Just do it! How to make decisions like a professional athlete

In our last article, we discussed how mental shortcuts such as loss aversion and confirmation bias can impede our ability to make good intuitive decisions. To counter this, various de-biasing techniques have been suggested to help leaders make more efficient decisions. For example, the Checklist Manifesto has proven to be an extremely effective technique for improving decision making in many high-pressure occupations such as medicine, policing, and aviation. In medicine, a simple 5-point checklist aimed at reducing mindless errors during surgery removed almost all infections in the ICU at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In Michigan, a similar protocol helped reduce infections by 66% within 3 months and saved an estimated 1,500 lives within a year and a half.

There is no doubt that in emergency situations, de-biasing techniques are extremely effective. But there is a major hurdle to applying them in everyday settings – regardless of their efficacy, they are almost never used. In fact, a study by psychologist Geoffrey Smart found that in business, even though taking a methodical, checklist approach to hiring new employees yields greater retention and return on investment, only 13% of managers actually implement the practice. The reality of today’s fast-paced business landscape is that most people don’t have the time or motivation to use these techniques properly.

A better alternative is to train your mind to make faster, better decisions using Intentional Intuition.  Intuition is a powerful tool for decision making, but we tend to make two types of errors when using it – we either over- or under-think. By being more intentional about how we use our intuition we can avoid both of these. In his book Educating Intuition, Robin Hogarth outlines how practicing these snap decisions in diverse environments exposes us to new ideas and cues that broaden and build our intuitive capacity. By stepping out of our comfort zones, we can build our intuitive muscles and make better decisions ­(even without checklists). One of the best examples of this comes from the world of sport. Though coaches tell players to “go with their gut”, amateur athletes struggle with over-analyzing when they first make the leap to the pros. Emerging research on expertise is showing that one of the best ways to accelerate this learning curve is to put young athletes in situations where they have no choice but to exercise their natural intuition. More specifically, researchers have found that putting athletes in dynamic, high-risk environments with time pressures (e.g., live scrimmage) instead of more conventional, less time pressured settings (e.g., classroom playbook learning) is a faster and much more effective way to improve decision making and performance. More importantly, it is in line with Hogarth’s suggestion that the best way to foster intentional intuition is by doing it instead of learning about it. Linking this research to business, certain situations naturally make us over-think (e.g., the new challenges that come with a new position), while in other situations we might under-think and miss out on important information (e.g., emotionally-charged situations). The following exercises are designed to provide practice applicable to all of these situations in order to train the “corporate athlete”.

Over-thinking

The best way to overcome over-thinking is by practicing making fast, intuitive decisions in the moment. Just like athletes, every time we do this, the connections in our brains associated with this behavior become a little bit stronger. Eventually, we learn to trust our intuition more and the process begins to happen naturally. So when faced with a minor decision (whether work related or not), force yourself to choose an option right away, without thinking it through. Over time, your intuition will get better at making the right calls, even on much bigger decisions.

A lower-risk way to develop this skill is by practicing mindfulness, which allows us to be fully immersed in the present moment and devote our mental resources to it. When we feel ourselves overanalyzing, mindfulness can help us to disengage from distractions and re-connect with the present task at hand. Through awareness and acceptance, mindfulness allows us to understand our desires better and filter through the distractions that bog us down when trying to make good decisions. This may be especially useful in high stress environments, where we often feel a lack of control. With mindful awareness, we can regain some of this control by focusing solely on what is in front of us in the present moment. There are many apps and websites that can help you practice mindfulness, but it is no more complicated than choosing to focus on the present moment as much as possible. Like any muscle, it takes effort, but with even just a few minutes of focus a day, the effects can be life changing.

Under-thinking

The key to overcoming under-thinking lies in strategically debriefing your decisions (especially the ones that you aren’t happy with!). Though our natural tendency is to avoid thinking about these decisions because they cause us psychological discomfort, we cannot make progress unless we create a habit of examining the failures and mental patterns that lead us astray. In other words, it’s all about pattern recognition – deconstructing our past decisions in order to identify patterns and biases in what we did wrong. A great psychological exercise that can help you do this is the Thought Record, which forces us to objectively analyze our decisions from an external perspective. During the exercise, you break down decisions by examining the situation, your mood at the time the decisions were made, as well as the automatic thoughts that dominated your mindset at the time, and what evidence there was for and against these thought patterns. What did you miss that you should have paid attention to? What did you overweight that you should have ignored, and why? The beauty of the thought record is that with enough practice, we naturally learn to intuitively break down our decisions in as we’re making them and in doing so become more deliberate and successful. In fact, research shows that after doing this exercise only 20-25 times in total, individuals reported significant improvements in their performance and mood without having to continue doing it in an articulated fashion. These findings show that once this type of awareness is set in place, we can build the safeguards that will protect us from biases and allow us to create a space where intuition can be trusted.

These are a few simple and effective ways to naturally build our intuitive muscles. Through deliberate practice, we can develop these skills and incorporate them into our daily work, without the need for external tools such as de-biasing checklists. More importantly, the practice will naturally strengthen our ability to act with intentional intuition, and ultimately maximize performance.

Mike is the founder of Juniper – a boutique consulting firm. Faizan Imtiaz, an organizational psychologist, is working at Juniper as part of his PhD program at Queen’s University. This is the last in their series of articles on what recent scientific research means to leadership and culture. Thank you for reading them!

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