How this model of intelligence helped me get over my indecision

I recently* read a book that claims prediction represents the core of intelligence. Think about that. We are intelligent, therefore we are able to predict. We are by that measure more intelligent than other animals because we are able to predict more complex things.

I'll leave the evolutionary details aside for a moment and skip over to another observation.

My context: decision overload

My life is of such nature that, should I choose, I have the opportunity to make an overwhelming number of important decisions in a very short amount of time.

In fact, I believe everyone's life can become this way if they choose to follow their own values instead of others'. That's a topic for another article, however.

I currently enjoy a flexible lifestyle. It's wonderful! However, it comes with a potential for decision paralysis. Being self employed, I get to decide when and where I work, for how long, and more. I get to change what I do over time, if I want to, and so much more. My whole reality is very similar to any new situation or any abundance of freedom you may have. Keeping an open mind to "all possible decisions" comes at a cost, and it also has great rewards.

I would not be able to follow my own path if I always looked to follow others. And in order to follow my own path, I have to make my own decisions. And the more distinct that path is from the paths I can currently draw from, the more obstacles I will hit.

So, in case you, like me, and have been struggling with indecision and you find yourself nodding to these things, great! The first thing you should do is pat yourself on the back and give yourself a break. It's fine to expect great things of yourself, and by the same token you must also have compassion for your own feelings and efforts.

The most powerful realization you can have

What is the purpose of prediction? To help us make decisions. Decisions help us survive and learn. Surviving one decision and learning from it virtually guarantees growth. Think about how powerful that is! Let that realization sink in for a moment. This is why... so many things:

... And its consequences

This is why so many startups talk about failing early and failing fast. Fast over perfect.

Process >= result

This is why our framework for making decisions can easily matter more than the decisions themselves in the chaos of life. In other words, the process or strategy you set forth will, given enough chance and time, succeed despite all odds. And it is the process, much more than the result, that is the true value here.

Exactly what evolution does

This is why evolutionary theory is all about survival in the face of change. All about adaptations that provide a reproductive advantage. It is really the same in our business:

  • Businesses that are nimble and constantly focus on making advances and innovations in their industries are the ones that grow beyond imagination and survive radical changes in their surrounding environments (change in demands, fierce competition, etc). In other words, businesses that have the processes laid out in such a way that they can adapt to change more readily are more likely to survive.
  • Businesses that can predict what an advantage would be over the competition and then execute on it will ultimately grow to replace the competition.

And in personal lives:

  • Trust is all about prediction. We learn what and who we can and cannot trust. Those of us who have a good process for trust are going to make better decisions trusting or not.
  • Think of any conversation you have had with someone new. Chances are you made tons of predictions about them within seconds of interacting with them. The more of those predictions are right, the more potential for the connection. Be it dating, friendship, negotiation.

The consequences and causes of not making decisions

This is why the paradox of choice resonates with so many. It's like your brain having to use swap space to calculate your result. It is also why distractions and extreme acts are so much more common now. We are still understanding decision fatigue and the limits of willpower.

Prediction is the best we've got

Even the best means we have to understand the world are all about prediction.

If you remember only one thing out of this writing, let it be this: commit to making focused decisions. The more high-impact decisions you can make with your mind at its "best-prediction" state (a.k.a. fully charged willpower), the more confident you can be, the more you will learn, the faster you will grow, the less indecisive you will become.

How to avoid indecision?

I use all sorts of tricks to work through my indecisive moments. In an effort not to overwhelm you with choice, here are just a few excellent processes to help with your indecisions:

  • Set yourself a reminder to look back and find recent times when you were undecided. Then take some time to reflect on them. Try to learn something each time, no matter how small. Depending on how indecisive you are, it may make sense to have this reminder once per day, once per week. Mine is once per week and it's literally "How decisive was I? Did I circle the drain?"
  • Relax and don't expect to decide something right away when you are confronted with it. Most things can wait much longer than we intuitively feel. Ask yourself: is this a really complex decision? If it is, then it's natural to take a bit longer. Pressuring yourself to decide sooner may only make it worse.
  • When you feel you're stuck, simply pause. Give yourself a while to forget about the urgency, to relax your frustration. Then come back to it when that feeling of anxiety is gone, or reduced.
  • Whether you come back or are close to deciding the first time around. Do you find you just can't pull the trigger? Try imagining that you've already decided. That you've moved on to the next thing. Can you see which decision you might have made looking back? If not, perhaps it's not such an important decision after all.
  • Try deciding one way and sleeping on it. Then see how you feel in the morning.
  • Try writing it all out. Paint a picture of your future world with that decision made.
  • Research suggests it takes 21 days to form a habit. Depending on what you're trying to learn and unlearn (or displace), 21 days can feel anywhere between a walk in the park and one of the most painful changes you've ever experienced. My friend Alex recently told me about how they built bicycles that steer the other way when you turn the handles one way, and that it takes a person a similar amount of time to learn either.

To learn one and then the other, however, is a very painful process. And, as you may intuit, you cannot ride one after the other. You cannot know both at once.

Focus on indecisions that are most costly to you

Costly how? That depends on your values. For example, health is my number one value. So I ask myself what indecisions do I experience that cost me my health? Do I treat my body well? Do I stress myself out? Do I even know what's good for my body and mind?!

Speaking of values: make them clear

Focus on stepping back and having clear values. Unclear values are going to cause frequent indecisions. In his book, Tony Robbins talks about how important clear values are. You really cannot underestimate the importance of clear values and priorities in life. Every decision we make weighs our different values and how they agree and conflict with each other.

Remain aware of time

One way I increase my awareness is through daily meditation. This helps me avoid sinking too deeply down a path of indecision. If you find yourself struggling to get out of indecision mode because you're experiencing the sunk costs effect, set a timer.

Any progress is good progress and should be celebrated

I believe in the amazing power of positive reinforcement. So don't beat yourself up if you fail and then realize you failed. That just means you are aware. It means you can take the next step and intervene. And then intervene earlier and earlier in the process until you have completely replaced it with a better process!

My prediction

Alright let's put this intelligence thing to use in my own brain and make some predictions.

I predict that the author is correct and that the reason for this perceived qualitative difference between humans and other brainy things is more a matter of quantity than anything else. At least, so it was initially. It's possible some qualitative difference has since develop (like specialized neurons), but in general our brains seem to generically adapt most parts of the brain to other functions when needed.

I predict that we will continue to teach animals to do things that we didn't think were possible. I predict that we will be able to teach ourselves things that way as well--by specializing, with use of technology, with our ever increasing genetic diversity given the large numbers of us on Earth, and so on.

And I predict we will create intelligent things as well.


*) For my own record, I originally wrote this around July 28.