The quality of your life is affected by the quality of your decisions. Knowing this, you’d think humans would focus on learning to make better decisions. Yet, for some reason, many don’t.
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A study at Cornell University estimates that we make 226.7 decisions each day about food alone. 1 Given this information, it’s safe to assume we make thousands of decisions every day. Therefore, there’s tremendous value in learning how to make better decisions.
Broadly speaking, we make two types of decisions. Those are conscious and subconscious decisions.
You are aware of making conscious decisions. For example, deciding whether you should go to the gym or watch a movie is an example of a conscious decision.
You are also aware that conscious decisions will affect your life. For instance, if you repeatedly choose to watch a movie instead of going to the gym, you know your health will decline.
However, you are unaware of making subconscious decisions. This is problematic because when you’re unaware of your decisions, you’re unaware of how those decisions affect your life.
In this article, I will explain what science knows about the subconscious mind and how you can use that information to make better subconscious decisions.
The subconscious mind is still a debated topic among neuroscientists. That’s because no one fully understands the subconscious mind and what it does. As a result, there are many unsupported subconscious mind theories. Many of these theories are unhelpful, if not harmful.
Thankfully, science does have a good understanding of three subconscious mind functions. These functions are filtering, reacting, and conserving energy.
Learning about these functions can help you make better subconscious decisions.
The five senses send your brain an estimated 11 million bits of information per second. Of these 11 million bits, only 50 are processed by the conscious mind. 2 That’s a lot of filtering.
This means that your brain is very good at ignoring information. The majority of inputs from the environment remain subconscious. Inputs only become conscious when you give them your attention. Put another way, you notice what you pay attention to.
This ability explains how you can have a conversation in a loud bar while ignoring the other discussions, the music, and the feeling of your feet on the floor.
Here’s how filtering can get you in trouble.
Because your conscious bandwidth is small, where you focus your attention is critically important. If you only focus on negative and unhelpful things, you miss the positive and helpful things.
Your brain contains two regions that help you survive. Those are the thinking brain and the reacting brain. I wrote about this concept in-depth in “How To Control Your Emotions Using The Logic Switch.”
The thinking brain handles the high-level thinking that allows you to plan, speak, and create. But, the thinking brain’s power comes at the expense of being slow.
The reacting brain helps you make split-second decisions that keep you alive. It’s the part of the brain that allows you to jump without thought at the sight of a snake. However, the reacting brain’s speed comes at the expense of lacking logic.
Here’s how the reacting brain can get you in trouble.
Strong emotions like fear shut off the thinking brain. When this happens, inputs bypass the thinking brain and are sent directly to the reacting brain. This process saves time and allows you to react without thinking—a helpful ability when you need to escape danger quickly.
While reacting without thinking is good when avoiding danger, it’s harmful in situations that require logical thought. A classic example of this problem is the person who says something they don’t mean in the middle of a heated argument.
Here’s why this is important. If you’re making high-level decisions with your reacting brain, you’re holding yourself back.
The human body has evolved to be very energy-efficient. Here’s why. When your body uses less energy, you need less food. This, in turn, increases your odds of survival.
Deep thought that requires focus and concentration uses a lot of energy. Therefore, your brain avoids this type of thinking when possible to save energy.
Your brain prevents deep thinking in two ways.
1. Automation. Your brain can automate behaviors that once required focus and concentration. This is helpful because automated behaviors are more energy efficient. Neuroplasticity makes this possible.
Learning to play the piano is an example of this ability. At first, moving your fingers to the correct keys is challenging. But, in time, your fingers find the right keys with ease.
Note: Patterns of thought can also become automated. A pessimistic attitude is the result of automated negative thoughts.
2. Shortcuts. When possible, your brain takes the path of least resistance. A cognitive bias known as the bandwagon effect is a great example of your brain using a shortcut.
The bandwagon effect refers to our tendency to do something primarily because everyone else is doing it. Examples include adopting behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes.
When you follow the crowd, you save energy. That’s because you eliminate the need to think deeply about what you are doing. For example, it’s easy to click “buy now” on a product that has thousands of five-star reviews. In contrast, it’s hard to do a competitive analysis of ten products.
While shortcuts are helpful when buying a product on Amazon, they can also get you into trouble if the crowd is wrong. The 2008 housing crisis is a prime example of this problem.
