Mindfulness and Decision-Making: 5 practical tools

 In Critical Thinking, Decision-making, Insights, Realizer Blog

Mindfulness and Decision-Making

Scott and I had just met for the first time 2 minutes earlier. And now we were intently & silently staring into each other’s eyes trying to imagine how we were similar to each other. In the background, a soft American voice was instructing us, “You both have dreams. You both have faced challenges. You both like to laugh…..”

Welcome to the world of Google’s famous  Search Inside Yourself 2 day training program (also now a book) on mindfulness, the practice of being present, alert, and non-judgmental.

The Search Inside Yourself program was run this week in Sydney and I took the chance to attend and investigate the overlap between mindfulness and the way we make decisions.

Mindfulness could be an end in its own right, to get more out of life. But it also works as a component of increased compassion, self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

To understand how mindfulness could also be a component of better decision-making, consider X or Y’s 3 step decision-making model:-

3 Decision-Making steps: Open Filter Close

3 Decision-Making steps: Open Filter Close

Here are the top 5 ways I see that mindfulness could make a tangible difference to your decision-making.


In the first step of making your decision, which we call the “Open” phase – mindfulness has three valuable ideas.

1. Being aware of your values

One of the valuable exercises in Search Inside Yourself was to discover your own values. Having a clear set of values spelt out can make a huge difference in making decisions you can look back on and say you honestly did the right thing. Your values can be an important criteria within the Open phase for bigger decisions with a moral or ethical dimension. Here’s a way to get your values down on paper. Write down the names of 3 people you admire. Then write down their characteristics, and what you admire in them as a human being. See what themes emerge. Then using this try and construct a set of 5 values – values which you would feel deep sadness if you couldn’t express.


2. More empathy

There is persuasive evidence that emotional intelligence and empathy can make you a better leader, partner, friend. There is also a link to improved decision-making. Research shows that people who make decisions with others in mind end up happier with their decisions than those who make purely selfish decisions. You can consciously factor this into the criteria you use for a big decision by asking yourself, “What option would benefit others? Who will this affect? What will the knock on effects on them be?”


3. More focus

Famous psychologist and TED speaker Dan Gilbert has run research which shows that our mind wanders 47% of the time. Can mindfulness keep you on track and focused on a decision? Mindfulness involves attention training. It also involves guided meditations to work through problems and decisions. If meditating on a decision isn’t for you, there is an easier way. Write the decision down and try to have the problem, criteria and options all written down on one page (or a whiteboard). Normally when we consider a problem, our mind tends to jump around, considering just one part of it at any one time – one minute we’re thinking about the people consequences, the next we’re thinking about the financial consequences. In order to really “Open” up the decision and get a full view, you want to try and see all parts of the decision at the same time.



There are also two valuable mindfulness ideas which relate to the “Filter” phase of decision-making, which is really about trying to see the world as it really is, not as you want or expect, it to be.


4. Understanding your own emotions

One of the insights from the course was this: emotions are bodily phenomena. Every emotion results in sensations of pain or pleasure in your body. Probably why they’re also called feelings. The desire to reduce or increase these physical sensations then helps guide our actions and decisions. Fascinatingly, Finnish researcher Lauri Nummenmaa and colleagues found there are consistent parts of the body that “feel” different emotions. The image shows below the patterns of positive (red, yellow) and negative (blue) sensations associated with each feeling.


Where do we feel emotions in the body

Where do we feel emotions in the body

So, what’s the link to decision-making? All decisions have an emotional component (see Damasio’s research), but most of the time we’re not fully aware of how our emotions are driving our decisions, for example fear and pride can really skew us to make poor quality decisions driven by short term feelings and ignoring longer term benefits. Being able to read your own emotions is therefore going to help you rise above and better understand your potential biases in your decision. The way to do this? A mindfulness body scan can work to allow you to read your body, piece by piece, and understand your emotions more precisely. Then try and overcome the emotions by imagining what you would do without them, e.g. “What would I do if I had no fear?” or “What would I advise a friend to do if they were in this situation?”


One additional tip in this area is to own your decisions, not have them own you. To do this, name your feelings: let your internal voice say, “I am experiencing anger” instead of just being angry. Then the anger doesn’t have to define you. You are aware of it, not absorbed by it. Naming that emotion is the first step to stopping it affecting you negatively. This can help you making those instinctive decisions, such as snapping back at your partner or getting defensive in a meeting.

5. Reducing the sunk cost effect

One common bias in decision-making is the sunk cost effect. Once we’ve expended some time, money or energy on something, that cost is gone forever and should not affect our decisions. But it does. For example the story of the death of five climbers on Mount Everest in 1996 shows some signs of bad decision-making. They set themselves a deadline to turn around if they hadn’t made the summit. But when they got so close, they decided to go past their deadline. As a result they got stuck in a snowstorm and five died. They may have said to themselves (consciously or subconsciously), we’ve come so far and spend so much time and money to get here let’s just keep going. A less serious version of this shows itself in business projects which keep going too long due to the sunk costs effect.

Luckily, a 5 minute mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce the sunk cost effect. People in this situation make clearer, more sensible decisions and are less encumbered by past events and sunk costs.


In conclusion

Most of us would probably make better decisions if we did a 5 minute mindfulness meditation before we considered the decision, leading us to be calmer, more self-aware and more empathetic.

If you like mindfulness and meditation, I hope that you can turn the theory into practical decision-making benefits using some of the ideas I’ve highlighted above.

Written by Rob Pyne