“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”
― Euripides, The Bacchae
Let’s talk about rationality.
Does it ever feel like you do things in your life that don’t actually make sense? You stay in the relationship far after it stops being healthy, you buy the latest iPhone even though you don’t have any money saved up for emergencies, you settle for your current life even though it doesn’t make you happy, or whatever it is for you.
What happened? When you sit down and think about it you know that you should have done something else (something more rational), but somehow it just didn’t go the ‘right’ way. What if there was a tool that allowed you to make better decisions on a regular basis, would you want to use it? What if it was free and only required you to slow down, and write some things down on a piece of paper?
First off, let’s get clear on what we mean when we use these words. When we use the word rational we mean, at a very basic level, doing things that are based on reason or logic. This means not making decisions based solely on emotions, or waiting for the universe to open the perfect door for you. And don’t worry, we won’t be making decisions like robotic automatons either.
Why is it important?
We all know the saying “I’m my own worst enemy,” and most of us can relate to it at some point in our lives. Why? Why do we often get in our own way when it comes to the goals in our lives? In most cases, the answer comes down to emotions and reactivity.
So often in our worlds, we make decisions not based on what would serve us best in the long term, but in reaction to something that happens in the world around us. We make these reactionary decisions while emotions are coursing through our nerves, which prevents us from engaging our rational mind in the process.
This isn’t to say that emotions are bad. Emotions are awesome, but they aren’t very good at getting us to our goals. What we accomplish by bringing some rational process to decision making is to build enough space to get our long-term goals and be able to enjoy our emotions in between decisions. This gives us the best of both worlds.
Okay great, so how do I become more rational?
Today we are going to start off simply – we are going to answer five yes/no questions about our decisions/thoughts/desires/behaviors. These questions are based on Maxie Maultsby’s work in Rational Behavior Therapy (check the links below for additional info). If you respond with at least three yes answers then you are probably acting rationally.
You can use this framework before making a decision, or to debrief a decision you’ve already made
- Is my thought or behavior based on Objective Reality? (Objective reality is not good or bad, right or wrong, should or should not. Think of it like there was a camera recording your behavior that could not side with or against you, what would it show? That’s objective reality.)
- Is my thought or behavior life or health-preserving? (Pretty straight-forward. Is your behavior good for your health?)
- Is my thought or behavior goal producing, short-term, mid-term, and long-term? (Does it get you towards your goal?)
- Does my thought or behavior minimize significant emotional conflict? (Does your behavior create less drama and internal headbanging within you?)
- Does my thought or behavior minimize significant environmental conflict? (Does your behavior create less drama and collective headbanging around you?)
Something to keep in mind is that rationality isn’t universal. What is rational for me might not be rational for you. And what is rational for you today, might not be rational for you tomorrow.
Let’s step through an example. Let’s say I just bought the new iPhone X for a thousand bucks and am wondering if it was a rational decision.
- Was my choice based on objective reality? I bought the phone because I ‘needed’ it. However, did I really need it? I already have a phone that still works fine, even though I think it’s slower than it should be. The new iPhone appeals to my ego and makes me feel like I’m taking good care of myself, but the objective reality is that one communication brick doesn’t indicate whether I actually take care of myself. There was a really good deal on the phone, but it was still a thousand dollars that I spent. Everybody else has one, but that doesn’t mean that I need one.For this one I’d give myself a NO, my decision was not based on objective reality.
- Is my behavior life or health-preserving? This is a hard one with the phone example. Buying it doesn’t detract from my health (unless the extra time I spend on it because it’s fancy detracts from my social health), but it also doesn’t add to my health. I’d love to say that it’s latest and greatest features mean that I am more likely to stay alive in an emergency, but that probably isn’t true either (at least when compared to the features of my existing phone). I’m going to say that, assuming I can pay my rent and other necessary bills along with this purchase, it doesn’t hurt my life or health.So for this one, I would say YES.
- Is my thought or behavior goal producing, short-term, mid-term, and long-term? This is an easy one for me. My short-term goal might be to have a fancy phone, but it doesn’t do anything for me mid or long-term. 20 years from now I won’t look back fondly on buying this iPhone X and remember how it was the moment that my life changed forever towards getting the life I wanted.This is a NO.
- Does my thought or behavior minimize significant emotional conflict? As a minimalist, anytime I’m spending big money to buy things I have pretty significant emotional conflict. More importantly – as a person with specific financial goals and budgets, spending a grand on what is essentially a toy would create additional emotional conflict.This is a NO for me.
- Does my thought or behavior minimize significant environmental conflict? Having the latest toy buys me a spot in people’s minds. Most will probably think I’m important or fancy which is a great ego boost. Because of that my initial thought is yes. However, when I think a little harder, I recognize that it would probably create some conflict between my wife and me, plus I would lose some of the android apps that I use to communicate with family members.Overall I would say that the balance sways towards NO for me on this one.
So, for my personal take on this situation, I’ve got four NO’s and 1 YES, which means that it doesn’t meet the minimum of three YES’s to be rational. For me then, buying a new iPhone X is irrational.
Helpful tips for getting success using this tool
It would be really easy to justify my purchase as rational by massaging my answers. But that’s not what we are trying to accomplish here. This tool is all about stepping back, being objective, and being incredibly honest with yourself. When in doubt, bring your accountabilibuddy to the table and ask them to go through the questions with you.
- Maxie Maultsby’s ‘Help yourself to happiness’ book – a self help resource for rational behavioral therapy.
- Take this work to the next level and integrate it into a Rational Self Analysis (RSA).
- Or go the opposite direction and spend minutes of your life you will never get back watching silly animal videos.