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More Than a Resolution

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A basic understanding of math and probability leads to better decision-making and can save people money, time, and grief in big and small ways over the upcoming year.

"People who lack an accurate sense of probability are easily drawn in by false claims and pseudoscience, [and] are vulnerable to get-rich-quick schemes," suggests Real-Life Math: Probability.

A good start is to keep a log and review your decision-making techniques for spending money, managing time, or planning priority projects.

People can approach decisions from various perspectives — focusing on the rational, emotional, creative, safe, negative, positive, or process considerations. With your next major decision, consider trying multiple approaches — you may accomplish more.

Of course, any decision maker must determine and apply values to alternative actions or goals. Select desired outcomes for a year, five years, ten years from now. Then, determine a general theme and tone for everyday routines — slow or fast paced, peaceful or noisy, simple or intricate — that complements those goals.

"It is not hard to make good decisions when you know what your values are," explains Professor Hossein Arsham of the University of Baltimore. Often everyday processes and decisions interfere with long-term goals. In that case, individuals must decide which they value more — daily processes or long-term outcomes. There's no right or wrong answer, but anyone can do more to adjust routines, settings, and goals so that all contribute to both everyday enjoyment and life dreams.

Businesses that compete by thriving on a culture of fear — insurance, medicine, banking, and finance — would like to influence our routines to include more of their services, and many would distract us from our most cherished goals. Too many firms and services profit from our short memories, minimal understanding of math, and tendency to flock toward services in demand.

Take for example, the draft recommendations from the US Preventive Services Task Force, advising against routine mammograms for women in their 40s. The recommendations do not eliminate screenings among women with a family history of breast cancer. The recommendations do not prevent women from arranging and paying for extra screenings on their own or expressing specific concerns to their health providers. The recommended levels of screening would save money and time, and allow more women to obtain screening.

"There's a cultural acceptance that more is always better and that explains why our health care costs get out of control," explained Laura Esserman, breast cancer specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, to Stephen Smith of The Boston Globe. But as with most health-care decisions, more is not always better. Extra screenings can lead to unnecessary biopsies and surgeries, and even new cases of cancer from the extra radiation.

Excess expenditures on and attention to health care create a nation of frightened hypochondriacs who engage in an ongoing Markov process. "The characteristic property of a Markov process is its lack of memory, that is, the decision where to go next may (and typically does) depend on the current state of the process but not on how it got there," explains Jochen Geiger in Applied Stochastic Processes.

Consider starting the new year by analyzing and wresting control of your routines and life, rather than letting an onslaught of worries control you. Or as Henry David Thoreau put it in Walden, living life more deliberately: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  

Setting priorities, living simply without a clutter of unnecessary appointments and services, could lead to many more rewarding accomplishments. 

In the upcoming year, be sure to seek out the caregivers, insurers, financial advisers, pharmacists, security consultants, and others who do not promote the culture of fear. They're out there, and they deserve our appreciation and praise.

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