“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”—Voltaire
In the spring of 1997 I was job hunting. I was interested in a position at a local company that matched my skillset, but there was a problem. Several of my friends had either worked for the company or knew someone who had and every one of them said it was a horrible place to work. They listed issues such as disorganization, poor management, and low employee morale. It was red flag city.
So what did I do? I took the job anyway. I lasted just nine months before calling it quits. They were right. It was a bad place to work.
Of course, I asked myself, “What was I thinking?” but an even better question would be, “Was I thinking?”
Better still would have been to ask “Am I thinking?” at the time of the decision.
Now it’s a great question and an important question because only by thinking about our thinking can we improve how we do it. The more you know about how your brain thinks, the more success you will have in improving your decision performance.
The practice of thinking about thinking is called metacognition. It is your brain’s ability to shine a light on itself. We are the only species that has this ability - to think about how we make decisions, learn, predict outcomes, and navigate the world.
Metacognition is not precisely defined. The term was coined by American developmental psychologist John H. Flavell in 1976 but its concepts were explored much earlier. It is an important part of leadership development, helps students improve their capacity to learn and can even help professional investors make more money.
It certainly would have helped me make a better job decision. I did use metacognition retrospectively as I reflected on my decision process. What had I missed? Where did my decision process fail? What influenced my thinking? And most importantly - how can I avoid making the same mistake in the future?
One of the biggest problems we have in our decision making is going with our default “autopilot” mode. It creates an environment that is highly susceptible to our primitive subconscious impulses, especially those that emphasize safety, comfort and familiarity over our higher level goals and objectives.
It’s fine for lower level decisions that have little impact. but for the big impactful decisions it can be a big problem.
So we need to pay attention to what’s going on up there - to think about how we think so we can ensure our decisions match our goals and values.
Where to Start
How can you develop your metacognitive abilities? This blog is a great place to start (he said humbly). You can also join my newsletter so you don't miss the latest entries.
Of course, you can and should go deeper. While the sheer volume of research and knowledge on how we think is overwhelming, I can suggest some areas from which can benefit lay people like us right off the bat. Here is a list of fields and disciplines that produce wonderful insights into how we think and decide, compare and judge, and predict and evaluate:
Behavioral economics - BE studies how various psychological, cognitive, and emotional factors affect decision making. It differs from classical economic theory in that it accounts for people behaving irrationally, as people often do. It’s an immensely useful field to explore.
Media / information literacy - While the advent of the information age made information much more accessible, it did not bring with it the knowledge of how to accurately and usefully consume all that information. Decisions based on inaccurate or blatantly false information are likely to be suboptimal, so being able to critically evaluate information and media sources is essential to peak decision performance.
Emotional intelligence - EI is a skillset that enhances your ability to recognize emotions, both yours and others’, in order to guide your thinking and behavior and better achieve your goals. EI improves a person’s perceptions, their ability to develop and maintain positive relationships, and their understanding of how emotion affects decision making.
Persuasion - The study of persuasion has gained steam in the internet era as organizations have greater access to consumers and more tools of persuasion at their disposal. Persuasion is not inherently good or bad and it can be used to motivate in a positive way or to manipulate someone to act against their own interests. Please use your powers of persuasion only for good!
Metacognitive insights and practice will help you make better decisions, be happier and more productive, and achieve more of what you want.
What are you waiting for?
- Steve Haffner, decision performance and productivity expert
Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?