January 8, 2021

How to Stop Fooling Yourself and Start Making Better Decisions

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman

If you want to know how to make better decisions, start by asking yourself how well do you know your own mind, understand your behavior, or trust your decision-making?

How well do you know your own mind, understand your behaviour, or trust your decision-making? Based on my experience of working as an executive coach and mentor over the last couple of years, I’m going to guess not as much as you think you do.

We all like to believe that we make rational decisions and have a good grasp of why we behave the way we do. It certainly feels that way. But if we believe that, we fall foul of Feynman’s first principle.

We fool ourselves all the time

The human brain is the most complex living structure that we know of. How foolish can we be to think that we have mastered it or truly understand ourselves? No matter how lucid our thinking, there is a truth we conveniently ignore:

We are often unaware of the reasons behind the decisions we make.
We may think we are making rational decisions when we go about our business, but that’s not always the case. As this New York Times article states:

“Studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.”

When I work with my coaching clients I see all kinds of faulty assumptions and false narratives that people are unaware they are telling themselves. Much of my role as a coach is to (supportively) challenge these assumptions to help clients become aware of them so they can reframe their issues and move past them.

Our lizard brain loves to subconsciously decide things for us before our rational brain has arrived at the party. We’re usually just playing catch-up. And once our rational mind realizes a decision has already been made, it tends to go along with it. Of course, this all happens unconsciously, leading us to believe that our higher self, not our inner lizard, is in control.

Copywriter Rory Sutherland came up with a wonderful metaphor that explains this quirk of the brain:

“The conscious, rational brain is not the Oval Office; it isn’t there making executive decisions in our minds. It is more like the Press Office, issuing explanations for decisions we have already taken.”

We don’t experience the world objectively

This wouldn’t be a problem except that your lizard brain is influenced by your emotions and personal biases, so it is prone to making skewed decisions. 

And you are not aware of it. At all.

You want to know the one thing my coaching clients have in common? The problem they come to me with is rarely their actual problem. Their real issue is usually something deeper, but they either haven’t realized it, or they are unconsciously hiding it from themselves.

Neuroscientists sometimes describe the brain as an organic computer network. Extend that analogy a little further, and our lizard brain (the oldest part of the cerebral structure) can be considered an early computer that lacks the power and sophistication to process the complexities of the modern world.

Letting your lizard brain make decisions for you is like trying to live your life by operating on an old DOS computer full of buggy code.

Many people have no formalized system for decision-making. Even the typical pros and cons list is still riddled with unconscious biases that cause us to subconsciously ignore potential options or make sub-optimal choices due to personal preference for minor factors we shouldn’t be giving much weight to.

So, how can we upgrade our thought process and overcome this tendency? How do we relocate our minds from the Press Office to the Oval Office and start making better decisions? 

We do that by using a coaching technique called reflective inquiry to make our implicit assumptions explicit. That way we can figure out what is going on in our mind and start making better decisions.

In short, we need a system for separating fact from fiction in our self-talk. Only then can we improve our objectivity and get closer to the truth. And we do that by evaluating the evidence for the things we believe so we can eliminate our false narratives.

How to identify false narratives

Once you know the false narratives you have built into your subconscious thinking, you can debug your code, set them aside, and make better decisions. If that sounds daunting, don’t worry. You can systemize this process with a self-coaching exercise to challenge your assumptions, identify your biases, and eliminate them. All you have to do is ask yourself a few questions whenever you are facing a dilemma.

The questioning exercise I am about to walk through is based on the established coaching technique of reflective inquiry. Its power lies in making your implicit assumptions explicit. This will allow you to analyse a decision more deeply than just making a list of pros and cons (which can be influenced by your personal biases). I have used it to great effect with my clients, but you do not need to be a trained coach to use it. 

It is helpful to use a notebook and pen to write things out as you work through the exercise. Seeing the nuts and bolts of your thinking on paper can give you the extra clarity you need to understand what is going on in your mind.

To make effective decisions, you need to evaluate:

  • What your current position is
  • What your options are
  • How positively or negatively aligned you are with each option
  • The factors on which you are basing your sentiment regarding each option
  • Which of these factors are objective truths, and which are based on assumptions or false narratives you are telling yourself

This evaluation process will help you determine which factors truly matter when faced with a decision and which ones can be discarded. Its aim is to simplify decision-making by removing personal biases and creating clarity.
Let’s put some meat on the bones and look at each stage of the process.

What is your current position?

Before you decide how to act in response to a dilemma, you need to determine your current position and how you feel about it. Are you happy with how things are currently? If so, what aspects of your current situation are most important to you? If not, what needs to change, and why?

What are your options?

Are you considering all available options or only the most appealing ones? Are you focusing on a particular subset of options because they are comfortable while ignoring more difficult alternatives that may give you better outcomes? If you are happy with how things are currently, have you considered whether it is possible to do nothing? Don’t disregard an option until you have explored it using all the steps in this exercise.

How positively or negatively are you aligned with each option?

Which options currently seem appealing, and which ones don’t? Rank them. This may all be about to change once you complete the exercise.