Here are three proven ways to use your understanding of filtering, reacting, and conserving energy to make better subconscious decisions.
Your home is likely full of hundreds, if not thousands, of possessions. If you had to move and could only take ten items, which would you choose?
If you’re wise, you’d only take your most helpful and valuable possessions. That’s because there would be no benefit in selecting useless items.
As you’ve learned, your brain works in a similar way. You receive 11 million bits of information every second, but you can only pay attention to 50.
Therefore, if you want to make better subconscious decisions, pay attention to better things. Stop filtering what’s important.
To start a successful business, pay attention to what makes a business successful. Learn about sales, marketing, and accounting. To be a good spouse, pay attention to what makes a marriage work. Learn about communication, expectations, and compromise.
When you pay attention to better things, the world looks like a different place. You also see opportunities you once missed. A budding entrepreneur recognizes what used to be unseen business opportunities. And, a spouse sees opportunities to compromise that before weren’t obvious.
To make even better decisions, stop paying attention to unhelpful things. Avoid negative people, news stories, and television shows.
Your decisions suffer when you react in situations that benefit from thinking. Therefore, you can make better decisions by learning how to engage your thinking brain. Here’s how you can do that.
Let your emotions calm down. Your thinking brain shuts off when you experience strong emotions. To re-engage your thinking brain, you must let your emotions settle down. This process can take anywhere from 6 seconds to 20 minutes.
So, if you feel your emotions building, take a deep breath and wait six seconds before making a choice. And, if your emotions are overwhelming, take a 20-minute break before making a decision.
You’ve learned that your brain likes to conserve energy when possible. For this reason, your brain often tries to avoid logical thinking and instead uses automated behaviors and shortcuts when it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, this error leads to many poor decisions.
Here are two ideas that can help you avoid this problem.
Idea 1: Automate better behaviors. If you have bad habits, spend the time and energy needed to build better habits.
Here’s an example. Assume you automatically think, “I’m not smart enough” whenever you face a challenge. That mindset is harmful because it influences you to give up.
In this case, you’d benefit from automating a new thought like, “I can solve problems if I work hard.” This mindset is helpful because it influences you to apply yourself.
Here are three steps you can take to build good habits and break bad ones.
Idea 2: Use facts and logic. To prevent yourself from falling victim to shortcuts and cognitive biases, analyze the facts. This will kick-start your thinking brain.
So, before you follow the crowd, question if there is a better option. Before you jump to a conclusion, have a conversation with someone who disagrees. And, before you buy a used car, make sure the market agrees with the price.
By definition, subconscious decisions occur without conscious awareness. So, being aware of poor subconscious decisions is your biggest challenge.
To overcome this problem, you can analyze your decisions after you make them. This will help you recognize if filtering, reacting, or conserving energy are subconsciously affecting your decisions. You can analyze your decisions by asking yourself a series of “why” questions.
Here are two examples.
Assume you’ve had a long-time dream of starting a business. But for some reason, you never decide to get started. Here’s how a series of “why” questions can help you identify what’s holding you back.
In this example, it’s clear that you are paying attention to the wrong things. Starting a business is challenging, but learning to focus on the right things can increase your odds of success.
In this case, you would benefit from:
Let’s assume you have spent too much money over the past month. After reviewing your purchases, you discover that you bought a few items that you don’t need. Here’s how a series of why questions can help you get to the bottom of this problem.
This example illustrates the scarcity bias, our tendency to view scarce items as more valuable than they are. This inflated sense of value increases our desire for an object, which explains why we buy things we don’t need.
Once you are aware of this problem, you can prevent it from happening in the future by remembering to use facts and logic when shopping. So, before you buy something, ask yourself why you want it. If you realize that you’re buying something primarily because it’s scarce or on sale, ask yourself if you need it. If not, don’t buy it.
This lesson applies to most decisions you make. If no facts support your decision, there’s a good chance you’re under the influence of a cognitive bias. When this happens, review the facts before making a final decision.
If you are applying these lessons to every decision you make, you’ll be wasting time. Instead, focus on applying these concepts to significant decisions that impact your life the most.
For example, there’s value in analyzing your choice of college majors. But there’s little value in analyzing your choice of salad dressings.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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