How can we be more mindful when we make big decisions? It’s especially difficult given that much has been written lately about how we are all prey to mental mistakes, and rely on assumption, bias and judgment. While behavioral science research shows we rely on faulty intuition and are swayed by authority and public sentiment, it doesn’t give us tools or techniques to overcome our flawed thinking. Instead, this new research explores the many ways that we allow biases, snap judgments and assumptions to drive our decision making. These may help us to make decisions quickly and easily, yet they impede our ability to think open-mindedly and thoroughly about complex problems. In other words, we know our thinking is flawed, but we don’t know what to do about it.
That problem plagued me in my job as an investigative journalist. I worried about how I might control for and counteract my flawed thinking, and I wondered whether there was also a way to better spot the incentives and motivations of others. To tackle that problem I created a system of thinking and making decisions that uses perspective taking. I call it the AREA Method.
AREA is an acronym for my system’s four-stage process; Absolute, Relative, Exploration and Exploitation and Analysis. Its framework proactively manages our mental myopia by moving us from one vantage point to the next, isolating and categorizing information based upon its source, and enabling us to fully appreciate each perspective’s point of view and the incentives that shape it.
Perspective taking acknowledges that although you may think you understand how to solve a particular problem, your understanding of the problem is most likely incomplete and different from how other key players see it. It’s important to recognize other player’s considerations and incentives. You may even come to understand the facts differently. By moving through a research and decision making process that acknowledges this truth, you can better manage your own perspective and more easily make a thoughtful and successful decision.
But it’s not only important to look at what others think and feel to mirror back your own thoughts and feelings. You need a guide to help you look inward, and so AREA takes you through a series of self-assessment exercises. I learned about these exercises from other disciplines including medicine, investigative journalism and intelligence gathering. They point out flaws in our own understanding of our research to highlight and help us catch—and correct for—failures of data and failures of analysis.
In addition, AREA helps us to be mindful by also addressing the critical component of timing head-on. High-stakes decisions deserve time and attention, but often we’re in such a rush to reach a conclusion that we never really take the time for deep reflection. We’re already over-programmed, often answering emails late at night and waking to urgent texts. We struggle with the need to react when we also need to really think. Yet when it comes to our future, we deserve the time needed for thoughtful reflection. Insight doesn’t come from collecting information alone; it comes from brainwork, so AREA builds in what I call “cheetah-like pauses.” Why the cheetah? Because the cheetah’s prodigious hunting skills are not due to its speed alone. Rather, it’s their ability to decelerate quickly that makes them fearsome hunters.
Cheetahs habitually run down their prey at speeds approaching 60 miles per hour, but are able to decelerate in a single stride. This allows the cheetah to make sharp turns, sideways jumps and direction changes. Like the cheetah’s hunt, the AREA Method offers both stability and maneuverability. It doesn’t consistently move forward. Instead, it benefits from calculated pauses and periods of thoughtful deceleration that enable you to consolidate knowledge before accelerating again. The reason: a quality research and decision making process is about depth, flexibility and creativity.
You don’t need lots of money or resources to make a good decision, but you do need good methodology and a clear sense of what you want out of your decision. Whether you’re making a critical professional or personal decision, the AREA Method is an equitable tool that levels the playing field and gives you a step-by-step framework that focuses your work and thinking on your what’s at the core of your decision.
As AREA becomes second nature, it can be part of the frame you bring to the world around you. And in so doing, it may allow you to live your life more mindfully and take advantage of your ideas. With the right framework, the right approach to decision-making—the right process —you can turn good ideas into great thinking.