What factors are you basing your sentiment on?

This is where it starts to get interesting. Make a list of the factors you are using to evaluate each option. Consider the benefits, the risks, and how you feel about each choice. Make two or three passes at this to make sure you capture everything relevant, not just the first things that come to mind. The better you understand the reasons behind your feelings towards each option, the more effective this process will be.

Truth vs. fiction

Now we get to the most powerful part of the exercise; separating fact from fiction.

First, ask yourself what evidence do you have for each factor or thing you believe? These are the things you listed in the previous step. Which ones exist in reality and can be evidenced as objective truths? And which ones are assumptions you are making or narratives you are telling yourself? This is the most crucial step of the exercise.

You may be surprised how many things you thought were objective facts were just biased assumptions or narratives that only exist in your mind.  

Tip: If you can’t decide whether something is an objective fact or not, ask yourself if there are any alternative explanations for it. See if you can explain it in a way that allows you to draw a different conclusion to the one you were previously making. If so, chances are that the factor in question is a false assumption rather than a fundamental truth. 

The factors that require the most deliberation are the critical ones to get right. Even after you have identified the most obviously evident truths and false narratives, you may still hold some faulty assumptions about what remains. In fact, some of the ‘truths’ you cling to most dearly will turn out to be personal biases on closer inspection. We have a strong emotional attachment to the narratives we tell ourselves, making them seem more robust and real than they actually are. This exercise is all about overcoming that attachment.

The final analysis

Once you are satisfied that you have determined fact from fiction, it is time to discard everything that lacks robust evidence. Cross out anything on your list that is a personal bias or false assumption (i.e. everything that lacks hard evidence). To make the best possible decision, we only want to deal with the truth, nothing else. Once the core facts are all you have left in front of you, the right decision becomes much clearer.

Now, working with this much shorter list of objective truths, evaluate your remaining options in an unbiased manner by considering their pros, cons, and level of importance. This should enable you to reliably reach the best decision. 

Putting it all together

While this process can be done as a self-coaching exercise, you may still fool yourself if you do not commit to being honest at every stage. It can be helpful to have someone to talk to as you work through the steps. Thinking aloud and having someone act as a sounding board will keep you honest. They can provide perspective, improve the clarity of your thinking, and give a second opinion when required. 

I have used this technique to help coaching clients make all kinds of high-impact life decisions, such as assessing career options, business development priorities, product marketing strategies, and parenting dilemmas.

When facilitating this exercise in my coaching work, people commonly make an initial list of 15-20 factors they are considering for a single decision. By the time they complete the process, they often only have evidence for two or three of them. The rest were just false narratives, faulty assumptions, or unimportant details. Once these are removed from the equation, their decisions become much simpler. It is far easier to work out the best course of action when there are only two, not twenty, factors to consider.

A real-life case study

I don’t like to discuss the details of my client sessions for confidentiality reasons, but I’ll give you an example of how I have used this exercise in my personal life to show you its power.

Last year, my wife and I had our first baby. During a routine health-check when our son was two-months old, our health visitor noted that, our baby’s weight had dropped from the 50th to the 25th percentile over the course of a month. While his weight was still within a normal healthy range, she advised us to keep an eye on it, casually using the term “failure to thrive.”

This made my wife anxious. Worried about our child’s welfare, she thought she may have to stop breastfeeding and was considering all kinds of drastic changes to our feeding plan.

I asked her to make a list of everything that was worrying her. She came up with sixteen items. When we examined this list together and discussed each item, there was only real-world evidence for two of them; the two weight measurements and the health visitor’s comments.

With only two factors to consider rather than the initial sixteen, it was easy to see there was little to be anxious about. Our son’s weight was within a normal healthy range, two single measurements does not signify a trend, and the health visitor’s comment was a technical term, not a judgement.

By working through this exercise, my wife was able to let go of her false narratives and reframe the situation objectively. In doing so, we decided not to make any drastic changes to our son’s feeding regimen until a longer-term trend of weight gain had been established.

The ending to this story? My wife continued exclusively breastfeeding, our son maintained a healthy long-term weight gain, and he is happily thriving.

Now consider what could have happened if we had not conducted this exercise. We may have taken all kinds of sub-optimal actions that would have been stressful and impossible to undo. 

Sometimes when you make a choice, it is impossible to walk it back. That is why it is is so important to make your implicit assumptions explicit and separate fact from fiction when making decisions.

Additional benefits

Not only does this process help you simplify your decision-making and get better outcomes, but it also has another major benefit. It trains you to recognize your own biases and assumptions, which develops your self-awareness and improves your future decision-making.  

This is such a powerful long-term side-effect. I regularly write about how self-awareness is a foundational meta-skill that helps you in many areas of your life. But it can be difficult to realize because our egos and minds play tricks that prevent us from seeing things objectively. Exercises such as this one are a great way to not just solve specific problems, but to go beyond them and enjoy long-term compounding benefits. 

If you think you could benefit from some coaching and you are interested in having a coaching conversation, get in touch with me.