I was recently reminded by a colleague, of Daniel Kahneman’s classic – the amazing: Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), summarizing research conducted over decades; cognitive biases, happiness and prospect theory among other things. Daniel Kahneman is recognized globally as a true leader in the field of psychology, and the list of honors bestowed upon him is long and glorious, with the Nobel Prize in Economics (the only non-Economist ever to receive this) sitting prominently in 2002.
A favorite, inspirational for a lot of people including me, recognized for his ability to transcend his own field of research and for his determination to make the science of psychology relevant and useful to everyone.
Kahneman talks about our thinking to occur in two brain systems: the deliberate, sophisticated handling of self-control, forward thinking, abstractions, anything unfamiliar. This system is brilliant and creative, but slow; and it has a bottleneck: working memory, consuming loads and loads of energy and getting worn-out and tired through use.
And then the automatic, short-cutting, spam-filtering fast processing system, relieving the slow deliberate system of its hard work but inevitably, also leaving you with blind spots: it needs to base its processing on what is known as heuristics, mental shortcuts or rules-of-thumb.
Heuristics will be individual and learned over time. Your personal autopilot, driving you safely to work following a complex route which you don’t have to even think about. Helping you get on and off the escalator without falling over, without pausing to look for the steps. Opening doors with your primary hand. This is true for all human beings; we are all experiencing the world through the lens of our learned heuristics, nobody is “filter-free”. Reality is subjective, and the good news is that no matter how hard a situation seems, there is always a different perspective.
We learn through the “Slow” system, spending all the time and effort, and once the learning becomes automated, it is managed and perpetually reinforced by the “Fast” system. Very efficient!
But, be aware of the impact of this design on decision-making; in the eyes of the Fast system, the most obvious option is always the best option. And the most obvious option may be a behavioral feature of yourself you’d like to change: a bad habit you’d like to stop, a new behavior you’d like to learn.
To change – whether it’s something you will, you won’t, or you want – means disrupting your heuristics and slowing down the fast system. Otherwise it will drag you around, like the tail wagging the dog. Choosing which kind of restaurant, you want to go to for lunch may be ok to automate; choosing which country to expand your business into may not. Your brain will want to automate both (“Italy!”), since it’s really more convenient.
The very simple, fail-safe method to intervene in your brain’s auto-piloting is: to pause.
A pause, if only for a second or one breath, will bring you off autopilot and mobilize your slow, deliberate brain. You will be able to think, to remember your goals and positive motivation. If pausing is a challenge in itself (and it is, for everyone, don’t be shy), this is a skill in its own right, meaning it can be trained.
Try the following simple “power-pausing workout”: for the rest of today, open all doors with your left hand. (or, right hand if you are left-handed like me). This tiny little change will stop your fast system in its tracks, forcing you to think about why you’re doing this.
Exercise every day for a week, and your ability to pause will have improved massively, to be leveraged across any autopilot function you’d like to disrupt. Pressing send on emails too quickly? Forgetting to say “please” to the staff at the canteen? Having a second glass of wine for dinner? Wanting to be more intentional about meeting planning?
There is no limit, really, so don’t be perfectionist about it. Smaller objectives are always better; it’s the way we learn.