Just like the body gets tired after a workout, the brain gets tired from making too many decisions. Stephanie talks with Decision Scientist Nika Kabiri about what decision fatigue actually is and offers advice on how to overcome it. Spoiler alert: you’re not a bad decision-maker!
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- . What is decision fatigue?
- . Advice on how to avoid it.
- . Considering your feelings.
Speaker 1 (00:03):
Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice. In today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market, Lawyerist supports attorneys building, client-centered and future-oriented small law firms through community content and coaching, both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you the small firm roadmap and your podcast hosts.
Stephanie Everett (00:35):
Hi, I’m Stephanie Everett.
Zack Glaser (00:36):
And I’m Zack. And this is episode 427 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, Stephanie talks with Nika Kabiri about battling decision fatigue.
Stephanie Everett (00:48):
Today’s podcast is brought to you by Posh Virtual Receptionists, Clio, & Documate. We wouldn’t be able to do this show without their support, so stay tuned because we’re going to tell you more about them later on.
Zack Glaser (00:59):
Stephanie, I think we’ve had Nika on this show before, man, hopefully multiple times. So if anybody’s interested finds this one interesting, they can go back and find other ones. But I actually met Nika at Clio Con. I randomly sat next to her on the bus going to an after-party event and was independently fascinated by what she does and realized that I actually already followed her on Twitter and was already connected with her in many ways. But it’s always fun to kind of meet somebody you’ve never really met and go, oh yeah, I am fascinated by this person.
Stephanie Everett (01:38):
I met her in person at Clio as well the same time you did. And although not on the bus, but earlier that day, I’d interviewed her for a podcast for a different show that we do with Legal Talk Network on the road. So that was really fun. And she’s just really cool because for those who don’t know, she’s a decision scientist. And people have said to me, wow, what is that? I didn’t even know that exists. And so that’s pretty cool that she’s like, yeah, let me help you figure out how to make better decisions. And last night when I told my husband about this interview, he was like, oh, that’s an episode I should actually listen to. And so I joked and said, that might be his first. So here’s the test to see if he does.
Zack Glaser (02:19):
He listens to Jason, if you’ve listened to this, when you have to tell Stephanie specifically in order to let her know. So one of the things I think is fascinating about Nika and her job, especially at Clio, is that a lot of Lawyerist that we know, she kind of made her job by having her expertise and having her fascination and following what she likes to do. I run into her and her work through the legal tech report, and because she has her hands all over the legal tech report that Clio does, and I think it’s fascinating to think about how Lawyerist make their decisions in their own practices, but I love that she’s made her own kind of job there in a sense.
Stephanie Everett (03:09):
Yeah. Now you know what I would tell everybody is if you listen to the show, and we’re going to dive in deep about a specific area, which is decision fatigue, but if you do follow her on social media or go to her website, which she gives the link to at the end of the show, and we’ll have in the show notes, she just teases up really cool everyday conundrums that we as humans face. How do you get your kid to actually clean their room? Should you argue with your spouse before bed or is it okay to go to bed angry? That one I actually asked her about in this episode, but there’s all these everyday things and she gives us sort of an approach and a way to figure out how to find a solution that I find really helpful and fascinating. Yeah, like you, I’m like, yeah, follow her because she poses these really interesting questions and then gives you a neat way to think about it. And she does that in this show too.
Zack Glaser (04:04):
Well, and I guess instead of talking about her, we can go to your interview with Nika Kabiri.
Nika Kabiri (04:15):
Hi, I’m Nika Kabiri. I’m decision scientist at Clio, and I’ve spent about 20 years or more studying how people make decisions in a variety of contexts, from business to politics to relationships. I’m an author, I’m a speaker, and I’m also a bad decision maker.
Stephanie Everett (04:34):
Hey, Nika, welcome back to the show. It’s great to have you today. Thanks.
Nika Kabiri (04:37):
It’s great to talk to you again.
