One distraction I’ve learned to avoid is consuming media that’s just telling me things I already know and agree with

JULIA GALEF is a writer and speaker who focuses on the question, “How can we improve human judgment, especially on complex, high-stakes decisions?” Julia is the co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality, a nonprofit that runs workshops on improving reasoning and decision-making. Since 2010, she has hosted the Rationally Speaking podcast, a biweekly show featuring conversations with scientists, social scientists, and philosophers. Julia is currently writing a book about how to improve your judgment by reshaping your unconscious motivations. Her TED Talk, “Why You Think You’re Right—Even If You’re Wrong,” has more than three million views.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
When something goes badly, I don’t automatically assume I did something wrong. Instead I ask myself, “What policy was I following that produced this bad outcome, and do I still expect that policy to give the best results overall, occasional bad outcomes notwithstanding?” If yes, then carry on!

The reason this habit is so important is that even the best policies will fail

some percent of the time, and you don’t want to abandon them (or beat yourself up) as soon as one of those inevitable failures pops up.

Let’s say you always aim to arrive at the airport 1 hour and 20 minutes before your flight. One day there’s an accident on the highway that ends up delaying you, and you just barely miss your flight. Does that mean you should have left more time? Not necessarily. A policy of aiming to be two hours early to the airport would have saved you this time, but it comes with a different cost—lots more time spent waiting in airports. Aiming for 1 hour 20 minutes may still be the best policy going forward even though it occasionally, like today, causes a missed flight.

Similarly, I have a tendency to beat myself up over mistakes I make in a blog post, or in a meeting, or giving a talk, etc., and my impulse is always to think “Well, I should have spent more time preparing for that.” Sometimes that’s true. But other times, the right conclusion is, “No, actually, the amount of prep time I would have to spend before each talk, to avoid mistakes like that, is not worth it overall.”

To give a somewhat different example, I was recently on a New Jersey Transit train during winter and, looking out the window, I thought I saw a fire on the train tracks. No one else was reacting, so I thought, “It’s probably nothing to worry about,” but I wasn’t sure, so I went and hunted for a train conductor and told him about it. Turns out it was indeed nothing to worry about—apparently train companies use flames to de-ice their tracks during winter. My impulse was to feel silly for worrying about nothing, but upon reflection, I realized, “No, actually, I think it’s good to continue checking on risks that would be really bad if I was right. Even if, most of the time, it turns out I was wrong.”

What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I think most recommendations are bad because they’re one-size-fits-all. “Take more risks.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” “Work harder.” The problem is that some people need to take more risks, while others need to take fewer risks. Some people need to ease up on themselves, while others are already too self- forgiving. Some people need to work harder, while others are already skating on the edge of burnout. And so on.

So, I think the most useful kind of recommendations are about improving your general judgment—your ability to accurately perceive your situation (even if the truth isn’t flattering or convenient), your possible options, and the tradeoffs involved. Good judgment is what allows you to evaluate whether a recommendation is appropriate to your situation or not; without it, you can’t tell the difference between good and bad advice.

The books Superforecasting (by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner) and How to Measure Anything (by Douglas W. Hubbard) have some good advice on how to improve your ability to make accurate predictions. And Decisive (by Chip Heath and Dan Heath) explains four of the biggest judgment errors (like framing your decision too narrowly, or letting temporary emotions cloud your judgment) and gives tips for combating them.

In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?

One distraction I’ve learned to avoid is consuming media that’s just telling me things I already know and agree with (for example, about politics). That stuff can be addictive because it feels so validating—it’s like venting with a friend— but you’re not learning from it, and over time, I think indulging that impulse makes you less able to tolerate other perspectives. So I broke my addiction by, essentially, reminding myself how much time I was wasting not learning anything.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I sometimes find myself torn between two options, and it’s clear to me that the stakes are high, but it’s not at all clear which option is better. So I keep agonizing over the choice, Ping-Ponging back and forth between my options, even though I’m not getting any new information.

Fortunately, at some point in this process, I remember this principle: Uncertainty over expected value (EV) just gets folded into EV. So, if I know that one of option A or B is going to be great, and the other’s going to be a disaster, but I’m totally unsure which is which, then they have the same expected value.

That’s a powerful reframe. Thinking to yourself, “One of these options is great and the other’s terrible, but I don’t know which is which” is paralyzing— but thinking to yourself, “These options have the same expected value as each other” is liberating.

(Of course this assumes you can’t cheaply purchase more information about A and B to reduce your uncertainty about which is better. If you can, you should! This advice is about getting yourself to act in situations where there’s no more cheap info left to purchase, and you feel paralyzed.)

Let’s say you’re agonizing over two possible jobs you could take, and you feel overwhelmed because you can’t easily tell which one is a better option. Job A is more prestigious and higher-paying, but Job B has a more supportive culture and you’ll have more freedom to choose your projects.

What you should ask yourself is, “Is there some way for me to get additional

information that would settle this question?” Maybe you could talk to people at the respective companies about their job satisfaction, or you could look at what former employees of A and B go on to do.

But maybe you’ve done stuff like that already, and the answers didn’t help settle it for you. If that’s the case—if there’s no additional information you could easily get that would make the “right choice” clear—then you should relax and just pick one without worrying anymore. And I know that “relax and stop worrying” is often easier said than done, but if I can’t tell which one is the better choice, then for all intents and purposes, they’re equally good choices.

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