Don’t Take Stats at Face Value

I was listening to Colorado Public Radio the other day. In a story about the challenges facing today’s high school students, the host said, “Twenty percent of Denver Public School students deal with some sort of mental illness.”

My first thought was “Wow! One in five students. That’s terrible!” But being part social researcher, my mind then went to: “Says who? How large was the sample? How are they defining mental illness? Was this a study based on student self-reporting or observation of student behavior? This is a story about high school students. How much of the sample was elementary and middle school students? What hypothesis did the researchers begin with? Who conducted the study? How qualified were the researchers? Might there be research bias because of who paid for the study?” and on and on.

Now, before you accuse me of being anal about all this, remember that the results of this study, and others like it, are using taxpayer dollars to fund programs related to this issue. Likewise, we use statistics to persuade others to make all sorts of decisions every day – “Four out of five doctors prefer . . . Nine out of ten customers recommend . . . Raising the sales tax by one tenth of one percent will lift 270,000 children out of poverty.

Does all this sound familiar? We tend to play fast and loose with statistics of all kinds and that can get us in real trouble. Chances are, you do it yourself. There is a natural human desire to be the authority in the room and quoting statistics helps us fulfill that role. But how many times do any of us ask about the veracity of the statistics we hear? Even if they are well researched, are they appropriate for the particular argument? A statistic that tugs at my heartstrings will not help me make a rational decision. Yet that is a common tactic for many attempting to raise money or pass legislation.

Surprisingly, very few scientific or social studies are replicated by others to check their veracity. As a result, we are left to trust that those conducting the research have collected accurate data, employed the correct analysis, and reported their findings without bias. Sadly, we are seeing more and more evidence that research is being conducted with a particular outcome in mind. The discredited blood sampling research conducted by Theranos Corporation comes to mind. Or perhaps the “hockey stick” controversy that resulted from manipulated climate change data. Additionally, the media, political parties, activists, corporations and others commission research that feeds a particular agenda. The result is that more and more of us take quoted statistics with a grain of salt because we’ve seen evidence of manipulation in the past.

Statistics, used with appropriate context and clarity can be extremely powerful in helping us make informed decisions. But without proper effort to verify their accuracy, we can be easily misled intentionally or unintentionally. Sometimes we want to believe something so much, we look for evidence (statistics) that support our desired outcome. That’s a form of confirmation bias.

When we rely on the research and reporting of others to make significant decisions, we should kick our “crap detectors” into high gear whenever statistics come into play. We all have a responsibility to look at quoted statistics with a skeptical eye, whether we’re news reporters, politicians, corporate leaders or citizens in the voting booth. After all, our outcomes, large and small, depend upon it.

The Final Word on Multitasking

The debate about whether multitasking improves performance has been going on for more than a decade. Those on one side, maintain that their ability to do two, three, or even four things at once gives them an edge on the day. Those on the other side, argue that focusing on one task at a time produces a better outcome for each endeavor.

Based on interviews with hundreds of decision makers and my own experience, I’ve come down on the one-task-at-a-time side. In reviewing some brain science research, I have become even more convinced that those who claim to successfully multi-task are really deceiving themselves.

Neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitan, author of about my grandma essay case study definition in software engineering how do i delete all emails off my iphone most trusted mail order sites form-finding thesis essay generator program see bloom taxonomy sample essay questions stoichiometry problem solving watch click postnatal depression dissertation see url dream essays king lear go to link liquid viagra peptide click here follow link geometry writer websites follow amth homework help english help online buy viagra hamburg prefect application essay go to site The Organized Mind, explains it this way: “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”

Levitan goes on to say that, “Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel we need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented even after a short time.”

Relatedly, Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Phd., author of The Overflowing Brain, observes, “How well we manage to multi-task can be related to the information load on working memory. Often, we can do the tasks if one of them is automatic, such as walking. For an activity to be designated “automatic,” it no longer demands any activation of the frontal lobes. However, a working memory task can never be automatic, as the information it contains always has to be encoded through the continual activation of the frontal and parietal lobes. This is why it can be so difficult to do two working memory tasks at once.” In other words, you can’t attend to more than one task at the same time.

There are those who will argue that regardless of the research, they have no choice but to multi-task. “It’s the only way I can keep up,” they’ll say. Or, “My boss claims she does it and expects everyone else to do the same.” Those people have my sympathy. Well established beliefs die hard. But as Levitan puts it, “You’d think people would realize that they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by at dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great.”

