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Ellen Langer on decision making

In her recent book, “The Mindful Body” Ellen Langer, a renowned Harvard psychologist known for her work on mindfulness, explores the concept of mindfulness and its impact on various aspects of life, including decision-making. Langer is considered a foundational contributor in the development of mindfulness.

The London Times had a helpful review of her book pre-publication. In it, the reviewer helpfully positions a core component of Langer’s argument. She counters traditional thinking on decision theory which focuses on adding extra layers of information and complexity with a view to making the ‘right’ decision, with the realities, especially in a VUCA world, or having to deal with factors which make it difficult, if not impossible, to agree on the ‘right’ decision. In such situations, Langer posits that our approach should be less on making the right decision but making the decision right.

In reflecting on this distinction, I am immediately drawn to the parallels with the definitions of management and leadership posed by Drucker as doing things right as opposed to doing the right things, though now introduced from a very different perspective.

Some of the key stages in Langer’s argument can be summarised as:

Present moment awareness

She emphasises the importance of being fully present in the moment when making decisions. She suggests that many people make decisions on autopilot, without truly considering their options or the consequences. Mindfulness encourages individuals to be aware of their thoughts, feelings, and surroundings in the present moment, which can lead to more informed and thoughtful decisions.

Reducing reactivity

Langer addresses how mindfulness practices can help individuals become less reactive in their decision-making. By observing their thoughts and emotions without immediate judgment, people can create space between stimulus and response, allowing for more deliberate and less impulsive decisions.

Openness to possibilities

Mindfulness approaches can foster a greater openness to different possibilities. Langer suggests that being mindful helps individuals to view situations from multiple perspectives, which can lead to more creative and flexible decision-making.

Reducing stress

Stress can cloud judgment and lead to poor decision-making. Langer argues that mindfulness practices can help reduce stress levels, allowing individuals to make decisions from a calmer and more centred state of mind.

Enhanced self-awareness

Through mindfulness, individuals can develop a deeper understanding of their values, goals, and desires. This self-awareness can guide decision-making by aligning choices with one’s authentic self and with long-term objectives.

Acceptance of Imperfection

Langer discusses how mindfulness encourages self-compassion and the acceptance of imperfection. This can lead to more forgiving and adaptive decision-making, as individuals are less likely to dwell on past mistakes or be paralysed by fear of failure. Sometimes good-enough is good enough.

Improved intuition

Mindfulness practices can sharpen one’s intuition. Langer argues that by honing their intuition through mindfulness, individuals can make quicker and more accurate decisions in situations where rapid judgment is required.

Mindful listening

Effective decision-making often involves listening to others and considering their perspectives. Langer emphasises the importance of mindful listening, where individuals fully engage in conversations without preconceived notions or distractions.

Cultivating patience

Impatience can lead to hasty decisions. Langer suggests that mindfulness helps individuals cultivate patience, allowing them to take the time necessary to make well-considered choices.

“The Mindful Body,” explores with classic Langerian insight and persuasion how incorporating mindfulness into daily life can positively transform decision-making, not just for the individual but also for the organisation.

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