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Framing Effects

I have an uneasy relationship with balance. I understand the merits of a balanced life, but too much emphasis on balance undermines my fidelity to the things I really value. It feels like giving myself permission to be mediocre at the things that matter most.

At the same time, aging and ailing parents, work commitments, immediate family responsibilities, and personal interests all compete for my attention. The rub is that I feel all of them are non-negotiable. Honoring my numerous commitments runs deep. It’s unacceptable to let them drop. Chasing excellence runs just as deep. My vitality depends on it.

This quandary has intensified over the last several years. I’ve been getting the important things done, but I haven’t consistently met my personal performance standards and I haven’t enjoyed the ride very much. I’ve been longing for the clarity and purpose of being fully invested.

Recently, I ran across the following from James Clear:

It’s better to do less than you hoped than nothing at all. No zero days.

My initial reaction was characteristic. “It’s better to do less than you hoped than nothing at all” did nothing for me. Frankly, it put me off. Then I read “No zero days” and was immediately captivated.

The irony is transparent—the two statements are intended to convey the same idea.

This reminded me of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and his discussion of framing effects.

Framing effects are cognitive biases in which our decision making is strongly influenced by the way alternatives are presented, even if they’re logically identical. When the same facts are presented in different ways, we tend to make different decisions. Framing effects explain how presentation impacts our rationality.

Amos Tversky, Kahneman’s research partner, performed an experiment with colleagues at Harvard Medical School that brilliantly illustrates the power of framing effects:

Physician participants were given statistics about the outcomes of two treatments for lung cancer: surgery and radiation. The five-year survival rates clearly favor surgery, but in the short term surgery is riskier than radiation. Half the participants read statistics about survival rates, the others received the same information in terms of mortality rates. The two descriptions of the short-term outcomes of surgery were:
The one-month survival rate is 90%.
There is 10% mortality in the first month.

The statistics are logically identical. A purely rational decision-maker would make the same choice when presented with either statistic.

But, that’s not what happened. 84% of the physicians who were provided the survival-based statistic favored surgery. Only 50% of the physicians given the mortality-based statistic favored surgery. The sole difference was the way the information was framed, and that difference had a striking impact on their decisions.

I had an intellectual understanding of framing effects after reading Kahneman’s book, and I recognized them to varying degrees in myself and my interactions with others. The full impact, however, never really hit me until I saw Clear’s comment.

Clear’s first statement: “It’s better to do less than you hoped than nothing at all” fails to resonate with me on a constitutional level. I don’t “hope” to do things. I commit—and plan—to do things, or I let them go. Doing anything less than I committed to is disappointing, and I usually don’t appreciate or acknowledge the effort I did make. “No zero days” is another way of saying the same thing—the two statements are clearly providing the same guidance. But for me, “No zero days” has a completely different impact. While doing less than I planned frames the situation in terms of a loss, “No zero days” frames the situation in terms of a win—daily faithfulness to the things that matter most to me.

Restating Clear’s statements a bit:

“I’m the kind of person who’s OK with doing less than I planned, as long as I do something.”
“I’m the kind of person who has daily fidelity to the things that matter to me.”

I’m not OK with doing less than I planned, and I don’t want to be the kind of person who is. But, this perspective has consequences. If I’m at the end of the day and I haven’t exercised, this framing leaves me disappointed that I didn’t get it done. Even if I do a quick workout it still feels like I’ve lost something important.

The idea of daily fidelity to the things that matter, on the other hand, inspires me to find time for that same quick workout in pursuit of a much larger goal. After I’m done, I feel like I’ve honored my big picture, and it’s now an optimization problem to figure out how to get a full workout in on unexpectedly demanding days. It feels like commitment and progress, not loss.

People are constitutionally different, with different aspirations, perspectives, and capabilities. Each of us must frame things differently in order to get our best outcomes. The important thing is framing things in terms that resonate with who we are so we can stay on the path to what we want.