So, if you can’t multi-task, how do you keep up? By focusing on one task at a time to completion or until you can’t progress due to a missing element, resource or decision. Yes, that requires concentration and the discipline to resist the temptations to do more. How do the best decision makers do this? I’ll cover that in the next post.

Compel — What a Great Word!

Supervisors worth their salt are always looking for ways to improve how those they oversee make decisions. With the influences of menu-driven technology, impatience for immediate outcomes and the fear of doing or saying anything that others might find offensive, this is becoming harder and harder to do.

We can provide our people with strategies. We can encourage them to use their best judgment. We can even try to force them, although that rarely goes well. But in my opinion, the one thing most of us don’t do is compel those around us to think independently.

In my mind compel, is the sweet spot between force and encourage. You can force someone to respond exactly the same way each time a particular decision needs to be made. You know – “Here are the seven steps. Follow this exact procedure. Don’t deviate from the process.” Of course, this rarely goes well because there are exceptions to every procedure and rules are made to be broken. Besides, removing any element of control or authority from a person’s work, kills the incentive to care about outcomes.

At the other end of the spectrum is encourage, or as puts it, “inspire with courage, spirit or confidence.” This might be a pep talk, a vision statement, or a great story about how others make the decision. But when the rubber meets the road, everyone realizes that its their reputation on the line. Encourage them all you want. They’re still going to ask for your approval before making a move if they’re unsure of themselves.

Compel is defined as “having a powerful and irresistible effect.” In other words, people feel a responsibility for doing the best they can, not just for the organization but for you personally. They want to live up to your expectations and the faith you have put into them. They don’t want to let you down. Wouldn’t you like to have a powerful and irresistible effect on the people you supervise? How do you do so? Here’s what I’ve have found that works:

Proclaim your faith in their skills and smarts. Most of us need to be reassured occasionally that we’re competent, especially when faced with a significant unknown or pressured-filled situation. Proclaiming that faith is a combination of two elements: 1) Empathy – “I can understand how you might be nervous about acting. Rest assured that I’ve been there as well.” 2) Encouragement – “You can do this. You’ve made decisions like this before and are certainly competent to make this one.”

Rather than providing approval, think the decision through together. Educators call this technique a “think-aloud.” When someone wants to be told what to do, say “Let’s think it through together. You begin.” Then wait for them to take the first step. That gets the momentum going and reassures them that they are capable of making the decision. Do this enough and the person will grow more confident and stop coming to you with decisions they’re capable of making alone. It just takes persistence on your part.

Ask them to review their decisions regularly. Get them to explain a decision they had to make and explain how they approached it. What was the situation? What action did they take? What was the outcome? What did they learn as a result? In today’s intense work environment, few of us take enough time to reflect on the work we’re doing. Asking your people to think about how they make decisions periodically will force them to slow down and process. Most times, this won’t take more than a few minutes during a one-on-one. Some will need this more than others. But everyone should have the opportunity, even seasoned contributors.

Celebrate with them one-on-one. Follow up on decisions you know your people are making and give them a pat on the back. When employees are competent, it becomes easy to take them for granted. Take them aside once in a while and let them know that you know and appreciate their work. You don’t need hats, horns and balloons, just a bit of validation (and maybe a cup of their favorite coffee).

Celebrate their decision making with others. Or maybe you do need hats, horns and balloons. Once in a while, it lifts everyone to take a short break and celebrate someone’s expertise during a meeting or even spontaneously during the day. People are making good decisions around you all the time. It helps to remind everyone that that’s true.

The next time you’re challenged to think about how to improve the decision making around you, think of the word compel and these five strategies.

Are the Sunday Scaries Contributing to Your Decision Fatigue?

Imagine sitting in front of the football game on a Sunday afternoon, enjoying a beer. You’re looking forward to a peaceful evening before returning to Monday’s pace. Then you get a text from your boss, outlining three “quick” tasks she wants you to complete before the morning meeting. All of a sudden, the remainder of your peaceful weekend has vanished. Been there? So have many other people. So much so, that there’s now a name for it – the Sunday Scaries.

Digital technology has always been a mixed blessing. On one hand, it provides access and convenience to people, information and solutions. On the other hand, it enables businesses and employers to track our moves, choices, finances and time. One of these is this unspoken expectation that your employer should be able to communicate with you 24/7/365. If you’re okay with this, that’s fine. Stop reading here.

