September 9, 2014

How Meditation Makes You A Better Decision Maker

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Charlie Munger is one of the richest men in the world. He made his fortune as Warren Buffet’s business partner at Berkshire Hathaway, which he helped grow into a company worth almost half a trillion dollars. Munger attributes his success to making exceptionally good decisions. You could say he’s obsessed with why humans make good and bad decisions. Through personal research and observation, Munger created a set of mental models to use as guides for any decision he makes. “I sought good judgement mostly by collecting instances of bad judgement, then pondering ways to avoid such outcomes,” he explained in his famous speech The Psychology of Human Misjudgment. (1) In the piece, Munger outlined 25 different tendencies that influence poor decision making.

These tendencies, otherwise known as cognitive biases, are behavioral patterns that lead to illogical thought. (2) Luckily for us, we don’t have to go through the painstaking research that Munger did or build our own mental models. Do a quick google search and you’ll find over a hundred cognitive biases and research-based explanations of how these small behavior patterns inhibit good decision making. So far, the go-to way to eliminate cognitive biases has been to design around them. We’ve built smarter systems, checklists, and forms to catch the kinds of biases that lead us astray. Exciting research into meditation reveals another option: training our brain to resist the effects of cognitive biases so that they don’t influence our decisions.

Our Broken Judgement System

You make hundreds of decisions each day. You choose what to eat, what to wear, and even what to say to the person next to you on the train. Each decision zaps some of your mental energy. To save time and processing power, humans rely on heuristics–or mental shortcuts based on past experience and human instinct–to help us make some of our decisions. (3) Heuristics can help us make simple choices, such as if a berry is safe to eat, based on its color and the color of edible berries we’ve eaten in the past. Heuristics are powerful because you don’t even realize you’re using them.

Heuristics can fail, however, when they’re used when making complex decisions. For example, humans are bad at grasping the probability of unknown events. If you see someone flip a quarter to head’s three times in a row, the representative heuristic leads you to think that the next time that person flips a quarter, it’s more likely to fall on heads than tails. In reality, the chances of a coin flipping heads or tails is always 50–50. When a heuristic leads you astray, the error in judgement that you make is referred to as a cognitive bias.

Business leaders are as susceptible as anyone to cognitive biases. You’re more likely to agree to a business decision if you see your colleagues agree with it, too (social proof). You’ll probably fix a minor bug you hear about multiple times than a more important bug you hear about just once, since your brain misinterprets frequency to indicate of importance (availability heuristic). In Silicon Valley, we often associate someone’s success to a personality trait instead of an actual contributor, such as luck, network, or professional experience (fundamental attribution error). Some cognitive biases are driven by emotion and gut instinct . Others result when your brain tries to connect the dots with too little information or inaccurate memories. (5,6)

Meditation and Negativity Bias

“[Our results show that] even for people who don’t have much experience with meditation or time to put into it, it may be useful to do a little mindfulness meditation just before facing a situation or task in which it would help to not emphasize the negative so much and appreciate the positive more.” — Dr. Laura Kiken, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

New research shows that meditation can help you overcome common cognitive biases. Dr. Laura Kiken and Dr. Natalie Shook investigated meditation as a tool for preventing negativity bias, our tendency to remember bad memories more strongly than good ones. We benefit from negativity bias in survival situations; for instance, the most vivid feeling you have about an open flame on your stove is probably that it can burn you. But negativity has detrimental effects in more complicated situations. A negative mindset can reduce your confidence and put you at more risk for anxiety and depression. In leadership situations, negative thinking can make leaders overly cautious, controlling, and resistant to taking risks. (7) Focusing on the negative and criticizing employees can distract and demoralize the whole team.

Kiken and Shook’s experiments revealed that just one meditation session can make people less susceptible to negativity bias. In their study, participants with little or no meditation experience classified different targets as either harmful or helpful after undergoing a 15 minute meditation session or an equivalent control session. People who meditated did not show negativity bias or remember the negative experiences more than the positive ones, whereas the control group did. (8) The researchers explained, “[Participants] correctly classified positive and negative stimuli more equally than those in the control condition. Interestingly, the difference in negativity bias stemmed from better categorization of positives. Furthermore, those in the mindfulness condition reported higher levels of optimism compared to the control condition.” (9) People who meditated were less affected by the negative events they experienced and came out of the study in a more positive mood.

