Everywhere you look, mindfulness meditation is touted as a wonder drug. Meditation can supposedly support weight loss, lower stress levels, increase attention, and reduce anxiety. But there’s one benefit that I think many people overlook—being mindful makes you a much better decision-maker.
Two years ago, I went to a 10-day silent retreat in Ladakh, India. The retreat center was akin to a monastery, located in a scenic panorama of the Himalayas, at an altitude of 12,000 feet. Insects enjoyed undisturbed existence in our dormitories, protected by our oath not to harm any living being. The schedule was also ruthless: First meditation sessions began at 4.30 a.m., and the days lasted until 10.30 p.m.
What I learned about my internal dialogue
What must sound as the most grueling of days from the outside ended up being some of the most meaningful days on the inside. I learned that my mind is hardly ever still. Instead, thoughts just come up. Ruminations, emotions, memories seem to pop up out of nowhere, mostly unsolicited and untriggered. When you’re meditating, you can’t decide what to think next, and you can’t choose not to think at all.
What’s more, these subconscious thoughts often trigger an automatic “chain reaction.” They evoke feelings, which materialize in bodily sensations, and they, in turn, elicit counter-feelings and reactions. Most of the time, the temptations of the modern world distract us from processing these feelings. But the complete silence and alpine tranquility of the retreat environment allowed me to do just that (and gain a lot of clarity in the process.)
The magnitude of our distraction in daily life should come as no surprise: The addictive use of media and the omnipresence of screens make deep focus a challenging endeavor.
But interestingly, even going entirely off the grid for 10 days didn’t prevent my mind from distracting itself. If I’m that inattentive when I sit in complete silence, I realized that the level of distraction in my “normal life” is orders of magnitude bigger.
These distractions have a significant impact on my decision-making capacity. The noise produced by my mind and my environment distorts my clear thinking, which interferes with my judgment.
How to use mindfulness in decision-making
Mindfulness meditation can both help with diagnosing and treating the problem. And while I highly recommend everyone to try out actual meditation retreats, you don’t need to travel to the Himalayas to learn how to be mindful.
Being mindful means turning the camera back on yourself. It means learning to observe your inclinations, preoccupations, and distractions.
You can’t take a shortcut to mindfulness. It takes time to practice and nurture the habit of reflecting. The more you practice, the more insights you gain about the way your mind works and how you can factor that in your decision-making process.
To stay on course, it helps to ask yourself the following questions:
1. What brought me here? Think about what prompted you to the decision in the first place. Let’s say you want to buy a couch, and you’ve narrowed down your options. What made you “want” a new couch? An advertisement? An offhand comment from your partner? The interior of your best friend’s apartment?
2. What thoughts, emotions, or biases may be clouding my judgments? You might have recently read an article about the economic promises of biotechnology, but that doesn’t mean now is necessarily the right time to invest in biotech stocks. Think about whether cognitive bias clouds your ability to see things clearly and make a decision that is best for you.
3. If contexts were to change, would I make the same choice? Most of our decisions are context-dependent. For example, an earlier emotional experience might cast a shadow over every choice we make later that day. In a series of studies, researchers “primed” test subjects subconsciously, who went on to make very different decisions compared to the control group. Pause and ask yourself, would you make the same decision tomorrow (or if your context were to change)?
Answering the questions above can help you make better choices. Being a good decision-maker starts with re-centering yourself, being aware of your own emotions, thoughts, and sensations, all while cutting through the noise. When you learn to do this, making the right choice becomes much easier.
Simon Mueller (@sim0nmueller) is the coauthor of The Decision Maker’s Playbook (Financial Times Press, 2019)