But if you’re feeling stressed and resentful about having to respond on the employer terms, consider taking the following steps:

Consider the culture that may be demanding this.In many ways, we’ve become a society of trying to do more with less. If this is characteristic of your firm, you may be faced with a choice about whether this is the right place for you. On the other hand, this may be more about a supervisor who lives for the job and expects others to do the same. Besides, if this is affecting you, chances are it is impacting others as well. You have every right to ask for a conversation about defining parameters of access in both day and time. But before doing so . . .

Clarify the balance you would like to achieve in work/life balance.Some people are okay working on the weekends because they’ll take a weekday off for something fun. Others cherish their weekends for family and a chance to recharge. What does your weekly balance look like? These days balance isn’t about a defined set of hours each week, it’s about control over your personal time.

Define your desired parameters.The traditional work hours of nine-to-five are long gone, especially for professional positions. At the same time, consider what you think is reasonable. Flex time and comp time have become prevalent in many organizations. It is up to you to determine reasonable expectations and an easy way to explain them to the person supervising you. After all, you’ve got to obtain that person’s agreement.

Approach your supervisor, but be prepared to negotiate.There has to be a meeting of the minds. You may up agreeing to one weekend per month or responding to texts and e-mails until 7PM on weekdays. There may be a season when broad access is important (think January thru April with accounting, Thanksgiving thru New Year’s with retail, and winter for ski resorts).

Be prepared to enforce the negotiated plan when “mission creep” occurs.Once you and your supervisor have settled on the parameters of access, there will still be the occasional exception. When these exceptions start to become the norm again, it’s time to re-visit the issue. But now you are working from an established agreement. Simply saying something like, “I thought we had an agreement about the parameters of weekend access,” will hopefully resolve the issue.

In these times of invasive communication and access, the sunday scaries and similar practices will continue to pervade. It’s up to us, as individuals, to define and enforce our priorities.

Fill Out Your Own Forms First!

Have you ever become frustrated while completing a form? You might have thought, “What on earth do they mean?” or “I can’t imagine why they need that information,” or “Didn’t they ask that before?” Sadly, too many people fail to place themselves in the position of those who will complete the forms they design. As a result, they alienate customers, clients, students or constituents.

Here’s an example. My daughter has been applying to medical schools. As I have helped proof and edit her submissions, I have been fascinated and amused by the forms she’s been asked to complete. After medical school applicants complete the “common application” administered by the American Association of Medical Colleges, individual schools ask applicants to answer more detailed questions on so-called “secondary applications.”

While many of these questions seek the student’s perspective or beliefs about the health professions, several have asked things like, “If you had to give yourself a nickname, what would it be?” That’s kind of like the old training exercise that asked, “If you were a sandwich, what kind of sandwich would you be?”

Then there are the requests for information such as the exact number of days and hours worked in an internship. In the big picture, WHO CARES? In some cases, this information is impossible to calculate. Even if it was, why take the time?

Finally, there was the request to “spell your name phonetically.” Without an intimate knowledge of the special keys and functions in Microsoft Word, this can be darned difficult. On top of this, every time, you think you’ve got it, Microsoft Word tries to correct it. If I want to know how a person’s name is pronounced these days, I find a pronunciation app online. Why can’t the medical schools do that?

Bottom line? The next time you create a form, any form, pass it around to several people who might have to complete it. Ask them to critique the layout, the organization, the appropriateness of the information requested, and size of the fields allowed for names, addresses, phone numbers and the like. Design forms for others the way you would like them to be designed for you.

Overcoming the Tyranny of Choice

We’ve all become spoiled by the number of choices we have. Supermarkets offer more than 60,000 consumer goods in all sizes and shapes. Searching on-line generates thousands of links for even the most obscure topic or item. Artificial intelligence anticipates the words we want to use in a text, the products we want to buy and provides instant directions if we search for a particular store or business.

Yet there is building evidence that many people are feeling overwhelmed by the number of decisions forced upon them daily. Constant pop-ups conspire to deflect out attention. We find ourselves declining endless offers in exchange for personal information. We resort to placing phones on silent and refusing to answer any call for which we do not recognize the number. Some people have begun to call this the “tyranny of choice.”