Stephanie Everett (04:39):
And with all that laundry list of things besides being a bad decision maker, I love that you also love music. And I know last time we talked we shared a common love of Pearl Jam, I believe, which also just dates us.
Nika Kabiri (04:52):
Stephanie Everett (04:53):
I was curious, do you play any musical instruments or are you just listening?
Nika Kabiri (04:56):
I do. I play guitar, I sing. I’m learning from a really excellent, if you ever want to learn music, you should go to morethanjustavocalcoach.com. Missy Macquarie is the best music teacher ever. And so I, it’s really kind of the only thing that lifts my spirits without compromise or unconditionally. We don’t have to really do much work and music just makes you feel better, and there’s actually a lot of science behind that, how it kind of resonates with you on a psychological level or kind of boosts your dopamine levels and things like that, your serotonin or whatever. I don’t remember which one, but yeah, so there’s a chemical reaction that music has in your brain that makes you feel good. So yeah,
Stephanie Everett (05:41):
That makes sense. And I’ve also read, there’s something that happens in the brain when you play an instrument for business leaders. It’s really important because it stimulates different parts of your brain activity.
Nika Kabiri (05:53):
I haven’t read that, but I can totally get that when I play. It puts you in a different kind of state, and when you sing, you’re like, it’s almost like meditating to me, putting in a meditative state.
Stephanie Everett (06:03):
Yeah, I totally agree with that. Makes sense. I’m going to put on some music after this. So today we thought we’d tackle decision fatigue, and it does feel like, I don’t know, with all the stuff we’re hearing about right now, we always are talking about overwhelm and everything feels really heavy. And even this topic, decision fatigue, even the name of it, it’s tiring. So I’d love you to help us kind of think about it and maybe just to start us off, we should put a definition on it. What is it when we say decision fatigue?
Nika Kabiri (06:36):
So it’s very common if you make a lot, lot of decisions over the course of the day or if you make even a few huge decisions, you are going to get tired and you can recover obviously, but it’s just working out. If you lift too many weights or do too many reps in a row or you run too long or whatever other sport you like to do, you’re going to get physically tired and your brain does the same. It gets fatigued. And just like with sports, the more tired you get, the less able your body is to do the things you want it to do. The more your brain is tired, the more cognitively fatigued your brain is, the harder it is for it to do the things that it needs to do in order to make good decisions. It’s tougher to be rational. It’s tougher to process information appropriately. And so that’s really all it is, and you can feel it at the end of the day when you’ve had a rough day at work and then you have to decide what to have for dinner, which is the hardest decision of the day sometimes. But it’s an easy decision. It’s fatigue. I mean, a lot of times it’s just fatigue.
Stephanie Everett (07:46):
I mean, that’s what I was going to ask because if I’m lifting weights 35 times, my arm is going to tell me that it’s tired and wants to stop, but I don’t feel like I always know when my brain is tired and wants me to stop. So is there a way to know when you’re kind of experiencing decision fatigue?
Nika Kabiri (08:04):
The brain is a decision making machine. It’s kind of like it’s the thing it does. We are totally fine putting down the weights, like, okay, fine, I’m quitting, I’m done. But I think because our brains are constantly working to make decisions, even on a very fast thinking way, in an efficient way, we don’t stop. We have to kind of know what to do next all the time. So you have to pick up on the signs. You just have to be aware of what you’re doing. So if it’s an easy decision and you’re stuck, chances are higher that you’re fatigued. For instance, dinner chances are higher fatigued if you can’t seem to think straight. I mean, I think oftentimes I have this problem where I’m given a piece of information and I’m looking at it or I’m hearing it and it’s like I can’t quite gro it, even though it’s very easy information to grok, that could be a sign.
Sometimes the signals are physical, being agitated, being a little bit frustrated, being quick tempered. Fatigue can cause that as well. There’s a lot of research in neuroscience right now that’s connecting the physical with the mental and the emotional. It’s all it is weaved together in a way. Just imagine you have this fuel tank and if your decision making is taking a lot of that fuel, then you’re not going to have as much fuel for other bodily functions to work. So you can pay attention to how your body is feeling and fatigue might be the cause.
