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Decision Making in an Uncertain World: How to Navigate the Unknown

  1. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing
  2. Our brain is a prediction machine
  3. Decision-making is both art and science
  4. How to make better decisions
    1. Self-Reflection
    2. Meditation
    3. Writing it down
  5. We should organize our thinking and make better choices in uncertainty

You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing

At the company I was working at, we had a regular “Writers’ community” call where people who write blogs, and articles for a broader audience than their self get together and share their best practices, updates, new articles, etc. Participating there also led me to a workshop we had with a professional trainer, where I learned about writing articles in a structured way. As I wrote this article, I tried to use those techniques and best practices as much as possible to make the reading experience pleasant.

Anyways, in one of those calls, we were discussing the effects of a hybrid working model (we were free to go to the office via pre-registration only). In such a meeting, one of my colleagues mentioned one thing that caught my attention right away. He said: “I wish the company obliged us to go to the office at least once a week. I am bored at home. I know I am allowed to go to the office after registering, but due to commute time in the morning, I always tend to stay at home. But I am feeling lonely and I’d like to meet others at the office as well. So, I’d prefer if the company policy forced us to go to the office once in a while.”

Technically he could go to the office, but he just did not do it since it is an option he never prefers due to other constraints, such as commuting in the early morning and so on. We are not good at deciding what’s best for us, and sometimes it is just easier if others decide on our behalf and oblige us to follow their decision. That’s why we have compulsory education. We are predictably irrational decision-makers. There is a numerous amount of research suggesting that humans are not Homo-Oeconomicus, but rather Homo-Irrationalis. Our decisions are impacted by many intrinsic or extrinsic factors, and most of them are unknown at first look. We have short-term goals vs. long-term goals, our behavior can be inconsistent as a result of psychological paralysis, neurosis, psychic pain, or as an outcome of laziness, and mimicry.

Most of the time, if not always, we make decisions under great uncertainty. In April I moved to a new job at a new company, in a new city with no plan whatsoever. I did move away from the city I was living into a small village temporarily, I stayed at a friend’s place till I found long-term accommodation. Deciding leaving my current job and shifting to a new job that starts at a future time point is not an easy decision to make. When making the decision I couldn’t have guessed the Russian-Ukrainian war, rising fuel prices, and inflation increasing crazily, and neither I can guess even now how things will change tomorrow. So, I decided big uncertainty, but I used some mental models to make the decision-making process easier.

Through the rest of the article, we will read about the reasons why we are irrational decision-makers, and what techniques we can exploit to be more efficient decision-makers.

Our brain is a prediction machine

Brain is such a complex machine. We are still not able to deconstruct the brain and understand how it works. Nonetheless, there is an agreed opinion that the main purpose of our brain is to regulate (through allostasis) the system of our body to keep it alive and well. Sounds fine to the ear, right?! It is the control room of our body. But there is a crunch here: the control room is a completely dark place with no direct access to the environment. Our brain cannot see, hear, or sense anything happening inside or outside of our body directly. What it does is receive signals in real-time from the sensory surfaces of our body (i.e. retinacochlea, etc.) about the state of the internal and external environment.

So, our brain receives the events from its team of nerves. The question arises then: how does the brain understand the causes of those events and make decisions to act upon the signals, when needed? For example, the loud bang noise could be a rocket thrown by Russians, a neighbor falling when training, or a tire of a car blown in the street. How does the brain know what it is and what to do about it? Without direct access to those events, our brain has to guess. Using its parameters of past experiences and knowledge, our brain predicts what it could be and sends a signal to our body about what it should do, a few moments before we react. Most of the time it happens outside our awareness. This piece of information brings up the question if we have free will. If our brain decides what to do without our awareness, how can we be so sure that we choose what we do with our free will?

Another important outcome we can extract is if our brain makes its prediction based on the previous experience it has captured, then we can change its prediction by experiencing new things – every new person we interact with, every new culture we learn, every new book we read can create new experiences for the brain which potentially could shift its prediction parameters. We can change ourselves, we can partially control our future by continually cultivating new experiences for our brains. Moreover, if we repetitively do it we can turn every new experience into a habit.

Decision-making is both art and science

We are making decisions every moment of our lives. Reading this article is a decision you made and if you’ve already read this much, it means you invested a few minutes of your time in it. Was it a good decision or a bad one? That’s a question we need to answer ourselves. It’s a difficult one to measure. To be honest, even measuring if the decision is bad or good is based on our brain’s prediction mechanism which is a black box. So how can we be so sure anyways? I propose my personal opinion on this: Deciding if the decision made is good or bad has nothing to do with the outcome. It’s about the process of decision-making, the amount of information we have in hand that we are satisfied with, and our attitude towards it. An ideal algorithm for making rational decisions could look like following the pattern of the problem definition, creating assumptions and anti-assumptions about it, collecting facts about the problem in hand, developing and analyzing alternatives, and making a decision on one of those alternatives. So, mainly it is about collecting as much information as possible. However, our brain is not capable of collecting and analyzing complete and perfect information given the constraints of resources (i.e. time, energy, emotional status, and memory). Instead, our “smart” brain uses mental shortcuts, and heuristics, to process huge amounts of signals arriving from the complex environment to make decisions as fast and, ideally, efficient as possible. It “approximates” rational decision-making, it seeks the most satisfactory solution rather than the most optimal.

