5-Tips For Better Decisions By Thinking Like A Poker Player

A new book and the neuroscience behind it can change the way you think.

Posted Oct 02, 2018

Every day we have to make decisions, be they big or small, insignificant or life-changing. From what to eat for breakfast, what to study in college, to who we become romantically involved with. These decisions make use of psychological, emotional, and mental processes that require us to weigh options, analyzing potential outcomes. Sometimes, they involve taking a big risk.

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed when you are faced with choices? Do you make decisions that don't turn out the way you'd hoped, or find you often regret even the most well-laid plans?

You’re not alone. Sometimes we need to think outside the box, which might mean taking a risk that may or may not pay off. Sometimes the payoff is in taking a chance in the first place—not necessarily the outcome.

American poker player Annie Duke knows something about taking big risks and having them pay off. She's racked up over $4 million in winnings and was the first woman to win the World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions. She's a mastermind at quick thinking and expert decision-making skills. I recently read her book “Thinking in Bets” and I wanted to share some lessons along with some of the neuroscience behind her reasoning.

So, if you want to know how to make decisions like a professional poker player and have them pay off, here are five little-known secrets that Annie Duke draws on in her profession.

1.     Embrace uncertainty

Let's face it: we have to make decisions about our future ALL THE TIME without knowing the outcome. If we’re honest about it, we never really know the outcome – from the way traffic will impact our workplace arrival time (I live in Los Angeles, don’t get me started) to the way our friends will respond to the new coffee blend we bought. It’s maddening!

But what about the less habitual decisions we are faced with? Like whether to apply for a new job, move houses, end a relationship, or give up drinking? These are the decisions that can put our mind into overdrive and cause us stress. What if we make the wrong choice? What if the new job or new house or new partner isn't any better than the old one? Then what? 

Let me make it clear: a healthy dose of anxiety is helpful, necessary even, to keep us motivated, energized, and keep momentum in our lives. It helps us weigh options and analyze situations. Ample research has shown that there is actually an ideal amount of anxiety for different tasks. But, anxiety can get in the way of you making any decision at all. Or, when you finally do make your choice, you regret it immediately.

Sound familiar?

I’ve been there many times myself. And I've learned to take solace in the fact that the best I can do is prepare and then act, because the rest isn't up to me.

Poker players, like professional athletes, must rely on skill and luck for success. They may claim a win as a result of talent and blame a loss on bad luck. Maybe you’ve even done this before! But if you know when to separate skill and luck, you can make better decisions.

The point I’m making is that you can’t let the decision overwhelm you, because if you do, you’ll never do anything worthwhile. You’ll never take risks. Acknowledge the skills you have in making the decision, and then let luck do the rest. Move forward, learning to trust yourself and letting the universe do its thing (it’s going to do it anyway, so you might as well impact the outcome).

2.     Move away from a ‘results-oriented’ attitude

Annie Duke introduces the phenomenon of "resulting." This means you weigh up the success of a decision by the outcome. By doing this, it means you may discount the skill, effort, and strengths you've undergone to make that decision in the first place. Perhaps you feel sad when you've ended an unhealthy relationship. Yes, that sense of loss feels awful, but don't forget the strength it took to make that leap; to put yourself first. Just because you feel bad now, doesn't mean it was the wrong decision and it doesn't mean that it's helpful to start doubting every single action you took during the relationship!

Another example is starting up a new business. If you make very little money in the first year—do you consider this a failure? You shouldn’t. Instead, you acknowledge all the hard work, learning and effort that went in that will likely lead to better financial success in the second year. Even when a business fails (as I’ve experienced myself), it’s nearly impossible to tie the outcome to a specific decision or even a set of decisions. There are so many specific variables to consider – staff, market conditions, your competition, and every single decision you made yourself.

