How to Have a Good Day

by Carolina Webb

Most non-Fiction books I enjoy fall into two categories. They either leave me satisfied with the received knowledge of a few key ideas or they leave me slightly frusterated because even though I'll remember a few key points made by the book, it will also tons of contain smaller and more specific tidbits of knowledge that I'll no doubt forget the moment they could actually benefit me. I've tried combating this in many forms such as taking rigorous notes, loading my audible up with bookmarks and saved clips, making cheat-sheets of my favorite parts, and now writing a summary on the internet.

At the very start of the book the author lays out a few hard scientific results which have been replicated many times by psychology researchers. One of these is the difference between our deliberate thinking (conscious thought) and automatic thinking (sub-conscious thought). Generally people think that our deliberate thinking dominates how we perceive the world and how we act based on those perceptions, but in reality our automatic thinking can be more powerful (and rarely more beneficial in our current world, for example cognitive biases). One of the studies referenced which shows the power of the automatic thinking, is the selective attention test by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. This is where a gorilla walks in between a group of people passing a basketball around. Some 50% of people are found to have not seen the gorilla when told to count how many times the basketball is passed around. This is because their automatic system is filtering out unnecessary information. This is at the core of one of the key points I learned from the book which is setting your intentions.

Imagine that you are going into a meeting and you are told that the person leading the meeting is always mean and rude to others in these types of meetings. Just like the people who were told to count the basketball passes had their automatic system filter out the gorilla, going into a meeting with the intention of seeing someone being mean or rude could cause your automatic system to filter out things that don't fall in line with what you expect while emphasizing on what does. This could cause you and someone told to expect the meeting leader to be courteous and nice, to perceive the meeting in two totally different ways.

Setting your intentions is really as simple as pre-loading your attitude so that your automatic system will focus (and not filter out) what is important. The author suggests to not being shy to visualize exactly what you want in an attempt to make as clear communication as you can with your automatic system. Setting your intentions can also greatly effect our actions which our automatic system plays a strong role in also. Pre-load your intentions before a meeting by thinking how you want to appear confident, and the author suggests you'll naturally sit more upright, speak louder, and appear more confident to others.

The author suggests that cognitive biases are simply our automatic thinking doing tasks that really should be left with our deliberate thinking. When we perform confirmation bias for example, the author suggests that this is our automatic brain filtering out information that would force us to change our minds. The evolutionary argument is that changing our mental model requires our deliberate system to think hard which costs energy and resources. If you set your intentions right, you should be able to help fight this control of the automatic system. In fact this is what anyone who is trained in rationality does naturally. Hmm I'm about to do _____ and I know that generally the _____ bias could have a drastic effect on circumstances like this. I'll just try to make myself as aware as possible of the bias in the hopes I don't commit it. 

Intention setting and understanding how large of an impact our automatic system can have (and hopefully realizing when its taking control so you can combat it if you need to think deliberately) is definitely my key take away from the book. Here are some of the small but interesting tidbits of information I enjoyed and hopefully won't forget:

  • Give up multitasking. Studies have shown repeatedly that multitasking makes your far less productive. In fact studies have also shown that thinking your great at multi-tasking means your even worse than most people at it. Focus on one thing at a time. Cut down on distractions and when some new tasks pops up, put it aside to finish when your done. Batching is also a good thing (saving all your laundry, bills paying, stuff like that for one set block of time every week).
  • Take breaks often. At the very least every 90 minutes get off your ass and do something physical to give your body a refresher and also give your mind a break by thinking of something else. Your going to work even faster after your break and you'll end up being more productive than just powering through. You aren't wasting time either, think of it as a formula 1 car taking a pit stop. Even for cars that go 300 Km/h it makes sense to come to a complete stop, if that stop allows them to go even faster once they start up again. Also get your sleep if you have a mentally demanding job. The book references studies which show how just losing an hour of sleep each day reduce your mental performance drastically.
  • Practice mindfulness. Google it, there's better info out there on it than I can provide.
  • Extreme listening. For any of you with a long term girlfriend you can skip this part as you already know it. Just because someone is complaining to you about something doesn't mean the best course of action is to jump at them with solutions. In fact this usually has the opposite effect and puts them in sort of a defensive flight/fight mode (which is their automatic system taking over and stopping the deliberate thinking). When dealing with situations like this you have to be very careful to ensure your always dealing with the other persons deliberate system and by not putting them into a defensive mode where they feel like their intellect is being challenged.
  • When struggling with a complex problem, try adding social context to it to help make it easier to think about. Studies have shown that we perform way better at games that have social context than games that don't. Ex. there are four cards in front of you. Each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. The cards you see in front of you are [ D A 3 7 ]. Which cards do you need to flip over to confirm that the rule "All cards with a D on it, must have a 3 on the other side." The answer is that you flip cards D and 7. 75% of people decide to flip 3 as well, though its not needed. However add social context and the results improve so that only 25% of people get the wrong answer. For example, instead of letters use beer and water, and have the numbers represent a persons age. Then tell the person they are a bouncer and they must make sure that no one younger than 18 is drinking. [ Beer Water 20 13 ], see much easier.
  • Procrastination is simply present bias (damn automatic system) mixed with a skewed cost/benefit analysis that under estimates the cost of not performing what you are procrastinating for. To help ease procrastination, un-skew the cost/benefit by making yourself painfully aware of the costs or add some extra benefit for yourself.

Originally posted on Facebook July 22, 2016.