How to make decision making easier

Understanding short term memory (so that you can work effectively within its limits)
by: Neil Keleher
Better thinking

How do you make decision making easier? It helps when you understand short term memory, aka working memory and how to work within its limits.

Getting into the flow state

When teaching how to make getting into the flow state while learning easier, one of my key suggestions is to work within the limits of short term memory. You then don't have to think about to do next, you can get on with doing (and flowing while doing).

This is particularly easy when you are doing a task or exercise that involves repetition!

As an example of this, to make learning Chinese characters easier, I'll pick three or four brush strokes, and repeatedly paint those brush strokes until the knowing of those brush strokes has moved to my mid-term memory. I then move onto the next three or four brush strokes.

I remember reading about a car designer (or maybe he was just a designer) who talked about having a maximum of three lines when styling a car.

Having a maximum of three lines makes it easy for our eyes to take in the shape of a car and either enjoy it or not enjoy it. We can see those three main lines, see how they relate, and if the relationship is pleasant, to ourselves then we get a good feeling. But we need to be able to hold those lines in short term memory.

When working with things that we haven't memorized, or have no understanding (or previous experience) of, then working within our short term memory limits makes it easier to understand what we are working with and make decisions based on that understanding.

What's the difference between understanding and previous experience, particularly if understanding is built on previous experience? Understanding is based on previous experience that has been learned from, analyzed and indexed.

Shopping for vases

With a girlfriend at a vase shop in France, I helped her to select the one vase from among many that she thought that she liked by picking three or four vases at a time, and having her select either which one she liked least (so I could remove it) or which one she liked best (so that she could keep it in the group.)

We gradually whittled down the group so that she could easily pick the vase she liked best. And we did it by working within the limits of short term memory.

Working with short term memory means not having to think

Short term memory can hold at most 7 discrete things. These things can be novel, or they can be pointers to memory locations of things already learned. Or they can be a mix.

The point is that we can access these things easily, without having to think.

While the upper limit is five discrete things, the more usual number is around about 3, 4 or at a squeeze, 5.

The thing about short term memory is that it is easy to test when you have exceeded its limits. Do you have to think, or is choosing a struggle? If this is the case then you need to reduce your sample size, or instruction set or whatever it is that you are working with.

That can mean grouping your choices arbitrarily and then from each group making selections to either leave out or keep. Do this with both groups (or if more than two groups, all groups) and repeat the process till all that you are left with is a small enough group that you can then make a decision on. It's a little like World cup football.

If the problem is choosing a movie on Netflix, do a search for a movie you've enjoyed. It might not be on Netflix, but the suggestions Netflix comes up with may provide enough limitation that you can choose from among the titles offered. Note that this might work better because the titles are all in one group vs different categories.

The point is that when you have a small group to select from, it's easy to hold the features of all of these items in your short term memory. You can then easily make a decision.

Why long strings of If... else statements are a headache

I spend some of my time programming, and some of my time playing with excel. In either case, I work with functions or formulae and in either case I can end up with long strings of if/or/else statements. When these statements become very long, it becomes very hard to figure out the logic, particularly when looking back at functions or formulae written weeks or months before.

The problem here again is that the thing I'm working with, each for statement, each "if" statement, is a discrete item that I have to try to hold in short term memory.

And with the longer statements I generally excede my short term memory limits. And so I spend a lot more time thinking and trying to figure things out.

Having had enough experience of this, I now try to write functions or formulae in a way that makes it easier to understand. This might take up more space in other ways, perhaps more columns in a spread sheet, or more lines of code in a function, but if it improves readability, and makes it easier for me to understand functions more easily without having to think, then it's worth it.

Making learning more effective
by working within the limits of short term memory

This same idea, of making information easy to hold in short term memory, can work when teaching yoga.

I generally tend to use repeated actions (or repeated instruction sets) when teaching yoga with the goal of helping students learn to feel their body. And so to this end I'll have them focus on activating and relaxing a particular muscle or set of muscles, or moving a particular bone while feeling a particular reference point on that bone. Or I'll have them feeling a particular joint and noticing changes in muscular and connective tissue tension in and around that joint.

So that they can do this easily, so that they can focus on feeling the changes in sensation and not worry about what it is that they are trying to do, I'll keep instruction sets short so that they can easily hold it in their short term memory. they can then act on these instructions.

And part of the reason for doing this is that they won't get the action straight away. So repeating it is a chance for them to learn the action and then improve their ability to feel it and control it.

The nice thing is, as they get more experience of their body, I then show them how to adjust the action. And because the adjustments are simple, generally a slight movement in one direction or another, here again the information is easy to hold in short term memory and they can focus on feeling their body and making easy decisions based on what they feel.

Working within the limits of short term memory is like temporarily understanding what it is that you are working with and/or choosing from. When you exceed the limits of short term memory, when you have to think, you lose the understanding. And that's when choosing becomes a chore.

What you can do when the choices all suck

Sometimes decision making is difficult not because you have too many choices, but because the choices you have all suck. Sometimes, decision making is difficult because it seems like there are no choices.

I experienced an example of this while on an Outward Bound course in the jungles of Far north Queensland (in Australia). Our group had been stuck in one place for more than a few hours. The problem we had was figuring out where we were with respect to our map because of a lack of truly distinguishable landmarks. Finally our guide spoke up. He told us that if there were no good landmarks where we were, then move to a place where there were some good landmarks.

With making decisions, sometimes the only option is to pick one and go forwards from there. But sometimes you have the option of changing the choices, of redefining them.

As an example of this, if I'm stuck at the beginning of a yoga class, not sure what to do, then I'll start with something small. I'll have the class working on wrist or ankle flexibility, or the neck, areas I don't always work on. While exploring and experiencing these areas, I'll then get ideas of where to go next.

In a similiar vein, I was once working on a wood carving of Rachel Mclish. I was carving her from a piece of Rock maple and my carving was based on single picture. At one point I got stuck. I wasn't sure where to go next. So I took a step back. Looking from afar, I realized I'd made her boobs bigger than her head. And so I knew what I had to do next. (I made her boobs smaller!)

And so to make decision making easier, to see what you have to do, sometimes it can help to limit the choices, focus on something small that you can do. Another way is to change perspective.

Note that when dealing with more complex tasks, decision making algorithms can be learned or preprogrammed or "pre-thought". This requires training. But within this training the idea of working within the limits of short term memory can still be useful.

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