There is no doubt that some of us tend to blame ourselves more and others seem to take little responsibility for any outcome (I've dealt with those people too). There is a personality characteristic element to this, and there is value in taking a measure of responsibility without imagining that every single result (good or bad) is completely tied to a single decision you made. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but it applies very well in general.

3.     Go “all in”

Imagine approaching every major decision in your life like you would a poker game. Probabilistic thinking, a process Annie Duke is an expert in, is all about thinking in bets. In this case, you are encouraged to consider everyday decisions as seriously as you would approach backing a wager with money.

When you have skin in the game and the potential to lose, you may react differently and make different choices. It’s easy to think about things abstractly, but that removes their true impact. If you can think of the decision as a bet (and it kind of is) that has actual, specific financial risk, it will change your thinking.

You’ll be more invested, more competitive and more likely to succeed. Betting to win means you’re placing trust in yourself and backing yourself. Self-belief is a powerful tool and resource drawn on by successful people (see some of my previous articles on confirmation bias and the Pygmalion effect). At IGNTD Recovery, I've noticed that the people who commit to the program by paying money get substantially better outcomes. To date, I've given five scholarships to the program (to individuals who requested the accommodation and were incredibly grateful for it), and only one of those individuals even activated their membership. That's because putting something on the line creates motivation and drive. Without it, we simply get inaction.

So, next time you’re faced with a decision, imagine you are at the casino. You’re about to make a bet on which choice will lead to the best results. What choice will you make if you had everything riding on it?

4.     Be accountable to others

Sometimes, we don’t make great decisions on our own. This is when we need to rally the troops. Surround yourself with people who have opinions that vary from yours, with people who are positive and on a similar life journey as you.

This is especially important if you’re trying to beat an addiction. You are far more likely to be successful if you join a group or find other support than if you go at it alone. If you are all on the path to recovery, then the group can reinforce good habits. Not only that, but groups can provide you with feedback that will allow you to grow as a person and make better decisions. You should deliberately seek out people with different opinions than yours. Challenge yourself—you may just learn something new about yourself. And, those with differing points of view and opinions may offer options, opportunities, and tools you hadn’t thought of!

5.     Know that you can’t predict the future

This may be the most crucial tip yet. You cannot predict the future. Ever. For some people, this idea invokes anxiety; for others, excitement or relief. I’m one of those people who likes knowing that I simply don’t know. And whether you like it or not, you have no control over other people, the universe, or what tomorrow brings. But you do have some control over the decisions you make.

By contrast, just because you think there will be a particular outcome, does not make it a fact. Not all outcomes are inevitable. Some people go by the tenet, “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” This may not always be helpful advice, as it encourages you to consider only two options—a good outcome or a bad one. What about all the things in between? Life is far more about gray than it is about black or white.

Let go of expectations and see what the future brings.

Addictions & Decision-Making

Annie Duke's decision-making rules can easily be applied to addictions and recovery. There’s a well-established way of addressing addiction, but it’s simply failing a large portion of those who need it. It's important to challenge the status quo and make decisions that are based on potential outcomes, even if we’re uncertain what these outcomes may be. New approaches that may save lives (a BIG win) need to be tested and examined so that they can be applied appropriately.

In addiction, we're often “losing” (the behavior negatively impacts our physical, mental, social, and emotional wellbeing) and creating a cycle of failure. When people succeed, it's often used as proof that the treatment program worked, but when they don't, it's because they didn't try hard enough, or didn't really want to succeed (results-oriented, see also the Fundamental Attribution Error discussion here).

For people with an addiction, creative solutions are needed, and thinking in bets can help us gain ground. When you are on the path to recovery, you may fall into the trap of believing that you’ll never succeed. Perhaps you’ve heard this from others, or maybe it’s something you’ve come to say about yourself. If you think in bets, then you are backing yourself to win. That’s a powerful mindset for success and must be adopted. How can you find something you’re willing to go all in on? It’s a central function of everything we do at IGNTD.

So, are YOU ready to back yourself?

Copyright 2018 Adi Jaffe

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