Use Your Subconscious to Make Better Decisions

choosing the best planHave you ever struggled when faced with an important decision? Would you like to know how to make better decisions?

Decisions about things like what job to take or which apartment to rent or what school to attend?

A lot of people will try to go about this using the old Ben Franklin technique of writing the pros and cons of each option.

Here’s how Ben described his technique:

“My way is to divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and over the other Con. Then during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different time occur to me, for or against the measure. When I have thus got them altogether in one view, I endeavor to estimate their respective weights; and where I find two, one on each side, that seem equal, I strike them both out. If I judge some two reasons con equal to some three reasons pro, I strike out five; and thus proceeding, I find where the balance lies; and if after a day or two of further consideration, nothing new that is of importance occurs on either side, I come to a determination accordingly.” 

While that can be helpful, I find I often still have difficulties making a decision even after I have compiled an extensive list of pluses and minuses.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes writing things out in a purely objective fashion only seems to muddy the water more.

How do you compare apples and oranges?

Is it more important to have morning light in the kitchen window or to be two blocks closer to the subway station? Is it more important to live in a city with a nicer climate and a job I like or to be closer to my family?

The challenge is that the pro and con method uses only the conscious mind. It’s very poor at harnessing the benefit of subconscious knowing and intuition.

Our subconscious does a tremendous amount of work in the background.

I won’t go into much detail here but part of the reason it needs to is because we are constantly bombarded with much more information than we can handle consciously.

Our solution to this is that the subconscious does a lot of filtering. It only brings something to our attention when it recognizes it as important to us.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this in various ways.

This is why you can be at a party carrying on a conversation and completely unaware of the conversation on the other side of the room until somebody over there mentions your name.

You hadn’t been actively eavesdropping. You weren’t even aware of the other conversation until your subconscious picked up the mention of your name.

Your screening system immediately decided that might be something important to you and relayed the info to your conscious awareness.

front end of red carThis is also the reason why once you buy a certain model car you notice all the similar models on the road. Those cars didn’t suddenly materialize. They were there all along. You just didn’t have any reason to notice them before you had one too.

This is part of the reason why goalsetting can be helpful. When we’ve defined a goal, our subconscious can begin to look for events and opportunities that may help us reach it.

Scientists often describe solutions coming to them not when they were actively working on the problem but while they were distracted or relaxing. Think of Archimedes discovering displacement while taking a bath.

Another example I always remember is the chemist who first described the structure of the benzene ring.

benzene ringHe had been trying to work out how these molecules were constructed for some time without success. Then he had a dream of wriggling snakes and suddenly one of the snakes grabbed its own tail.

The dream gave him the insight that benzene had a ring structure.

That’s all well and good, but do we have to wait for some random dream or flash of inspiration? Is there some way to purposely tap into our subconscious?

In short, can we harness the subconscious to help us make better decisions?

Yes, we can!

Here’s a three step process you can try:

Define the decision you want to make or the problem you’re trying to solve. Write it down.

• Next, distract the conscious mind with some activity that will keep it occupied. In various experiments, researchers used computer-based puzzles. You can do the same thing using a puzzle book such as Sudoku or crossword puzzles or anagrams or find-the-word type puzzles. Anything that will keep your conscious mind focused and occupied. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes.

• Now, without thinking too much about it, write down your decision or a solution to the problem you were working on.

I’ve been surprised at the feeling of clarity I often achieve using this short exercise. Give it a try and see how it works for you.

BTW – This isn’t some technique I just made up.  There’s quite a lot of research into this type of decision making.  If you want to look into the studies, here’s a place to start:

On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect
Ap Dijksterhuis, Maarten W. Bos, Loran F. Nordgren, Rick B. van Baaren

Science 17 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5763, pp. 1005-1007
DOI: 10.1126/science.1121629