This curated column is authored by Zat Rana.
“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”
Those words are often attributed to Isaac Newton. They may evoke a chuckle, but they get to the root of a problem faced by us all — irrational behavior.
Making decisions is one of keystone actions we all take on a consistent basis, and we’re all faced with an abundance of options that lead us in conflicting directions. It’s hard not to be irrational.
It doesn’t help that part of our brain is wired like we still live in hunter and gatherer societies where short-term impulses took precedent.
It made sense then because not reacting to impulses inspired by fear or anger could lead to death in the wild, but that’s no longer the case. In a modern society, short-term decisions are no longer the most optimal.
Yet, our short-sighted brain patterns continue to dominate how we interact with the world. There is obviously a time and a place where that’s welcomed (things like love and beauty and even anger have their place), but to function well, it’s important to make distinctions, too.
How we feel about something in the moment isn’t always the best predictor of how we’ll feel about it over a period. The thing that we’re focused on today and tomorrow may not be the thing that matters most in the scheme of things.
There is a bigger picture out there worth being aware of.
The Value of High-Level Thinking
One of the things that differentiates people who consistently align their actions and decisions with what they want and people who don’t is not just long-term thinking, but also a form of high-level thinking.
As Ray Dalio, the manager of the largest hedge fund in the world, says:
“People who overweight the first-order consequences of their decisions and ignore the effects that the second- and subsequent-order consequences will have on their goals rarely reach their goals.”
This is something that both Warren Buffett and his long-term partner Charlie Munger also talk about a lot, and it’s critical in all facets of life.
Being able to step back from immediacy and use high-level thinking to evaluate the effects of your actions and decisions beyond just the initially visible cause and effect relationship is an indispensable quality, and it’s how smart people make good long-term decisions.
Naturally, the problem is that it’s hard. It’s not intuitive to how we think and feel, and as a result even if we know the idea, it doesn’t always register.
Fortunately, I think I’ve stumbled across a way.
The 10/10/10 Method
I first came across this method in an article by Stanford professor Chip Heath. I’ve since applied it to both my personal relationships and my work.
The idea is fairly simple. Any time I feel a slight conflict about a decision or an action, I take a moment to ask myself the following three questions:
- How will I feel about it in 10 minutes?
- How will I feel about it in 10 months?
- How will I feel about it in 10 years?
A good example would be a trip I was considering a few months ago.
Over the past year, I’ve been working quite a bit. It’s something I’ve enjoyed, and it’s also something I’m grateful to do, but I’ve made compromises to do so.
Many of my close friends are scattered all over the country (Canada) and the world, and I generally try to make a few trips a year, when I can, to make sure that I’m not losing touch with people that matter to me. I’ve done this fairly consistently over the past few years, but this year has been different.
Due to my work load, that priority slipped quite a bit, and even when a good opportunity came up a few months ago, I was hesitant for weeks.
I made all sorts of rationalizations as to why I should delay the trip and I kept postponing my decision, even though I didn’t feel great about it.
Eventually, I asked the questions.
How will I feel 10 minutes after booking? — “I’ll likely be a little conflicted, but slowly, I know I’ll get excited about seeing old friends and catching up.”
How will I feel 10 months after the trip? — “There is almost no chance that I’ll look back and wish that I had continued to postpone my plans until now.”
How will I feel 10 years after the trip? — “The extra work I may have done will be completely irrelevant, but I’ll probably still treasure the memories I made.”
I took the trip, and as always, it was one for the books.
The quality of your daily decisions informs the quality of your life.
Whether it’s at home or at work, high-level thinking enables a kind of objectivity when considering options. It allows you to balance the conflicting forces in your mind with the incentives of reality.
You’re obviously not going to solve every problem you have using this method, but you would be surprised at how well you can diagnose most of them.
Whether it’s sticking to a diet, managing your priorities, or finding the courage to face a fear, all you have to do is ask yourself three questions.
If you make a habit out of it, over time, you’ll train your brain to automatically analyze second and third-order consequences of different actions. That’s one of the most powerful mental advantages there is.
There is a reason investors like Dalio, Buffett, and Munger succeed over such long periods of time. They don’t let negative emotions or shortsightedness get in their way because they’ve learned to calibrate their decision-making process to the outcomes that they deem desirable.
With the 10/10/10 method, there is no reason you can’t do the same.