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Minimizing Hindsight Bias with a Decision Journal

I recently listened to a podcast episode called How to Keep a Decision Journal (13 min.) by Alex Lieberman, the co-founder of Morning Brew. The idea of keeping a decision journal is attributed to Princeton psychology professor and Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman.The purpose is to minimize hindsight bias and improve decision making. The process is simple. Document the following:

  1. The date you are making a consequential decision
  2. The consequential decision
  3. What you expect to happen
  4. Why you expect it to happen
  5. How you feel about the situation, both physically and even emotionally.

Number five is optional but recommended. It’s also important that you write down the date you will review the decision you are making, which should be 3 to 6 months later.

I like this idea but I think there are three stumbling blocks that need to be addressed in order to engage in the practice effectively. The first is coming up with a working definition for “consequential decision.” The second issue is remembering to review the decision 3 to 6 months later. Lastly, I think there needs to be more specificity around what to do when reviewing the decision.

What’s a consequential decision?

When is a decision worth documenting a decision versus not? For example, perhaps you are accepting a job offer rather than continuing your search or you’re investing in stocks rather than real estate. Those decisions may seem obviously consequential since they would result in a considerable change in lifestyle or require days or weeks of deliberation. But what about the decision to go on a run today or eat an apple instead of a candy bar? These are arguably important decisions for health but would you consider them consequential enough to write in a journal and review 3 months later? Opinions will differ so it’s important to figure out what works for you.

One way to get at this may be to document 1-3 decisions each day for 1-2 weeks. Make notes about why these decisions seemed important to write down and look for patterns. You could also write down decisions that didn’t seem important and why. Other criteria to consider include a certain threshold of money and time. Personally, I also consider whether the decision will impact other people in my life, such as a partner, roommate, child, and parent. These are decisions in themselves and may be worth noting in your decision journal so you can possibly improve upon them later. Keep in mind that this process is iterative. Whatever you decide today doesn’t mean that it will stay that way forever. The point is improve as you learn using documented information from previous experiences rather than relying on a faulty memories or forgetting altogether and starting from scratch.

The practice of reviewing

Let’s face it, most of forget to do something all the time. I know Dr. Kahneman originally recommended purchasing a cheap notebook from the convenient store but I do not trust myself to check a decision journal to see if today’s date matches the date of a decision I need to review. If you tend to be forgetful like me, I highly recommend using an app to remind you to review your decisions. One option is to make the note in a free calendar app like Google Calendar but this would require going out three months from the current date and then documenting each part of the decision. Another approach is to use an app like Google Tasks to document the decision and set the date to review. I use Notion for everything so I created a Decision Journal (see example; link to template) and set a reminder to review my decision three months later. You cannot automatically set reminders if you use a formula to calculate your review date, as I did in my template. You could use the date property instead and manually set a reminder 3 months later in the calendar view. Alternatively, you could create an app in Airtable, which allows you to set reminders using formulas. You could even connect it to SendGrid to send you an email or a text message. Here’s an example that I created with a free account. Each approach has it’s strengths and limitations. Find an approach that works best for you.

Thoughtful review

Approach your review in the same way that you documented the decision. Don’t just read the decision you made a few moths ago and why you made it. Write down the actual outcome of the decision and note anything you didn’t expect and anything you could improve. For an example, check out the template that I shared in Notion. These notes will demonstrate the difference between what you thought versus what actually occurred. Reflecting on these differences can help you apply what you learned in the future. If you recognize that you made a mistake, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life, recommend documenting and categorizing them to identify growth opportunities. Burnett and Evans identified three categories:

  1. Screw Ups– Mistakes that you normally get right but happened to get wrong this time. The best response is to simply acknowledge that you messed up and move on.
  2. Weaknesses– Mistakes that you often repeat. The source of these mistakes are often known and it’s an ongoing process of improvement. You can try to change them if you see any upside but sometimes you may need to avoid situations that prompt them.
  3. Growth Opportunities– Mistakes that are preventable. You can identify the cause and solution. Focus your attention and energy on these mistakes since changes in this domain can have an outsized impact.

The authors placed them in a table that looks like this:

Lindsey Rainwater (2019)

The general takeaway is that we can minimize hindsight bias by documenting decisions and comparing what actually transpired to what we expected at the time. To ensure we learn from these decisions, we should also consider how we can improve our decision making process and apply what we learned. Most importantly, we need to get into the practice of documenting these decisions and remembering to review them later. Technology is a great way to make this convenient, as long as you don’t mind the inconvenience of setting up a system that helps you do this in the first place. I’ve shared a few options that I could think of but I would love to know what you’ve come up with!

BTW, if you’re interested in trying Airtable based on what I shared, please consider using my referral link. I also have a referral link for Morning Brew, in case this motivated you to subscribe to their newsletter 😊.

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