Understanding your mind will make you better at shaping your future

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Knowing what information your mind uses to assess and take decisions about the future can help you to develop the way you think about tomorrow

Welcome! 

Every day you take hundreds if not thousands of decisions that shape your future.

But what does your mind base these decisions on? And how can a greater understanding of what and how your mind uses information help you to improve your future-thinking skills?

In this article, you’ll learn:

I’ll guide you through the above using relatable examples and link through to the underlying research, should you wish to explore it.

This article is the third instalment of an introductory series, designed to help you overhaul and improve the way you picture and plan for the future.

If you haven’t read the earlier articles, you can find them here:

  • Part 1 introduces you to the concept of future-gifting, a powerful mindset to help you take action in the present to better help yourself – and those around you – in the future. 
  • Part 2 introduces you to four ways of thinking about the future. It then places these four ways of thinking in a simple framework designed to support the way you picture and plan for the future.

So, without further ado, let’s begin…

Why this matters 

What does your mind use to decide your future? What raw information does it gather to help you make assessments about a particular course of action’s benefits or drawbacks, and the likelihood of its failure or success?

Lifting the lid on what and how your mind uses data, memories and knowledge to decide your future will shine a light on the type (and quality) of the information you use to reach decisions and judgements. Importantly, it will highlight the benefits as well as the potential pitfalls of the way you think.  

You already think about the future – a lot

Every day we spend a lot of time thinking about the future. 

We think about our upcoming appointments and scribble down to-do list items. We form intentions to read, exercise or practice musical instruments. We look forward to spending time with family and friends at the weekend. We ponder and predict what our futures might hold in ten, 15 or 20-plus years’ time. 

One study canvassed 500 Chicago residents on what they were thinking at random points throughout the day. It revealed they spent 14 per cent of the day contemplating the future compared with just four per cent thinking about the past. This amounts to a solid hour of thinking about the future for every seven hours of thinking we do.

All of this thinking feeds into the hundreds – if not thousands – of decisions to act or not to act that we make every day, all of which will influence – perhaps profoundly – our future.

Let’s turn first to the types of information your mind gathers to help you prepare for what lies ahead.

The two types of information you use to picture and plan the future

When you think about the future and think about how you may feel in a possible upcoming situation, your mind draws on essentially two types of information

  1. your experience 
  2. your beliefs and theories

Using your experience to assess the future

Let’s begin by looking at information drawn from your past experiences (scientists call this episodic memory and it’s sometimes referred to as using analogies). These memories are about a specific event that you experienced in the past. For example, you had a cup of coffee with Martin in central London, last Tuesday morning.

For a moment, let’s imagine that you expect to have a typical day’s work tomorrow. 

In order to help you anticipate what you’ll likely encounter, your mind begins to marshal all available information to help you picture, predict and prepare for what it believes will likely lie ahead. 

You believe tomorrow will be a normal working day. So, in the first instance, your mind reaches for a recent experience to inform your picture of your day ahead – your most recent ‘typical’ day at work is a suitable candidate. The memory is relatively new and the details fresh. It also appears to be highly relevant as it captures a day similar to the one you expect to experience tomorrow.

Your mind has found a satisfactory match.

So far, so good.

But what happens if tomorrow isn’t a typical day? 

Let’s consider a different – and new – scenario. What if you have an important meeting with senior executives from a prospective client organisation that you’ve never dealt with before?

In order to anticipate how the day might pan out, your mind will seek out (in other words, try and access from your mind’s archive) the most relevant experience to use as a template for what may happen tomorrow.

Let’s say that the most relevant past experience your mind can find is a meeting with your colleague Joanne, Head of Products and Marketing, last Thursday. As the meeting was recent, you can recall the details clearly.

But, there’s a problem. In fact, there are several.

The meeting you’re set to have tomorrow is on a topic completely unrelated to last Thursday’s. Your experience wasn’t with external clients. What’s more, you’ve worked with Joanne for over three years and have built up a good working relationship with her over several projects. 

In other words, your experience may tick the box for being ‘a meeting’, but fails on all other counts. Therefore, it’s simply not relevant enough to be included in your mental briefing pack for tomorrow. 

What happens when you lack relevant experience?

