Think Like a Scientist: The Goal Is Never About Proving Yourself Right

The 4-step process to making better decisions

When I was a kid, I wanted to become a scientist. Pinpointing a problem, carrying out experiments, and making new discoveries seemed fun to me. (And getting to wear a lab coat.)

Clearly, I didn’t end up becoming a scientist. But I still love everything science. I believe this passion for science is what fuels the entrepreneurial side of me as a writer: to find a problem, set up an experiment, and create a new solution.

Out of the many things scientists do, the one that interests me the most is how they think and make decisions. Many of us believe that scientists are smart people (yes, most of them are smart) who are born to be geniuses, but what really matters is the thinking process that is so ingrained in their minds with years or even decades of practice that enables them to think in a specific manner.

The truth is, science is not about coming up with crazy ideas, inventing physics equations, or discovering a new chemical component. Instead, science is a process of learning the truth or finding a solution.

The scientific process of solving a problem

There are hundreds and even thousands of different types of procedures used by various scientists when carrying out an experiment or writing a research paper. However, the process of scientific thinking can be simplified in four simple steps:

The scientific thinking model
  1. Make an observation. Observe the subject and record what you find and learn.
  2. Form a hypothesis. Make a guess on what might be true or what might work.
  3. Test the hypothesis. Create a set of experiments to validate the guess.
  4. Analyze the results. Track and evaluate the outcome of the experiment.

It may seem challenging — or almost impossible — to implement this process sometimes in your particular situation. But the truth is that this process works in nearly every circumstance.Here are two of my real-life examples:

Building a habit of exercising regularly

I first stepped into a gym and started working out seven years ago. During that time, all I found was bodybuilding routines that took two hours a day, six days a week of my time. I stick to that routine because it’s the only way I knew back then.

The routine didn’t work well due to my studies, part-time jobs, and daily chores. As a result, I was getting nowhere and felt frustrated. Based on these outcomes, I sought new ways to train.

That’s when I stumbled across a strength training routine that took me only an hour a day, three days a week. The strength training routine didn't just work well for me, it also taught me a lot about my body and overall fitness. In order to improve, I went further, explored other training disciplines and started building training routines that fit my current goals and schedule.

Combined with my research and learning about behavioral psychology and habits, I now make regular exercise part of my lifestyle without feeling any sense of resistance from it.

Improve work productivity and reduce distractions

Being able to stay productive means a lot to me as an entrepreneur and a writer.

I make a habit of exploring and collecting productivity systems and strategies, then experiment with them to see if they work well for me.

I then keep what works and discard what doesn’t. Now I have a system in place to stay organized, prepared and focused most of the time. I don’t strive for perfection, but I’m still actively looking for ways to optimize my systems and workflow from time to time.

. . .

The fact is, you may already be using this four-step scientific approach in your work and life without noticing it. These four steps become a decision-making loop. This will help you move closer and closer to finding better and more accurate solutions for almost any decision and problem.

Why thinking like a scientist is Hard

I’m not going to deny this: It’s challenging for us to think like a scientist.

Even scientists find it challenging to think in this systematic way when they’re not working in the laboratory. That’s because as human beings, we are animals of pleasure and pain.

Our brain has evolved for hundreds and thousands of years and created shortcuts that help us make sense of things through emotions and stories. It’s essential because we need these shortcuts to make critical decisions fast without expending too much energy.

However, they usually lead to biases and cognitive errors that can cause us to make bad decisions. Just to name a few:

  • Confirmation bias. Our tendency to search for, interpret and recall information in a way to reinforce our existing beliefs or hypothesis.
  • Sunk cost fallacy. While we believe we make decisions based on rational evaluations, most decisions are tainted by the emotional investment we accumulated in the past.
  • Availability bias. This mental shortcut causes us to rely on what is available rather than what is accurate when evaluating a specific topic, concept, or decision.

Besides these cognitive errors, our anxiety and fears are one of the biggest blocks that move us away from implementing the scientific thought process. It’s hard to think and decide using a systematic way when you’re put in a life-or-death situation.

What do you need before you start

However, it’s not entirely impossible to use the scientific approach in our day-to-day decision making. With practice, you could get better at it. To really make it work, here are a few rules you’ll need to start with:

Rule 1: start with a goal

Whether it’s to achieve a specific outcome, to discover and make a conclusion, or to find a solution, you need to start with a goal. Try to write the goal down before you do anything, so you’re clear with what you want to get out of the process.

Rule 2: focus on data, facts, and truth

Instead of getting carried away by prejudgment and bias, ask yourself: “Is what I know true?” Focus on data and facts instead of ideas and thoughts. If you don’t have any data now, identify what kind of data you’ll need and make an effort to collect it.

Rule 3: stay opened-minded

You first need an open mind to think like a scientist. (By reading this article, I bet you are) At the same time, be open-minded about 1) ways to test your hypothesis, 2) other unobvious methods to achieve your goals, and 3) the final outcome, even if it’s not what you want.

Making the paradigm shift

When you think like a scientist, you eventually start looking at the decisions you make from a third-person angle instead of getting too attached to it. Besides, it’s not about what decision you’re making, it’s about whether you make the decision or not.

Not making a decision is a decision made.

With the scientific approach, you can always observe and analyze the findings you get to come up with a new hypothesis and start a new set of experiments.

  • Marketing strategy doesn’t work? Collect current data and come up with new approaches that generate the most impact on your goals.
  • New habit doesn’t stick? Observe your environment and look into the triggers, then optimize by making small changes.
  • Feeling unmotivated and not sure what to do in your life? Do a Pareto Analysis to find out 20% of the routines that bring you 80% of the desired outcome and fulfillment, then do more of that.

Instead of seeing every decision you make as a once in a lifetime, gloom or doom decision, you get to put on your lab coat, make your observation, form a hypothesis, and carry out your experiments.

Instead of getting it right and perfect, it’s about getting it better.

This idea syncs perfectly with one of the many insights I learned from Ray Dalio’s best-selling book, Principles:

Raising the probability of being right is valuable no matter what your probability of being right already is.

How to get big, important decisions right

I do realize that there are some decisions that are too important to see them just as a test and experiment. You can’t afford to make mistakes when deciding your major, getting married, or buying a new house.

My argument is that it’s still possible to think and decide using the scientific approach. All you need is to pinpoint your worries and create a safe environment to make reversible decisions.

  • Not sure if you like the major? Sign up for tuition (what is a “tuition”?) to learn more about it, talk to people who have gone through the course.
  • Not sure if you and your partner are the right fit? Stay together for a year or two, create a trusting environment for tough conversions, and travel together.
  • Not sure if you will like your new apartment? Get an Airbnb to stay in it for a few weeks.

By creating a space where you’re allowed to test your hypothesis, you allow yourself to make the big decisions more accurately with the data at hand.


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