Meditation and Sunk Cost Bias

“Meditation helped me achieve this goal: make better decisions in both my personal and business life. I started meditation from zero just a couple of years ago using Lift since the start, now its a solid habit I do every day like breathing.” ~ Francesco Pham

Meditation has also been shown to reduce your susceptibility to sunk cost bias, the tendency to hold on to bad investments. Sunk cost bias is what leads you to watch a bad movie because you paid for the ticket or keep an employee that isn’t a fit for the role because you invested time training them. The rational decision in these cases is to leave the movie early and do something you enjoy more, or in the case of the employee, hire someone better to replace them.
Researchers at INSEAD business school ran a study in which participants listened to a 15-minute breath focused meditation, just as in the negativity bias study. Immediately after listening to the tape, participants had to make a business decision as the owner of a make believe firm: should they buy a $10,000 printer that worked at double speed and would cut production costs in half or keep using a newly purchased $200,000 printer. The rational decision, ignoring sunk costs, would be to buy the $10,000 printer. Researchers found that 78% of people who meditated before making the decision ignored sunk cost to make the right decision. In the group that did not meditate, only 44% of people overcame sunk cost bias to make the right choice. (10)

So how does meditation counter the inner workings of our brain and give us the superpower to overcome biases that are hardwired into them? Andy Hafenbrack, head researcher of the INSEAD study, thinks that meditation reduced sunk cost bias in two steps: first, by focusing people on the present moment and second, by reducing their negative emotions around the decision. He explained, “By focusing attention on the physical sensations of breathing, which draws attention to a concrete experience taking place in the present moment, people focus less on the past and future. By focusing less on the past and future, people feel less negative emotion, and the reduction in negative emotion helps them resist the sunk cost bias or say that they would cut their losses sooner.” (11)

Other research suggests a third aspect could explain why mindfulness helps reduces sunk cost bias. When we make a bad decision, we tend to rationalize the decision as a good one. This phenomena, cognitive dissonance, is at play when we choose to continue a bad investment: we think that if we made a good decision before, then the decision should still be good now. Researchers Natalia Karelaia and Jochen Reb believe that mindfulness could help people make better decisions by detaching their ego and emotions from previous decisions. (12) They explained, “Less mindful individuals may be more likely to filter and interpret information in an overly optimistic manner to maintain the mistaken believe that the chosen course of action was indeed the right one.” (13)

Negativity bias and sunk cost bias are just two of many cognitive biases that lead to bad decision making, but evidence is mounting that mindfulness can help leaders overcome faulty logic that leads to bad decisions. Perhaps the most important thing that mindfulness does is remind you that there is a decision to make. It’s so easy to be reactive when making a decision, especially when ego, emotions, or money is at risk. When you can hold off on responding to your gut instinct, or to the negative emotions that a decision or comment stirs up inside of you, you give yourself the chance to fully evaluate a decision so that you make the best one.

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(1) Munger, Charles T. “The Psychology of Human Misjudgement.

(2) Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and 185.4157 (1974): 1124–1131.

(3,4,5) Wikipedia: “Hueristic

(6) Loewenstein, George, and Jennifer S. Lerner. “The role of affect in decision making.Handbook of affective science 619.642 (2003): 3.

(7,8.9) Kiken, Laura G., and Natalie J. Shook. “Looking up: Mindfulness increases positive judgments and reduces negativity bias.Social Psychological and Personality Science (2011): 1948550610396585.

(10) Hafenbrack, Andrew C., Zoe Kinias, and Sigal G. Barsade. “Debiasing the Mind Through Meditation Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias.Psychological science 25.2 (2014): 369–376.

(11) Lift interview with Andy Hafenbrack

(12,13) Karelaia, Natalia, and Jochen Reb. “Improving Decision Making Through Mindfulness.” (2014).

Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on this chapter: Patrick Whitaker, Erik Santoro, David Ploskonka, Ellie Taesali, Duncan Davidson, Seth Edwards, Zane Heard, and Brad Dennis.