When your mind can’t find a suitably relevant past memory, it moves on from your experience to your beliefs.

When you can’t access a memory of a specific experience from your past, your mind looks to your general beliefs about a specific situation.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

Using your beliefs and theories to assess the future

General beliefs about a specific situation

In the absence of a relevant past experience, your mind widens the search to gather your more generalised theories and beliefs about the situation in question. In our example the situation is: ‘important work-related meetings with senior decision-makers you’ve never met before’. 

Your mind will then proceed to serve up how you feel in general terms about situations like this. These beliefs, which are specific to this particular situation, are essentially a set of generalisations about how you think you will emotionally respond to a meeting of this type.

Our own personal beliefs

We hold our own personal beliefs about the emotions we’ll experience in certain situations. So, we may link dinner with friends with happiness, our phones with (useful or irritating) distraction, arguments between strangers with anger, holidays with relaxation. 

One person may link ‘highly important meetings’ with uncomfortable levels of risk. If meetings like these go wrong, they believe, reputations get damaged, possibly beyond repair. This person may think that the stakes are raised higher still for initial meetings with unknown people. These beliefs build up over time, with each experience of a meeting adding to what they’ve read, seen and been told by others.

However, another person may view this scenario quite differently. 

Perhaps they associate invitations to important meetings with reward and recognition for hard work. Or perhaps important meetings signal that they’ve gained the trust of their superiors. They may believe that meetings like this represent an opportunity. They’re a great chance to spend time with senior executives, speak to them directly and hear what’s on their minds.

Whichever version resonates most with you – and, of course, there are others – will clearly frame how you view and prepare for the upcoming encounter. But in either version, you are drawing not on a specific past experience, but on your general beliefs and abstract theories about ‘important business meetings with people you’ve not met before’.

But what happens when you’re faced with a situation that you haven’t experienced before?

What if you’re starting a new job in a new company, in an unfamiliar sector? 

Let’s imagine you’re not even going to a typical meeting.

Your prospective client, instead, is sending a car to pick you up from your front door, tomorrow at 9am. There’s no agenda beyond an invitation to “come and join us away from the office for the day”. It’s the first invitation of this kind you’ve ever had. You don’t know the potential client’s main line of business because their website offers few clues. You don’t even know who you’ll be meeting: a junior researcher or the CEO?

As the unknowns stack up, what information does your mind call on to help you prepare when it lacks even situation-specific beliefs?

Answer? It casts the net even wider to draw on your generalised beliefs and abstract theories. However, these beliefs and theories are not related to any specific situation (i.e. ‘meetings with prospective clients’) – because they’re not deemed relevant enough. Rather, they’re related to the world. In general. 

Identity-based beliefs

These general beliefs and theories are tied to your identity. They tend to be long-held, rarely updated views about how things operate. They can be deeply embedded and difficult to shift. They are often wedded to your personality and moulded by social norms and stereo-types. 

In contrast to memories of your past experience, memories allied to your theories and beliefs (known as semantic memory) do not decay rapidly. Importantly, they can help you to create more stable expectations about your world.

In contrast to a memory of past experience, your identity-based beliefs are not grounded in a specific event. Instead, they are made up of a handful of general and abstract thoughts and theories that you seldom replace nor update

The above examples are designed to highlight the different roles of experience and beliefs. It’s not to say that your mind uses only one or the other. Our minds will draw on everything and anything it believes to be helpful to solving your questions relating to your upcoming events. It’ll drag in the kitchen sink if it thinks it’d be of service. It can be helpful to view experience and beliefs – episodic and semantic information – as more of a sliding spectrum, with a blend of experience and beliefs used to help us consider what the world in the future might be like.

This said, scientists believe there is a clear order in which your mind prioritises the information it uses to form assessments of the future.

Let’s take a closer look at this now.

The order in which your mind uses information

There’s a clear hierarchy of information we draw on to form assessments of the future:

  • We prioritise our experience over beliefs and theories
  • We prioritise the relevant over the general

First and foremost, we reach for directly relevant experience (scientists call this episodic memory). 

Failing that we move on to our general beliefs and abstract theories about the world (known as semantic memory). We start by considering our general beliefs about a given situation (meetings, parties, gardening, speaking Italian). Failing that, we draw on our general beliefs about the world, which are closely linked to our identity. In other words, we play the identity card.

