Much is said and written about the virtues of ‘believing in yourself’, ‘backing yourself’ and ‘ignoring the nay-sayers’. This advice is applied to business situations, to personal relationships, and pursuing your dreams and goals.

There is no denying the importance of self-belief. After all, if we don’t take ourselves seriously, we can’t expect anyone else to. But should we always listen to ourselves? Are the voices in our head always right? In my opinion, to make real change in our lives, we should sometimes ‘tactically ignore’ the things we tell ourselves to do; forgoing what seems like the best choice right now, for what we truly want long term.

 Let them eat cake

Everything we do is a choice. Everything. Even when we tell ourselves it isn’t, it is.

“But they made me angry,” we protest.

“But you chose to get angry,” comes the reply.

So when I say ‘tactically ignoring’ yourself, what we’re really talking about here is better decision making. It’s about training our inner decision-making muscle to make the best choice, not the best choice right now. The decision could be small and relatively inconsequential, or much bigger and more serious.

It is about working with our emotions to see past the initial, knee-jerk response, to a place of greater clarity, objectivity and wisdom.

We are tactically ignoring ourselves, for instance, when we refuse the piece of cake we really want, but know we don’t need, and long-term we’d rather not eat because we’re on a diet and trying to eat healthily.

We are tactically ignoring ourselves when a co-worker does something underhanded and in our pain and anger all we want to do is retaliate, but keep quiet because a professional manner will benefit us far more in the long-run than a brash display of mud-slinging and finger-pointing.

We are tactically ignoring ourselves when we get scared about a failing relationship, but decide to stay and fight for it because when we put that fear to one side, to be with that person is what we really want.

The key word here is ‘tactical’, as in ‘a tactic to get you closer to where you want to be’. Usually where we want to be (our goals) requires short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Forgoing a night out so that we can save up for a house deposit or missing a friend’s party because we have to prepare for your dream job interview the following day.

We have to decide to make these sacrifices (choices). But as we all know, making such choices is hard, and no-one is successful at it all the time. So how can we improve?

A good place to start on the road to better decision making is to first understand how the process works.

 Old dog, old tricks

In “Brilliant Decision Making”, Robbie Steinhouse talks about how people consistently undervalue the role that the unconscious plays in how we make decisions.

For instance, an experiment carried out by Goldsmiths College and University of Texas showed that our unconscious can have the answer to a lateral thinking question a full 8 seconds before we are consciously aware of it. This shows that when someone says they are ‘mulling it over’, that they really mean it.

Our unconscious decision-making system is old, and it is tried and tested. Our ancestors used it to make difficult, life-or-death decisions without the abilities of logical reasoning or self-awareness. But it also has its flaws, and for this conversation three in particular must be highlighted:

  1. It is biased toward instant gratification — In a choice between cake now and a flatter stomach next week, our unconscious will choose cake every time.

  2. It worries too much about future loss — Our unconscious is very conservative about the future, and is over-preoccupied with the pain of potential loss.

  3. It doesn’t do well under time pressure, in uncertain situations — When we are in unfamiliar terrain, our ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and hijacks our ability to make good, logical decisions. This is why we should listen to experts in their field, particularly when time is of the essence.

It is worth underlining points 1 and 2 above, as they are all about how poorly we make long-term decisions. To stretch the cake example even further, when we reach for that extra slice our instinctive brain is thinking “I’m hungry and I may not survive if I don’t eat now”.

This was a valid impulse in ancient times when a meal was far from guaranteed, but hardly the case in the modern day First World.

Therefore, if we are to lose that last bit of weight, part of the process is to tactically ignore the survival instinct of eating whatever is in front of us at the time, just in case we don’t survive until the McDonald’s down the road.

How do I know when to listen and when to ignore?

As with all advice, guidance and information in life, there is a time and a place.

We should not ignore ourselves when we smell smoke coming from the toaster. That would not be tactical.

We should not ignore ourselves when close to exhaustion and push on anyway. (Side note: for an article about the time I didn’t follow my own advice and to learn from my mistakes — click here).

We should ignore ourselves when we want to tell our boss where to stick it. It may feel great for the first 4 seconds, but filling out an application at the Job Centre won’t.

We should ignore ourselves if we really want to avoid a big conversation with our spouse or partner this evening, but what we really want long-term is a happy and healthy relationship with him or her.

It is all about having the strength to take a second and look at the big picture. The choice is entirely ours, but so is the responsibility for the outcome.

So how can we know? Ryan Holiday offers stoic wisdom in his book ‘The Obstacle is the Way’The book suggests that the thing we least want to do is more often than not precisely the thing we must do in order to get what we really want. Want to lose weight and hate exercising? Guess what. Want a happy marriage but don’t want to work on it? Sorry my friend — the obstacle is the way.

More often than not we will have just two main voices in our heads when it comes to make a choice, big or small.

The first gently reminds us of what we want.The second seduces us with visions of what we want right now.

It is up to us to make that choice, but choose we must. We just have to be as possible that the choice is the right one for us and our loved ones, and not just for ourselves in that moment.

So what now?

Being sufficiently self-aware to know when to listen and when to tactically ignore those voices cannot be hacked. There is no shortcut. The good news however, is that there are a wealth of resources to help. Below are a few that have helped me, and which I hope will do the same for you.

  1. The War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield — particularly good for finding the perseverance necessary to work on something creative. Had I not read this book, this article could never have been published.

  2. Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman — not the easiest of reads, but a truly brilliant book for anyone interested on how the mind works and how to better work with its limitations.

  3. ‘InnSæi’ by Zeitgeist Films — a stunning documentary on intuition, how modern man has lost it, and why we should seek to find it again.

Progress, not perfection, should be the goal here. It is not as if reading any of these books will turn you into a perfect decision-making machine. But if any of them help you to make one better choice a day, or a week, then be sure to celebrate that progress.