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Podcast 132: Decision controls

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This is podcast 132 and it’s about decision controls. This episode is sponsored by Clean Email, the answer to email inbox overload. I’ve written about ways to clear out that clutter, but you can save time by using the Clean Email app. You can set up custom Auto Clean filters to archive, delete or move emails as soon as they arrive so you never have to spend time manually managing them. Sound good? You can use my special link to sign up for Clean Email here with a 30% discount: https://clean.email/clutter

So what the heck are decision controls, you may ask? I happened upon this phrase hearing about Dr. Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, a British fire fighter who’s also a doctor of behavioral neuroscience. She wanted to know if decisions made by fire fighters in the heat of the moment (yeah, I couldn’t resist) were as well informed as they could be, in order to be effective and also safe.

Here’s a quotation from her: “I found 80 per cent of all industrial accidents – including the fire service – are caused by human error. Not inadequate policy or bad procedures, but someone making the wrong choice, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. In high-stress environments, we also found ‘situational awareness’ was limited; commanders were operating very much in the here and now rather than anticipating what may happen next.”

Okay, so you’re not a firefighter. This applies to anyone. It applies to any time you’re in a high stress situation. It also applies whenever you’re in a situation where because of boredom, inattention, overwhelm or impatience, you make a decision NOT based on analyzing the situation to come up with the right decision.

Sabrina and her colleagues came up with a list of questions to ask in these situations. The first one is: Why are we doing this? This meaning the solution we’re about to implement. Instead of stopping yourself and saying, wait a sec, is my gut feeling or habitual reaction the right answer, you back up further and ask why you’ve chosen that course of action.

This is important because the first question, is my gut feeling right, is a yes or no answer and in a pinch you may just want to say yes and get on with it. But if the question requires that you explain why your solution is appropriate, that forces you to come up with actual reasons, rather than relying on past experience or your gut. Gut reactions give you valuable information, but they should be confirmed with other evidence. I think this is similar to the phenomenon I mentioned last time, that talking to yourself forces you to string together a coherent argument, not simply spin in your head.

The next question the study came up with is “what do we think will happen?” This question also takes you out of the moment a bit so you can visualize what the result of your action will be. We can get caught up in taking an action, like throwing a bucket of water onto a fire, without thinking any farther than the water hitting the fire. But what happens right after that? Will one bucket make a difference? Is it a fire that will even be affected by water? What else might occur as a result, that might change the whole situation, or even backfire?

Both these questions bring you back to the here and now. Instead of being tempted to do what you did last time, you are encouraged to be more analytical about this particular situation, right now, that may well have significant differences from previous ones.

What you want to develop is that situational awareness I mentioned, which just means knowing what’s going on around you. From a non-fire fighter’s perspective, this can mean taking a look around you and registering that there are dishes to put away, paperwork to take back to your desk and old newspapers to throw out.

It could mean looking at your calendar and to do list and seeing that you have a meeting in two hours, several errands that need to be done and you need to take time to do your arm exercises if you ever want to recover from that injury. You could just leap into action (often a perfectly viable idea) or you could pretend you’re a fire fighter and run through those questions, adding on a third which is: am I confident this is the best practicable solution?

Clearly, when you’re in a burning building you aren’t going to get out a list and a pencil and go through each question. The idea is to internalize them so that they become an easily available decision-making tool. In the study I mentioned, the decision controls were shown to increase situational awareness without slowing down decision making.

The big takeaway here is to stop or at least slow down enough to take in what’s actually going on right now without being tuned out or distracted or overwhelmed. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.

What you can do now: Practice for that next volatile situation by using the questions in a more mundane context. Let yourself take time to analyze what’s happening and see how that changes your decision making.

Podcast 131: How to avoid multitasking

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This is podcast 131: how to avoid multitasking. By now you’ve heard, if not from me, then from many others, that multitasking is a bad idea. That’s true. It’s not effective. It makes your work take longer, you’ll make more mistakes and it increases your chances of not finishing the main thing you need to do because you’ve gone down so many rabbit holes.

I’ve also written that there are situations where multitasking can be helpful, such as when you don’t have a time crunch to finish something and being able to spread your attention around makes it easier for you to get some work done on it. You’ll go slower, but it’s better to get something done than nothing, as I talked about in the previous podcast.

For those of you who want more ideas on how to avoid it, or stop it in its tracks, here you go. I work at home most of the time and this first tip may not work for you otherwise. I talk to myself. I narrate what I’m doing. I’ll say, okay, I’m going to write the intro for the podcast. As I write, I realize I want to look something up online to quote in the podcast, so I tell myself I’m doing that. If I see other tabs still open when I go online, I tell myself I’ll look at them later.

I believe this works because our minds kind of encourage us to multitask by constantly throwing new thoughts and ideas in our paths. But we can truly only focus on one thing at a time. Hint: this is why multitasking actually doesn’t even exist, much less work. When you talk to yourself, your words come out of your mouth one after the other in a single coherent stream, ideally. It’s not like in your head where words and ideas can be jumbled together. You verbalize one thought at a time. This makes your current task you’re telling yourself about stand out from all the others rattling around in your brain.

Another method I use is a checklist. A listener asked me to do an episode about multitasking and she gave the example of all the little tasks she needs to create an Instagram post. I have a checklist to do this podcast. I’ve been doing it for a few years now, so I know the ropes. I know every little thing I need to get done to create, record, post and promote my podcast. So, why a checklist?

Back in January of 2017 I did a whole episode about the power of checklists. A surgeon even wrote an entire book about how incredibly important checklists are. He notes that in a busy hospital where life or death situations are common, it’s incredibly easy to have one’s attention diverted and make even the smartest doctor forget to perform a critical routine task. In my case and my listener’s, we’re likely to get our attention scrambled by calls, messages, emails and shiny squirrels that pop up online.

But if we know we have a checklist to consult, we’re less likely to succumb to distraction. Sometimes I use both techniques at once when I complete a step and then tell myself, okay, onto step four!

The other problem checklists address is complexity. Even if you know how to do a job and it doesn’t seem that hard, it may still have many moving parts and if for some reason you omit a step, the end result will be unsatisfactory or even fail.

Complexity also includes change. I’ve changed things I do regarding my podcast over time and my checklist reminds me of those changes so I don’t have to rely on remembering them.

I want to be consistent in the way I do things; that’s important for my business. It would feel stressful to have to remember every tiny thing and do it the same way in the same order each time. The checklist relieves me of that. As soon as I complete item number 1, I go back to my list and see what item number 2 is. There’s no downtime for me to wonder what’s next and leave space for distraction to come in.

My third tip is to use an alarm or some other interrupter that reminds you to check whether what you’re doing right then is the right thing to do. If the alarm finds you doing the work you intended to spend that time on, then you’re good. If it finds you down a rabbit hole, then you can haul yourself back out of it.

An alarm can help you keep track of how often you are getting distracted, percentage-wise, and see if you need to do more to prevent that. If you make notes about what you’re doing when the alarm sounds, you can also get a picture of how your entire day is spent and either pat yourself on the back or comb through my previous podcast episodes for help.

What you can do right now: try one or all of these methods of avoiding multitasking. Talk yourself through the steps of your project. Refer to your checklist to keep your project on track. Use an alarm to confirm that you’re spending your time the way you intended. Try all three or mix and match!