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Models for the mind

  • Published at 12:02 am October 18th, 2019
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A friend of mine told me about a promise that she had made to herself -- a promise to hold herself accountable for her expenses and ensure that she maintains a life of minimalism over the next three months. She wanted to measure how much her life changed by introducing herself to the minimalistic way of life.

It already had been weeks since we last saw each other. I met her again at the coffee shop, and after a while, the topic of minimalism again came up. I wondered how she was doing.

She replied: “I was doing quite well, but till last week, when it happened.” I asked: “What happened that you lost track?”

So the story is: Anna was hanging out with friends and walking along Konigsstrasse at Münster. All the clothing shops are centered around that area.

So, one friend popped in for a quick buy. Following her, Anna and some of her friends thought of a quick glance at the new products and discounts. “One hour later, we all had one or two shopping bags in our hands,” grieved Anna.

Is that the end of the world? No, it’s not. I told Anna on our second day of discussion: “How about creating a story and creating some sort of guiding principle or motto that you can hold on to, whenever a situation like this arises?” She promptly agreed, and we decided to use the century-old proverb “Less is more.”

It’s been three months, and Anna has completed her challenge. I sometimes become astonished at how a single line can act as a guiding decision-making behaviour. Just like how an aeroplane corrects its decisions on the way to reach the airport, Anna also used this one-line to correct her behaviour whenever she was confused or pressured to make decisions.

These are called mental models. 

We are often confronted with decisions under pressure. In a moment of stress, peer pressure, we might make decisions that further take our time away from the things that might be most important to us. 

Think of the burger that you just had while working on your weekly diet goals. Sometimes a snap decision ends up changing the course of our lives and makes us do something that we end up regretting later on.

In these situations, when you are working on something fruitful or activating a habit that you know will help you in the long run, it’s hard to actually keep on doing it till it becomes a regular habit.

In these situations, you need a shortcut -- a mental model to guide yourself through the mist. On a clear day, passing through might be easy, but holding on to these mental models come in handy in the middle of the storm, no matter how disoriented or confused you might feel in the heat of the moment. 

You can find these mental models everywhere. They are in your favourite autobiographies, in Aesop’s Fables, in your cultural proverbs, phrases, and idioms.

Rather than giving in to short-term gratification, you can connect to your empowering motives through mental models that help you make decisions you feel proud of. 

Touhid Kamal uses anthropology to learn more on micro-cultures and human behaviour, and is a UX researcher and team culture builder. He can be reached at [email protected]