How to make better decisions

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus, Discourses

We should accept the fact that we cannot control our environment, or the outcomes. We can control only our attitude. Moreover, as mentioned above the rightness or wrongness of the decision is not about the outcome, but the process of decision-making itself.

Self-Reflection

Imagine you just started a new job. You are a hard worker and eager to make a good impression at the new job. However, you quickly realize that you are having a difficult time fitting in with your coworkers and are constantly feeling stressed and overwhelmed.

One day, you decide to take a step back and reflect on your experiences at work. You begin to think about your motivations for taking the job and whether they align with your values and goals. You also consider your interactions with coworkers and how you may have contributed to any misunderstandings or conflicts.

As you continue to reflect, you realize that you have been so focused on trying to impress your boss and fit in with your coworkers that you have been neglecting your own needs and values. You decide to start setting boundaries for yourself and speaking up for what you want and need at work.

Through your self-reflection, you have gained a greater understanding of yourself and your motivations, and have been able to make changes that have improved your work experience and relationships with your coworkers.

Self-reflection, like you, fictionally, did, is the process of taking a step back and examining your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and considering how they may be impacting your life and relationships. By engaging in self-reflection, you can gain a greater understanding of yourself and make positive changes that can lead to personal growth.

A few of the benefits of self-reflection are:

  1. Improved self-awareness: Self-reflection helps you to become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which can lead to a better understanding of yourself and your actions.
  2. Enhanced decision-making: By examining your motivations and values, you can make more informed decisions that align with your goals and priorities.
  3. Increased personal growth: Self-reflection can help you identify areas of your life that you want to change or improve, and can provide you with the insights and motivation to take action.
  4. Greater self-acceptance: Self-reflection can help you to better understand and accept your strengths and weaknesses, leading to increased self-acceptance and self-compassion.
  5. Improved relationships: By examining your interactions with others and considering how you may have contributed to conflicts or misunderstandings, you can improve your relationships with others.

Overall, self-reflection can be a powerful tool for personal growth and development, helping you to become more self-aware, make better decisions, and lead a more fulfilling life.

Meditation

Meditation is a way to train your brain to focus and be present. When you’re able to control your thoughts and emotions, you’re better able to make clear-headed decisions. By meditating, you can learn to let go of the constant chatter in your head and the anxieties that cloud your judgment. When you’re not caught up in your drama, you’re able to see things more objectively and make choices that align with your values and goals.

Meditation also helps you to become more self-aware and introspective. You start to understand your thought patterns and behaviors, and this can help you to become more conscious of your own biases and tendencies. By increasing your consciousness, you can make choices that are more authentic and genuine.

In short, meditation can help you to make better decisions and be more conscious by giving you the mental clarity and self-awareness you need to be more mindful and present in the moment.

Writing it down

Writing things down can be a helpful tool for becoming more conscious about ourselves in several ways:

  1. Writing things down can help us to express and release our emotions. When we keep our thoughts and feelings inside, they can become overwhelming and lead to negative emotions like anger, sadness, or frustration. By writing them down, we can allow ourselves to express and release these emotions, which can help us to feel better and more in control.
  2. Writing things down can help us to identify patterns and trends in our thoughts and behaviors. When we keep a journal or write down our thoughts and experiences regularly, we can start to see patterns and trends in our thinking and behavior. This can help us to become more aware of our tendencies and habits, and to make changes if we want to.
  3. Writing things down can help us to set goals and track our progress. When we write down our goals and track our progress towards them, it can help us to stay motivated and on track. It can also help us to identify any obstacles or challenges that we need to overcome to achieve our goals.
  4. Writing things down can help us to gain perspective on our experiences. When we write about our experiences, we can see them from a different perspective, which can help us to understand them better and gain insight into our thoughts and behaviors. This can be especially helpful when we are dealing with difficult or confusing situations.
  5. Writing things down can help us to practice mindfulness and focus. When we write, we need to pay attention to what we are writing and let go of other distractions. This can help us to cultivate mindfulness and focus, which can be beneficial for our well-being.

In short, writing things down can be a powerful tool for becoming more conscious about ourselves because it helps us to better understand and process our thoughts and feelings, identify patterns and trends in our behavior, and set and achieve our goals.

We should organize our thinking and make better choices in uncertainty

Decision making can be complex, as it involves evaluating different options and choosing the one that will be most beneficial or fulfilling. Yet, our irrationality and the uncertainty of the world can make it difficult to know what is best for us.

The brain is a complex machine that helps us to regulate our body and respond to the environment. It receives input from our senses and uses mental models to make predictions and decisions based on that input. Mental models are frameworks or ways of thinking that we use to understand and make sense of the world around us. They can be helpful for making decisions, as they can help us to organize and process information and consider different options.

It’s important to consider both short-term and long-term goals when making decisions, as our choices can have different consequences depending on the time frame we are considering. We should also be aware of the impact of psychological and external factors on our decision making. These can include things like our emotions, biases, and external influences that can influence our choices.

There are ways to improve decision making, such as using heuristics, or mental shortcuts that can help us to make efficient choices . Seeking out diverse perspectives can also be helpful, as it can help us to consider a wider range of options. It may also avoid our own biases or limited points of view to sway us. Meditation can help to calm our mind and adjust our thoughts to avoid external impact as much as possible. Writing things down is good for better understanding, formulating and processing our thoughts and feelings without gaps, identifying patterns and trends in our behavior.

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