Don't get sidetracked!

First aired on Spark (02/25/13)

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Does this sound familiar? There's something you need to get done. You make a decision about how to do it. You hunker down and try to get to work. But then the phone rings. And e-mail pops up. You get distracted. You get sidetracked from what you're trying to accomplish. But Francesca Gino is here to help you stay the course. She's an associate business professor at Harvard Business School, and the author of a recent book, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick With the Plan. She spoke with Nora Young on Spark recently about how you can make stronger decisions and avoid getting distracted from your goals.

"The biggest problem is that we do not realize that there are so many forces that sidetrack us," says Gino. We're not nearly as logical as we like to fancy ourselves. "We have a very very positive belief about how competent and amazing we are, but we often fail to meet those standards."

Different studies have shown that we humans have a tendency to overrate ourselves in a number of different areas. And while healthy self-esteem is a good thing to have, our delusional nature can derail our decisions, Gino explains. "One situation where I studied the consequences of having overly positive views of ourselves is in situations where we need to make a decision and we ask for other opinions," she says. "We tend to completely discount the advice we receive from others, even when the advice is actually quite good." Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the studies show that the more powerful you are, the less likely you are to listen to outside advice.

Gino's book also talks about the very human tendency to get "tunnel vision," and only realizing our mis-steps long after the fact. "We get very focused on our side of the problem," says Gino. "We are too focused on the information we have, thinking that is the right perspective on the problem...we forget to take a step back and look at the problem from a broader perspective."

When faced with a problem or a decision, Gino suggests "zooming out" as a technique to counterbalance our own personal biases. "Too often we look at a situation from our own perspective and we don't consider how others might see the same situation," she says. "What we find is that others have different ideas, different opinions, different perspectives and they may be quite helpful in helping us reach better decisions."

In the book, Gino talks about other techniques to counteract our bad instincts. "I talk about raising your awareness," she says. "It sounds simple, but I think we should take it very carefully, recognizing that we are not always the best or most competent person in the room."

Know thyself, and better decisions will follow.