“OKAY!” you might say. “Tell me something I don’t know. Better still, teach me how to battle this tyranny of choice. So, consider these four strategies when attempting to reduce the decision fatigue in your life.

Review the apps on your phone and remove the ones you’re not using.Do you really need a tip calculation app? Twenty percent of $24.03 is $2.40 times two or $4.80, for instance. You get the idea. How about that app you downloaded to navigate last year’s industry convention? When was the last time you opened that? How about the app that allows you to age your face? Chances are, the novelty wore off after 48 hours. Remember, by the way, that even if they’re not open many of these apps are tracking your location, personal information and even your purchasing history. After all, you probably gave them permission when you clicked on “Accept Terms and Conditions” without reading them.

Install an ad blocker.Simply search on ad blocker for each browser you use. Then follow the instructions. I know. You’ve been meaning to do it. But there are so many other decisions you need to deal with first. Just do it. Total time invested? About 15 minutes.

Add a note about Reply All to your signature file.It might read something like – Thanks for NOT copying me on e-mails for which I do not need to respond. This will not end this nuisance completely. But even it drops by 20%, you will have reduced your decision fatigue.

Schedule internet and YouTube searches for just before another commitment. It’s so easy to open a browser for “just a minute” and lose 20 minutes for your life. Need to research a new appliance? Do so 10 minutes before that meeting on Zoom. Trying to figure out how to install linoleum in you your basement bathroom? Search for instructions on YouTube just before that lunch you have coming up.

Decision fatigue is hampering all of us at this point. Implement these simple ideas to reduce your daily stress. I’d offer you more strategies for doing so. But then I’d just be contributing to your tyranny of choice.

Do You Squander Your Time in Traffic?

I was driving to a meeting and a young man in a beat-up Honda Accord had spent the last three miles trying to get around me and the other motorists. Every time he got a few cars ahead, he was thwarted by the flow of traffic or stoplight timing. I would pull up right behind him, pull a few cars ahead or end up beside him at the next light. I was tempted to lower my window and ask, “What are you accomplishing?” but I didn’t think he’d get it.

Young people in old cars are not the only ones displaying this impatience. I see middle-aged women in SUVs and older men in pick-up trucks doing the same thing. Most of them have this look of focus and determination that says, “I’m going to beat all these people to the next intersection.”

Of course, given a distance of ten miles, chances are we’ll all arrive within seconds of each other. At the risk of appearing a little anal, I even tested this theory a few times by mentally tagging these individuals in the flow of traffic. Sure enough, I’d be right behind them at light after light after light. When my kids were young, I pointed out to them that certain vehicles were demonstrating this dance of impatience while imperiling everyone else on the road. Once they earned their driver’s licenses, they began mentioning this phenomenon as they got behind the wheel.

Of course, this behavior is not confined to driving. I’ve seen people get so wound up in positioning themselves in a meeting or for a job, that they’ve been ignored or passed over because everyone thought they were annoying or even obnoxious. I’ve interviewed thousands of successful leaders over the years. With the exception of a few, I have found them all to be cordial, generous, and forthcoming. Apparently, they have figured out that working with the “traffic,” rather than competing with the “motorists” gets you further ahead in the same amount of time.

On the roads of life, we have all have choices for how we spend our time and energy. I’d rather sit back, go with the flow, and think through the day’s real challenges, such as writing the next article for my blog. There! I think I’ve done it.

How to Remember Fantastic Shower Ideas

If you’re like me, you’ve had fantastic ideas in the shower. But when you’ve tried to recall them while drying off, they’re nowhere to be found in your memory. So why is this? Simple. When the brain introduces a bright idea or insight, it does so into your short-term, or working, memory. Unfortunately, thoughts in short-term memory only last three to five seconds before they are flushed out of the way by the next incoming thought or stimuli. The only way to capture these great ideas in through instant rehearsal. In other words, you’ve got to stop whatever you’re doing immediately and focus ALL of your attention on that great idea.  Here’s an example:

Not long ago, I was taking a shower and thinking about something I had to teach in an upcoming seminar. Suddenly, it dawned on me exactly how to explain the concept. But not having anything to write with, I began to write it on the steamy shower door. Even though I knew these words would disappear within seconds as the steam from the show erased them, I was mentally rehearsing them and moving this explanation from short-term to long-term memory. When I got out of the shower, the first thing I did was grab paper and pen write them down along with any other associated thoughts and ideas. I still have that water-stained paper because just looking at it helps me to remember the concept.