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July 8, 2014


This is the first chapter of The Strongest Mind in the Room, a book by Lift. Sign up to get free chapters and exclusive content sent to your inbox.

You can use tips and techniques. There are time management tools and project management systems. But ultimately, you have to have this sense of self–this awareness of what’s going on inside of you and outside of you–to make choices. If you’re trying to be more productive, you can’t escape mindfulness.” ~ Dr. Tim Pychyl, Head of the Procrastination Research Group, Carleton University

Did you know that your mind wanders about 50% of the time? Researchers at Harvard University monitored over 2,000 men and women as they went about their day working, commuting, shopping, exercising, and even sleeping to discover how often and during what types of tasks your mind falls out of focus. When the mind wanders, it goes into a default mode of ‘stimulus-independent thoughts’: thoughts that come and go without an obvious trigger, much like the ones you notice during a meditation session. The researchers saw significant mind wandering in all daily activities except for one (sex). (1)

You’d get a lot more done if you spent less than half of your time distracted, which is why meditation is becoming ever more popular in the workplace. Some startups such as Medium offer in-house meditation as an employee perk. Companies including SAP and Adobe have full-time employees devoted to teaching meditation. Chade-Meng Tan became a best-selling author by writing about the wildly popular meditation-based personal growth programs he developed at Google.

[Tweet “”If you’re trying to be more productive, you can’t escape mindfulness.” ~ Dr. Tim Pychyl”]

At first glance, it may seem strange to use meditation as a productivity tool. You have no goal or expected outcome from a meditation session. You produce nothing tangible while you focus on your breath or scan your body. Yet when you take time out of your day to produce ‘nothing,’ you build skills that increase your overall productivity and become more aware of what you’re doing when you’re doing ‘something.’ Meditation helps you procrastinate less, focus more, and prioritize tasks so that you get more done.

“I’m still just a beginner. I’m meditating only for three minutes a day, as I’m trying to make the habit a daily one. I occasionally go to 5 minutes but that’s about it. At work and when I wake up I meditate to try to stop procrastinating. Whenever I feel the urge to procrastinate I’m trying to substitute slacking off with a couple of minutes of meditation figure out why I’m feeling the urge, and then rationally talk myself into getting back to doing important work.” ~ Guðmundur Kristjánsso, Project Manager and Lift user, Iceland

The Biggest Threat to Your Goals

Tim Pychyl is an expert in what factors influence how effectively we pursue our goals. Incidentally, he’s really good at achieving his. He’s the head of a research lab at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada) where he also mentors and teaches students. Pychyl publishes a monthly blog on Psychology Today, writes academic articles and books, and records a top-rated iTunes podcast where he’s interviewed scientists as well as best selling authors including Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) and Dr. Kelly McGonigal (The Willpower Instinct)Outside of work, he cares for his wife, two children, hobby farm, family horses, and team of sled dogs (in the winter, he moonlights as a musher). “People ask me if I procrastinate,” says Pychyl. “The truth is, I can’t.” (2)

Yet Pychyl has spent the last two decades obsessively researching procrastination, one of the biggest threats to achieving goals. Studies show that 20% of people procrastinate regularly and that workers spend 60-80% of their time surfing the net instead of working. (3,4) Technology keeps us constantly connected not only to our work but also to the things that distract us from it. “Procrastination is a major threat to our productivity because it’s always there in the background threatening to undermine our best-laid plans and intentions,” says Pychyl. His research has paid off. Pychyl has found at least one solution to our procrastination woes: meditation.

Why We Procrastinate

Procrastination is an emotional response. You procrastinate when you feel overwhelmed, scared, stressed, indecisive, insecure, or distracted by a more enjoyable task. Most people aren’t even aware that they’re having the negative emotions that they’re reacting to when they procrastinate. “These can be transient emotions,” Pychyl explains, “even preconscious—meaning that we’re not really aware of these feelings at a conscious level—but we do react to them… this avoidant coping response is procrastination.” (5)

Procrastination doesn’t make us happier, but we do it because our brain thinks it does. We’re programmed to do things that feel good to us in the moment and avoid what makes us feel bad. Unfortunately, procrastination has a net negative effect on your mood. When you evade negative emotions by procrastinating, they intensify. The longer you procrastinate, the more stress you feel. The positive feelings you initially gain while procrastinating fade. Procrastination also sparks a new emotion: guilt. (6) A certain amount of guilt incentivizes you to finish tasks but too much causes debilitating anxiety.

