Why we get sidetracked and 7 steps to making better decisions

In the introduction to her new book Sidetracked, Harvard business professor Francesca Gino recounts a recent trip with her husband where they wandered through a marketplace in Dubai—determined to buy an authentic souvenir—only to wind up with a $100 knock-off of a $7000 Italian designer watch. The irony of the situation wasn't lost on Gino, a behavioral scientist who spends much of her time researching various factors that lead us to make poor decisions.

“Often we make plans with good intentions and wind up with outcomes that had very little to do with what we intended to do,” Gino told me. “These are due to three separate categories of forces that influence our decisions: those within us, those from our relationships, and those from the outside world around us.”

Her research, for example, found that we often ignore the advice of experts when making decisions—even when it’s based on more accurate knowledge than our own—because we find the opinions of others to be less compelling and convincing than our own beliefs. About 60 percent of undergraduate college students who participated in Gino’s study examining how people reason through business problems completely ignored written solutions provided to them by MBA students, while the other 40 percent used some of the solutions but not all in their final answers.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

She also found in a separate study that when we’re angry, we tend to disregard and distrust input from other people far more than when we’re in a neutral emotional state. “It’s important to take your emotional temperature before going into a meeting or having an important discussion,” Gino said, “because if you get stuck in traffic on the way to work, you might not be able to listen to others’ opinions because you still have so much anger.”

Tuning in to those mental hurdles that derail your decision-making abilities could help you achieve the goals you set and keep you from getting sidetracked. Here are seven steps Gino recommends.

1. Raise your awareness. Be cognizant of the fact that you may have an overinflated sense of how capable and competent you are when it comes to evaluating a particular situation. “You’ll be more likely to weigh in other people’s opinions if you have a little uncertainty about your own,” Gino said.

2. Take your emotional temperature. If you’re feeling angry, that may not be the best time to come to a decision; ditto for feeling anxious. “Anxiety may lead you to accept the first offer that comes your way in a salary negotiation,” Gino said. A recent study from the Wharton School found that when people are able to mentally reframe anxiety as excitement over a new opportunity, they perform better during business negotiations.

3. Draw an E on your forehead with your fingers. If you drew a backwards one that only you can see in a mirror reflection, research suggests you’re probably not considering the other person’s point of view. (I drew a backwards one myself.) Failing to see another’s perspective may lead to you to veer off your intended plan—whether it’s to sell more perfume in an ad campaign or improve your marital relationship. “If you’re stuck in a conflict, stop just for a second,” Gino said, “and put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

4. Zoom out. If you’re getting stuck in the weeds consumed by nitty gritty details—when you’re, say, trying to determine which car to buy—zoom out and look at the big picture. Maybe solicit the advice of a disinterested person who won’t be driving it; that person may provide input that you didn’t consider like whether its popular make and color will make it hard to distinguish find in a parking lot filled with similar-looking vehicles.

5. Question your bonds. If your friends eat junk food, you’re likely to as well. On the other hand if they sign up to train for a triathlon, they could help you stick with your plan to improve your fitness. “We don’t have a stable moral compass,” Gino said. “What I’ve found in my research is that it’s easier to pick up the unhealthy habits of others than to be swayed by their good behaviors.”

6. Consider the frame. How information gets framed and presented to you can significantly influence your decision-making—which is why people buy “75 percent lean” beef instead of “25 percent fat” beef. Companies use framing all the time to get us to purchase items we don’t really need or want to get discounts or free products in the future. By becoming more attentive to frames, you can become less influenced by them.

7. Make your standards shine. The best way to maintain your high ethical standards is to keep them at the front of your mind, especially when tempting situations arise. For example, when filling out a tax return, try signing the promise that all the information presented was factual before you actually fill it out, rather than afterward. Gino’s research has shown that this leads to less cheating.