You can do the same thing, in the shower, while you’re driving, pushing a shopping cart, chatting with a friend, or anywhere else. The key is instantaneous rehearsal. Drop what you’re doing and focus all of your attention on recording the idea. Don’t believe this works? Ask the smart-decision makers you know. They’ll tell you similar stories.

“Getting to Yes” Decisions

Thirty years ago, Roger Fisher and William Ury published their bestselling negotiating book, Getting to Yes. One of the key strategies they espoused was to resolve the easiest issues first and work toward the more difficult ones. By the time you reach the most critical issue, they argued, you will already have momentum by coming to agreement on the smaller disputes first.

The same might be said of making critical decisions. It is only natural to focus on the “elephant in the room” when trying to make a big decision. That obstacle can seem insurmountable when viewed in isolation. But most big decisions are really a collection of smaller decisions. If you approach the big obstacle by breaking it down into its incremental challenges, you relieve some of this pressure.

Consider the purchase of a house – Yes, the purchase itself is a big decision, filled with emotion, the unknown and the fear of making a mistake. But this decision is really broken down into lots of smaller choices – house layout, number of bedrooms, amenities, financing, location, schools, access to stores and entertainment, commuting time, taxes, proximity to friends and family. Given a piece of paper, we could all list an additional dozen factors or more.

But few people take time to list and prioritize all these elements in a rational way. Once you have, and considered each element individually, many of the smaller decisions become easy to make. As they do, some of the pressure over making the biggest decision is relieved. In a way, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle coming together. Besides, once you’ve made the decision and experienced the inevitable buyer’s remorse, you can go back and remind yourself of the reasons why you made the choices you did.

This technique of listing and prioritizing can be applied to most any significant decision. But too often, we allow ourselves to be distracted by other’s opinions, the endless advice on social media, our natural impatience, and the worry associated with making irreversible choices. Does this process require some concentration and self-discipline? Of course. But any decision with lasting consequences requires these traits. Once you’ve developed these practices, they become easier to implement every time you are faced with a big decision. This is one of the keys to becoming a smart decision maker.

Are You a Flat Rabbit?

My friend Jay, was watching his grandson, Jake, vacillate over decision. After a minute or so, Jake’s mother, Tina, said “don’t be a flat rabbit.” When Jay asked about the origin of the phrase, Tina explained that rabbits start to cross the road, hesitate and then run back to where they started, just in time to be run over a car. The same can be said about squirrels, cats, armadillos, and the occasional human.

So how about you? Are you a flat rabbit? We all succumb to indecision from time to time. In the process, we over-think problems, obsess about unknowable outcomes or thrash back and forth out of fear that we’ll make a mistake. As a result, we lose out on opportunities and appear indecisive to those around us. Do this enough and it can become a habit . . . a bad habit.

I’m not arguing that we have to be absolutely decisive in every situation. That said, the best decision-makers I’ve interviewed generally display an air of decisiveness and confidence that most people wished they possessed. These decision-makers use their intuition and sense of clarity to go with what feels right. The decision doesn’t always work out. But pretty much all of them will tell you that it’s better to take action with a 90% chance of being right, than waiting till everything feels perfect and finding the opportunity has been lost.

So, how do you go about becoming more decisive? In reflecting on the interviews I’ve conducted, two patterns have emerged. First, these individuals have developed the discipline to stop and consider the factors involved when confronted with a decision, especially one that requires a quick action. When a couple of co-workers lean into your work station and say, “Come on, we’re going to lunch” Your first impulse might be to say, “okay.” The people I’ve interviewed are more likely to stop, think a ahead to the afternoon’s commitment and the impact a juicy sandwich will have on their productivity.

In addition to resisting impulsive decisions, the best decision-makers rely more on their intuition. While we all possess an intuition, the best decision makers have honed theirs into a tool upon which they depend. Intuition is not just something that evolves. It is a tool that can be consciously developed. It is so important, in fact, we spend an entire module on developing intuition during my on-line course, Make Your Best Decisions Now.

Becoming more decisive begins with defining personal priorities. Simply asking, “How important is this decision?” will compel you to determine the amount of time and energy you should be devoting to the issue. So the next time, you find yourself vacillating on a decision, stop and ask yourself, “Am I behaving like a flat rabbit?”