[Tweet “You gain power over your emotions once you become aware of them.” #strongmind”]

Meditate to Stop Procrastinating

Meditation can help you stop procrastinating because it trains you to recognize the emotional changes that drive you to do so. Awareness is the crucial first step in overcoming procrastination. Pychyl explains, “Procrastination is a self-regulation failure… effective self-regulation relies on emotion regulation, and this emotion regulation in turn relies on mindfulness.” (7) During a meditation session, you practice the skill of being aware of your emotions. You might look for points of physical tension during a body scan, state your feelings in verbal exercises, or notice your anxiety level. And as with anything you practice, eventually you become skilled enough to notice your feelings in real life situations.

You gain power over your emotions once you become aware of them. In meditation, you learn a concept called non-judgmental awareness: the unconditional acceptance and appreciation of all thoughts and feelings that you have. It’s like turning off the angel and devil on your shoulders. When you do, your thoughts are no longer bad or good, they just exist. Another key skill you learn is how to override your emotional reaction to any thought that comes your way. “When you recognize that procrastination is just about short term mood repair and meditation builds in this non-judgmental awareness of what you are feeling…you [realize you] don’t have to be those feelings that you are feeling,” says Pychyl. (8) Outcomes change dramatically when you approach situations with a mindful response instead of a reactive mentality. You gain control of your emotions, your focus, and your time. You have the skills you need to make the right choice between procrastinating or getting back on task.

 “I found that meditation made it much easier for me to identify the highest leverage activities in both my work and personal lives, which made it possible for me to work smarter, instead of just harder. I think there are two ways to get more done: put in more time and effort, which is a crappy way to get more done, or identify the highest leverage activities so you can work smarter instead of just harder. Meditation lets you step back from the things you do so you can see the ‘whole forest’ instead of just the trees, and work smarter instead of harder.” ~ Chris Bailey, A Year of Productivity blog

The Multitasking Lie

There’s a scary trend happening across the working world. People are multitasking more than ever before. In fact, younger generations multitask more than previous ones. (9) At the same time, advances in technology and design make it easier to work on many tasks at once and even lure you to do so with notifications that pop up on your phone or desktop as you work. All of this is happening even though scientists proved that multitasking kills productivity years ago.

Why Multitasking Kills Productivity

The human brain cannot focus on more than one idea at a time. There are a few exceptions, for instance listening to music while performing a physical activity, but there are no exceptions when it comes to processing information. (10) Scientists have shown this time and again when studying the most common type of multitasking in workplace settings: task-switching between different types of information media. Multitasking gives the allure of juggling more than one task at a time, but what you’re really doing when you multi-task is repeatedly switching focus from one task to another. If you look at your brain through an MRI while multi-tasking, you can actually see different parts of your brain light up each time that you switch tasks. (11)

When you switch from task to task, your brain is too distracted to fully focus on either activity. Your brain needs time to process each task switch and decide what information is relevant. The lack of focus can extend the time it takes to complete a task and reduce the overall quality of your work.  Dr. Eyal Ophir, who now works at Yahoo but led one of the most famous studies on multitasking, told Boing Boing, “Recent research suggests that the cost of task switching is rooted in cognitive interference from the irrelevant task set: interference from all those thoughts about the task you’re NOT doing. Every task you do competes for your mental resources, even once you think it’s no longer relevant.” (12) The research that made Ophir famous showed that frequent multitaskers have trouble focusing on individual tasks. They were more susceptible to distractions and less able to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information during tests compared to people who didn’t multitask. The effect worsens as people take on more activities. The current research reveals a scary possibility: that when you multitask persistently, you gradually lose your ability to focus. (13)

[Tweet “Meditation retrains your brain to focus on one task at a time. #strongmind”]

