The Liberating Effects of Losing Control

Most of us would assume that the more important a decision is, the more mindful thought must be required to come to a good choice of action. Before reading, The Upside of Your Darkside by Todd Kashdan, Robert Biswas-Diener, and Dr. Philos, I would have thought the same. But I now have a more accurate, conscious approach to this idea, and it is not what most people would expect.

People have a tendency to muscle important decisions. We’re fond of creating complex plans, consulting experts, and coming up with laborious approaches to making a choice. But often, instead of intensely contemplating on a decision or new course of action, all we need is to let go, and allow the ghost in the machine, also known as the unconscious, to do some of the heavy lifting. This more intuitive approach can be considered new age, but there is some important data to consider before we throw this method of decision making under the bus.

We know that when there is too much data to digest, conscious thought is constrained by its process of attending to all the information, integrating it, retrieving relevant knowledge, and comparing and contrasting different choices until a final winner is selected. Mindless thinking has no such constraints because all of its mental processing occurs outside conscious awareness. What this leads to is a counterintuitive rule of thumb which states: when complex decisions are required, after gathering some conscious information, avoid thinking about it consciously. Take your time and let the unconscious deal with the choice.

In a research study by Dutch psychologist, Ap Djiksterhuis, he wanted to see which participants could find one or two ideal apartments out of twelve choices. The best apartments had eight positive features and four negative, while the worst had eight negative and only fours positive. When people had to make decisions immediately after being given information on each apartment, they arrived at the optimal choice at a mere 15 percent of the time. When people were given four minutes to contemplate, they arrived at the optimal choice at 29 percent of the time. But, when the participants were asked to spend two minutes mindfully contemplating the decision, then to divert their attention to something irrelevant, like a difficult word game, they arrived at the better decision at a surprising 58 percent of the time.

While there is more data that I could use to back up this point of the benefits of unconscious thinking, what I truly wish is to give the most value in a short amount of time. I consider the fact that because there are so many books and bodies of work that outline the uses of unconscious and mindful thinking; it shows that there is much to apply in the realms of handling complex decisions.

From the same book, The Upside of Your Darkside, there is an outline on how exactly to make optimal decisions. It goes something like this:

  1. Spend a small amount of time mindfully contemplating the situation. (2–3 mins)
  2. Stop.
  3. Skip over to another unrelated activity for an incubation period.
  4. Render a decision.

What I recommend to all is to not forgo the power of allowing your mind to wander as it may boost your decision making ability by a healthy percentage. While our mind wanders, our brain’s state is similar to that when we are asleep. It is at this time that ideas collide and mesh together to form new creative thoughts and solutions. So the next time you find yourself mulling over a hard decision, or you are trying to find that inner creativity that you know that you have, try giving yourself an incubation period, and switch over to your intuition. It is in our best interest to utilize both facets of our complex minds.