; the other 10% are afraid to admit it.

Fear of failure is a major driver for many of the top performers in every field.

What might happen if we thought of fear of failure like this:

Failure is feedback.

If we try something and it doesn’t work, there are three real choices we face.

  1. To try something else.
  2. To refine the thing we’re trying and go again.
  3. To give up trying.

If we can agree that 3 is not an option that most of us want to consider, then we only have 1 or 2.

Either is good.

Let’s go.

The 5-Second, 5-Minute Rule

Some time ago I was fortunate to hear Mel Robbins speak at an event in Columbus, Ohio, USA. Robbins is the author of The 5-Second Rule, a book about taking action, quickly.

Says Mel:

5-4-3-2-1 helped me close the gap between thinking and doing. And by just taking action, my confidence grew.

The 5-second rule works.

Action, even the smallest action, creates energy, and energy creates momentum, and momentum can take you anywhere.

A little while ago, I was attending a cognitive behavioral therapy session with Rosario Nolan, a gifted therapist in Ireland who specialises in cognitive behavioral psychotherapy.

We were talking about the too-often occasions in recent times where I’ve, in effect, lost full days. When the list of tasks became too overwhelming. When even the prospect of considering a list of tasks and picking just one to focus on was too daunting.

Rosario encouraged me to try something.

A 5-minute prompt.

Whatever it was that was daunting me — taking on the biggest task (or, as Mark Twain described it, eating a frog), or even thinking about a list of tasks, or just sitting down at my desk — Rosario encouraged me to commit to just five minutes.

If on that day, my mental state proved to be so fragile that after five minutes I still could not face whatever it is that I felt I needed to face, then I had permission to opt out.

I had committed to five minutes, and that was enough for today.

What happened in practice, of course, was that after a minute or two or three, the thing usually ceased to resemble the big under-the-bridge troll that my mind had built it up to be.

Typically, the five-minute prompt was enough to heave the boulder from its stationary position and get it inching downhill, where it could generate its own momentum.

I’ve decided that these two rules could work fantastically well together.

The 5-Second, 5-Minute Rule.

A 5-second countdown to get moving.

A 5-minute commitment to eating the frog.

And then just see what happens.

(What could happen is that they become the most important five minutes and five seconds of your day. It often works out that way for me…)