There’s a clear order in which our mind uses different types of memories to help us assess and take decisions about the future. After Robinson and Clore (2002), graphic by James Janson Young

What does this mean for your practice of thinking about future?

This means in practice, the less familiar a possible future scenario looks to you, the less likely you are to have relevant experience to call on. So, the more you’ll rely on generalised, theoretical information to make your assessments and decisions. 

By knowing how your mind gathers information to make sense of possible future situations, you can see the prominence of your experience and the role your general beliefs and theories play in your decision-making. This’ll help you identify where to improve how you contemplate the future.

Possible vulnerabilities in our source information

Shortcomings in experience

These are a few possible vulnerabilities in your experience for you to explore:

  • No experience. You don’t have experience relevant to the potential situation in question.
  • Forgotten experience. You do have relevant experience, but you’ve forgotten it, or can’t access it. This can be for a variety of reasons.
  • Misremembered experience. You think you have relevant experience, but you’re actually misremembering it. This could mean you’re either overplaying, under-appreciating or misinterpreting an experience’s lessons and insight. For example, you thought that time when it was your idea to go for an early morning trek up Scarfell-Pike to avoid the crowds is an excellent example of your showing initiative. But, it wasn’t your idea, it was your friend’s.

Shortcomings in beliefs and theories

These are a just few possible weaknesses in your general beliefs and theories:

  • You lack relevant and sufficiently developed beliefs and theories. You might be faced with a situation that you know little about. You might therefore lack the knowledge, rules of thumb (sometimes called heuristics) or mental models required.
  • You’re out of date. Your beliefs and theories are ageing, and as a consequence are no longer true or wholly applicable. For example, you might believe the fundamental assumptions of classical physics still hold (quantum theory has cast doubt over all six assumptions) or the fastest way to cross the Atlantic is by steamship. Your beliefs and theories may also introduce errors and biases.
  • Your beliefs and theories have been left unchallenged. This may lead to them either being wrong, or you begin to draw an unwarranted level of confidence from them.
  • You’re just plain wrong. Your beliefs or theories are regrettably just wrong. You believe the sun is the centre of the universe, that Planck’s constant is 2.72 (it’s 6.62607015 × 10−34; 2.72 is Euler’s constant ‘e’) or that men are better in leadership positions than women.

Summary

To start overhauling and improving your practice of thinking about and planning for the future, it’s important to be aware of how you think about thinking.

When you think about the future, your mind draws on essentially two types of information

  1. your experience 
  2. your beliefs and theories

There’s a clear order in which your mind uses information to form assessments of the future:

  • You prioritise your experience over beliefs and theories. 
  • You prioritise the relevant and specific over the general. 

This means in practice, the less familiar a possible future scenario looks to you, the less likely you are to have relevant experience to call on. So, the more you’ll rely on generalised, theoretical information to make your assessments and decisions.

This knowledge can help you identify where to improve your thinking about the future. Perhaps you’re lacking experience or relying on a set of beliefs and theories that you haven’t updated recently – or even challenged. These vulnerabilities are areas that you can next look to do something about.

How can you put this knowledge into action right now?

Taking what we’ve discussed here, contemplate your upcoming week, in either a personal or professional setting, and consider the following:

  • What looks familiar? Is your schedule looking fairly typical? Your regular meet up with friends on Wednesday night? Perhaps you’ve children who need ferrying between routine Saturday activities and playdates?
  • What looks unfamiliar? Dining at the house of a friend of a friend, whom you’ve never met? Learning a new Bach prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier? Kicking off a new home renovation project?

As you think about what your upcoming week looks like, you may begin to get a feel for the different types of information you are using to assess how these experiences might turn out.

You may notice, for example, that when you try and imagine your typical day, you naturally draw on very recent memories. But what happens when you begin to think about less familiar situations? 

To continue your journey… 

Further articles covering how to more effectively think about and plan your personal and professional future will be appearing in the coming weeks. 

To be the first to hear about them and to make sure you don’t miss out, sign up to my newsletter here. I promise it will be short, sharp and strive to help you serve your future well.

With thanks to Gabriel Sollmann on Unsplash for main photo.

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