3 Cognitive Habits to Make Better Decisions

Ben Heim
4 min readJun 20, 2022

Every day, there are a few choices you make that have an outsized impact on your joy, productivity, and growth. These decisions act in a positive feedback loop, pushing you to take the next step towards your goals while ignoring distractions. Act in the wrong way, however, and you lose that day. James Clear articulates this point in Atomic Habits, calling these ostensibly small choices “decisive moments.”

Clear’s Decisive Moment Model

These moments aren’t too difficult to identify. It’s when you wake up in the morning and choose whether to go on social media or get some exercise in, when you decide to put your relationships first and spend time with friends or sit at home alone, when you finally stop procrastinating on your job search or just settle for the unsatisfying position you currently have. In the moment, it’s hard to have the perspective and know how important these choices are, so we don’t really take them seriously. But, there’s a simple way to come out on top when these decisive moments come around. It’s a cognitive shift that will put your values over transient comfort. And it has to do with distance.

20 years before Abraham Lincoln became President, he began to experience what came to be known as “Lincoln’s melancholy.” Unsuccessful in his career as a lawyer and questioning his love for his fiancee, he was left in a rut of indecision, stagnation, and depression. He had no idea what to do. Of course, he eventually persevered through it all, coming out on the other side.

When one of Lincoln’s friends had a similar issue, Lincoln did not hesitate to give advice. He quickly let his friend know that the issue was not the woman he was about to marry, but rather the way he approached love. On the surface, it appears that Lincoln had learned this revelation through overcoming his own trials. But, there’s something else going on here.

Even Lincoln benefitted from some psychological distance. Source

Psychologists Ethan Kross and Ozlem Walter wondered whether Lincoln had actually learned anything or that he was just distant from the problem and saw it more clearly. To test this question, they brought participants into their lab and told them to recall a painful memory from their past. The difference between the experimental and control group came from how they were told to remember it. One group was told to take a fly-on-the-wall approach, reliving the event in the third person — this group was the distancers. The other was not given this extra instruction (and so likely took the first person approach) — this group was called the immersers.

While the immersers focused on the feelings of pain, describing their personal experience as “Angry. Victimized, Hurt, Shamed, [and] Stepped-On,” the distancers reported seeing the argument with more clarity and understanding of the other person’s perspective. Suddenly, a sense of nuance and complexity was infused into their perspective. And the clarity effect lasts for more than just the moment. Research found that using the distancer perspective led to a shortened period of negative mood. The benefits of distancing oneself from the situation don’t end there either.

Psychological distancing. Source

When told that the subject was providing advice to a friend as opposed to making a decision for themselves, their decisions were more logical and less emotional. It appears Lincoln’s great advice wasn’t so much the result of his experience as it was the distance he had between himself and the problem. So, how can you harness this power of distancing? Kross suggests a few methods:

  1. Temporal distancing
    When making a decision, ask yourself how you’ll feel about it in 10-years. This will shift your perspective from what will make me feel good in the moment to what will make me feel good in the bigger picture.
  2. Speak to yourself in the third-person
    This is one of my favorites. Whenever I am ruminating or am reflecting on an emotionally-charged event, I stop using “I” — instead, I use “Ben.” Though it’s a minor change, it has a massive impact in allowing me to see my problems objectively and realizing what’s actually important and what can fall to the wayside.
  3. What would you tell a friend?
    If a friend was having the same problem as you, what would you tell them?

These changes are all minor and are easy-to-adopt. In fact, I used one when I was writing this blog post. Feeling discouraged by the lack of views on my stories and thus value I was providing to readers, I didn’t know if I wanted to write. So, I asked myself what I would tell a friend. Instantly, I knew that although my viewership is low now, building the skill of writing will lead to a bigger audience so that I can provide more value to my readers.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about psychological distance — in fact, I found that it also helps with creativity. You can read more about the benefits of creating psychological distance here.

To learn more about psychological distance and its impact, I suggest reading Chatter by Ethan Kross, the main inspiration for my writing above.