Making a conscious effort to refine your reasoning and improve your decision-making about everyday matters can help you become a happier and more successful person. However, doing so requires vigilance and self-assessment. In order to improve, you need to reflect on your decisions and why you're making them on a regular basis, while remaining honest with yourself throughout.
That's where this checklist of rationality habits comes in handy. Compiled by the Center For Applied Rationality, a nonprofit devoted to helping individuals improve their life performance by sharpening their reasoning, the checklist compiles some 24 self-evaluating tactics that you can practice daily. Striving to master them will help you learn a lot about how you think — and in doing so, how to avoid making costly mistakes.
We've touched on many of these habits in our own courses and tools, such as the Belief Challenger, the Time & Money Calculator, Probabilistic Fallacies: Gauging the Strength of Evidence, and the Sunk Cost Fallacy.
The checklist breaks its rationality habits down into six categories:
Reacting to evidence / surprises / arguments you haven’t heard before; flagging beliefs for examination.
Questioning and analyzing beliefs (after they come to your attention).
Handling inner conflicts; when different parts of you are pulling in different directions, you want different things that seem incompatible; responses to stress.
What you do when you find your thoughts, or an argument, going in circles or not getting anywhere.
Noticing and flagging behaviors (habits, strategies) for review and revision.
Revising strategies, forming new habits, implementing new behavior patterns.
We've excerpted one habit from each of these six categories below. Again, you can see (and download) the full checklist here. Enjoy!
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Habit 1c.: When I see something odd – something that doesn’t fit with what I’d ordinarily expect, given my other beliefs – I successfully notice, promote it to conscious attention and think “I notice that I am confused” or some equivalent thereof. (Example: You think that your flight is scheduled to depart on Thursday. On Tuesday, you get an email from Travelocity advising you to prepare for your flight “tomorrow”, which seems wrong. Do you successfully raise this anomaly to the level of conscious attention?)
Habit 2c.: I look for the actual, historical causes of my beliefs, emotions, and habits; and when doing so, I can suppress my mind’s search for justifications, or set aside justifications that weren’t the actual, historical causes of my thoughts. (Recent example from Anna: When it turned out that we couldn’t rent the Minicamp location I thought I was going to get, I found lots and lots of reasons to blame the person who was supposed to get it; but realized that most of my emotion came from the fear of being blamed myself for a cost overrun.)
Habit 3b.: When facing a difficult decision, I try to reframe it in a way that will reduce, or at least switch around, the biases that might be influencing it. (Recent example from Anna’s brother: Trying to decide whether to move to Silicon Valley and look for a higher-paying programming job, he tried a reframe to avoid the status quo bias: If he was living in Silicon Valley already, would he accept a $70K pay cut to move to Santa Barbara with his college friends? (Answer: No.))
Habit 4c.: If I find my thoughts circling around a particular word, I try to taboo the word, i.e., think without using that word or any of its synonyms or equivalent concepts. (E.g. wondering whether you’re “smart enough”, whether your partner is “inconsiderate”, or if you’re “trying to do the right thing”.) (Recent example from Anna: Advised someone to stop spending so much time wondering if they or other people were justified; was told that they were trying to do the right thing; and asked them to taboo the word ‘trying’ and talk about how their thought-patterns were actually behaving.)
Habit 5b.: I quantify consequences—how often, how long, how intense. (3 real cases we’ve observed in the last year: Someone switching careers is afraid of what a parent will think, and has to consciously evaluate how much emotional pain the parent will experience, for how long before they acclimate, to realize that this shouldn’t be a dominant consideration.)
Habit 6a.: I notice when something is conditioning me to avoid a behavior I want to repeat. (Recent example from Anna: I noticed that every time I hit ‘Send’ on an email, I was visualizing all the ways the recipient might respond poorly or something else might go wrong — which was sort of like giving myself a little electric shock every time I sent an email. I’ve (a) stopped doing that (b) installed a habit of smiling each time I hit ‘Send’ (which provides my brain a jolt of positive reinforcement). This has resulted in strongly reduced procrastination about emails.)