Right or wrong. Big or small. Fast or slow. It is in our benefit to make less decisions throughout the day. When we decide on something, we aim to balance the outcome we seek with the risks involved. They can be instantly satisfying, or built on the premise of long term pleasure. The study of decision making arrives in many areas: statistics, sociology, economics, psyhology, political science etc. Much research has been dedicated to the mechanics of how we arrive at the outcomes we seek. To understand our own decision making, we need to align our current thought process with an area of focus. To achieve this, we can distinguish our decisions through two different systems.
Decisions In Systems
When we mentally process how we will proceed, the speed we choose is either fast or slow. Popularised by psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast, And Slow’, System 1 is defined as the rapid, unconscious choices we make driven by personal experience and emotion. System 2 offers the more slow, analytical and deliberate choice. While both systems compete for the same outcome, It’s System 1 who wins out when under pressure or while System 2 is strained. System 2 earns its victories in deliberation, rationalisation and self-control.
If we think deeper about our decisions, we identify more with System 2. We believe we are conscious, rational individuals who make decisions based on our beliefs, values, and goals. For example, when applying for a job, we rationalise based on the money we would earn, whether it aligns with our career path and if the position would be enjoyable. The choices then design our world, which forms the basis of habitual, patterned living. Some patterns we see as valuable, like going to the gym at the same time each day or spending every weekend with our family.
In contrast, there may be patterns we would like to mitigate, for instance, working long hours, not exercising or watching too much TV. Although critical to consistency and seeing results in how we live, where we fall short is spending the majority of our time in System 1. We tend to think and respond quickly, failing to slow down and survey the landscape to improve.
Patterns And Benefits
There’s a familiarity to our life. We know which desk to sit at when we get to the office. We turn on the TV when we arrive home. We drive on autopilot, using the same route to work every day. Only when we encounter something out of the norm, do we engage System 2. And for us to improve an area of focus, we’re required to spend more time and exertion rationalising and thinking.
There are, however, benefits that System 1 provides. It often submits feelings, impressions, intuitions and intentions to System 2. If System 2 endorses these suggestions, we voluntary apply actions with purpose. For example, if we eat unhealthily continuously, System 1 may translate guilt into our conscious mind. We are then faced with deciding to put down the unhealthy option or continue as we were. The problem is we don’t perform well, or even at all if we are not ready, or our attention is directed inappropriately. To eat healthily and make an adjusted decision, we should activate System 2 by dedicating more mental resources. This can be in the form of asking ourselves questions: Why do I continue to eat poorly? Am I emotionally eating? The thought process is much tougher but can be remarkably rewarding when leveraging System 1 and engaging the practices of System 2.
Making Less Decisions
To maintain this type of thinking is often a challenge because we are required to do something that does not come naturally. We are called for continuous effort, all while monitoring our own behaviour. To be successful in transitioning conscious thoughts into unconscious actions, there needs to be a balance in resources towards each system. We aren’t optimally performing in the area we seek if we have too many options. The choices we then make are not in line with our direction. To overcome the difficulties, focus on the one thing you want to improve and practice asking yourself: “What is one decision I can make today, where everything else becomes easier?”
• Not eating can prove challenging in making basic decisions throughout the day. But eating a full, nutritious breakfast makes it easier not to constantly snack, priming our day for focus.
• Having a messy desk can overwhelm us when we get to work. But cleaning our desk at the end of each day helps productivity when arriving at the office the following morning.
• Waking up and rushing to find our gym clothes can start our day on the wrong foot. Getting our clothes the evening before means making one less decision waking up, making it easier to start the day.
Continue Making The Right Decisions
To continually make decisions for the benefit of our goals and desires, we should be aware of the mental heuristics that influence our choices. Heuristics, in this instance, are the mental shortcuts our brain takes to arrive at a quick decision. They work for us, but also against us. The upside offers us help with our problem solving, simplifies complex questions, and arrives at a faster outcome. The downside, however, enhances our ability to sway from making decisions in the best interest of ourselves, more specifically, cognitive bias. The key is to make decisions which free up other areas of our life to perform. When we do this, less decisions are made and the focus is on our priorities.