Meditation Retrains Your Brain to Focus

Meditation retrains your brain to focus on one task at a time. One study at Stanford University found that people with just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation practice stuck to tasks longer and switched tasks less frequently than people with no meditation experience or who had performed 8 weeks of relaxation practice. The researchers explained, “Focused attention (FA) training appears to strengthen one’s ability to notice interruptions without necessarily relinquishing one’s current task. Having such skill might therefore give users the choice to stay with the current task longer, rather than responding to each interruption immediately.” (14)  In Lift’s own research, 75% of people who meditated reported an increase in focus at work within 1 month of their practice. (15)

Awareness teaches you to notice when you’re multitasking so that you can stop. Multitasking is a state of constant partial attention that leads to stress and negative emotions. A mind wandering makes people unhappy. The same researchers who discovered that minds wander about 50% of the time explained, “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” (16) Awareness teaches you to notice the negative feelings created when you multitask, just as it helps you to identify the emotions that lead you to procrastinate. In your meditation practice, you’ll also learn how different it feels to fully focus versus give partial attention to a task. You gain the power to stop multitasking once you can recognize when you’re doing it.


“I started meditating sporadically with a sangha in 2009. These days I include meditation in my morning routine — I get up, shower, get dressed, make coffee, drink coffee on train on my way to work and then meditate. There is no goal with it, there is simply meditation. From doing only 5-10 minutes on the train I now do close to 30 minutes every morning, and when the train reaches Oslo I am peaceful and calm. There is a strong sense of peace when I am finished and I carry this feeling with me throughout the day. It’s made me more focused at work, training the mind gives clarity and less procrastination.” ~ André Øverland Wibye, Marketing Professional, Norway


There’s one more way that meditation boosts your productivity: it helps you prioritize better. If you think about it, procrastination is another way of saying that you’re working with misaligned priorities. Multitasking is just another form of procrastination. You switch between tasks instead of finishing the one at hand because it makes you feel better. Researchers found that multitaskers exhibit a similar emotional pattern to the one that Pychyl sees in procrastinators. Dr. Wang and Dr. Tchernev explained in the paper, “Although cognitive needs are not gratified by media multitasking, emotional needs are, such as feeling entertained or relaxed.” (17)

The emotional basis of our productivity problems flies in the face of the logical, systematic solutions that promise to solve them, which may be why they don’t quite work. Productivity tools alleviate the symptoms of a wandering mind but not the cause: that the mind always wanders. And while a wandering mind can never be cured, nor should it be, you can take steps to make it wander less and reap the benefits of a more productive life.

[Tweet “”A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” ~ Matthew Killingsworth #strongmind”]


Relevant Meditations

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(1,16) Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Science 330.6006 (2010): 932-932.

(2,8) iProcrastinate Podcast with Tony Stubblebine, CEO Lift

(3) Ferrari, J. R. (2010). Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done. (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley).

(4) Study: Workers Spend 60% or More of Day Web Surfing for Personal Reasons 

(5,7) Procrastination: Why Mindfulness is Crucial by Tim Pychyl

(6) The Role of Goal Focus in Reducing Procrastination by Tim Pychyl

(9) Carrier, L. Mark, et al. “Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans.” Computers in Human Behavior 25.2 (2009): 483-489.

(10) The Myth of Multitasking: NPR Interview with Dr. Clifford Nass

(11) What Multitasking Does to Our Brains by Leo Widrich

(12,13) Eyal Ophir on the Science of Multitasking by Avi Solomon (Boing Boing)

(14) Levy, David M., et al. “The effects of mindfulness meditation training on multitasking in a high-stress information environment.” Proceedings of Graphics Interface 2012. Canadian Information Processing Society, 2012.

(15) Lift’s How to Meditate Guide

(17) Wang, Zheng, and John M. Tchernev. “The “myth” of media multitasking: Reciprocal dynamics of media multitasking, personal needs, and gratifications.”Journal of Communication 62.3 (2012): 493-513.

Other Resources:

Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on this chapter: Josh Roman, Erik Santoro, Tim Pychyl, David Ploskonka, Ellie Taesali, Kelly Martin, Alicia Liu, Zane Heard, Aaron Lewis, Matthew Dong, Darshan Desai, Esther Gladman, Duncan Davidson, Carter Bailey, and Laci Séber

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How Meditation Makes You A Better Decision Maker