Stephanie Everett (09:33):
Yeah, I mean, it seems like the obvious question, but I assume that if we’re trying to make big decisions, like important decisions when we’re in fatigued, that could be some problematic behavior
Nika Kabiri (09:45):
That is problematic. And I think a lot of businesses or business leaders do this. They wait till the end of the day or the end of the week to make that big call, to make that big choice, not a good decision to wait. Just do it when you’re rested. Do it when you’re recovered and take your time.
Stephanie Everett (10:01):
And so one of the things you teach about is how we can have some life habits that help us reduce this fatigue and set us up for better decision making. So what should we be doing?
Nika Kabiri (10:12):
So it’s kind of the same stuff we probably hear everywhere else, which is get sleep is first. And again, there’s a lot of research in neuroscience lately that points to sleep deprivation as a problem for our emotional wellbeing, for our mental wellbeing, and it has implications for decision making. Without proper sleep, we tend to be more impulsive. We might just slip into habitual behavior. We don’t really think through what’s best for us or for those that we are making decisions for when we’re tired. And I know that a lot of us struggle with sleep for reasons that are beyond our control. Having a full-time job, having kids, having a lot of obligations makes it near impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Some of us suffer from insomnia. I had terrible insomnia for years and years and years, and I no longer do, and I totally see the difference.
So if somebody were to tell me, I don’t know, 10 years ago, just get more sleep, your decision will be better, you’ll have less decision fatigue, I would just dismiss it. It’s like, no, I can’t do it. Well, in that case, surround yourself with people or have someone in your life who you trust, who has your best interests in mind, who is well rested, who you can bounce your decisions off of. Especially the big ones. Don’t just rely on yourself and also just know that you have to calibrate a little bit like, I’m fatigued, I’m an insomniac. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I have to make this decision today. Now I know from the science that I’m going to be more impulsive, that I’m going to be just kind of jump to a decision then just stop yourself. And if you can wait to decide until you’re rested, if you have time, then take it. Or if you don’t, then seek advice. Know that you have to anticipate that you’re going to jump to a decision and correct for that.
Stephanie Everett (12:08):
I think I’m a pretty good sleeper, except sometimes when I have big decisions to make or something’s really weighing on me, that’s when it’s really hard to sleep.
Nika Kabiri (12:15):
Kind of a catch 22. It’s like a lose training your brain, your brains have a lot of plasticity, a lot more than we think to compartmentalize the decision to put it aside. And that’s where music comes in. I think just playing the guitar makes me forget about the decisions I have to make. It focuses me on something else, and it’s not like going for a run where your brain is still working. You have to focus on it. I used to do compete in martial arts and Mui Thai kickboxing, and the best thing about going to the gym and training was that if you didn’t think about what’s happening in front of you in the moment, you could get really seriously hurt. So it’s like things, activities that force you to shift your brain away from the decision and to do something that you enjoy can give you a little bit of a break
Stephanie Everett (13:07):
That resonates. It’s like activity. It’s almost meditative because you’re focused on the activity.
Nika Kabiri (13:14):
Yeah, it’s active meditation.
Stephanie Everett (13:17):
Yeah. You also talk about eating, which I found was fascinating because, and you acknowledge a lot of people don’t eat throughout the day, maybe because they’re trying to lose weight. For me, I will confess that I just get really into my work and it’s easy to skip lunch because I’ve just, I don’t know, I don’t come up for breaks and then I don’t stop and go make lunch. There’s really no good reason as I’m sitting here telling you this. But that too can also impact our decision making ability. Is that right?
Nika Kabiri (13:47):
Totally, a hundred percent. When you’re hungry, you are also more likely to be impulsive. I used to work for someone who was a faster, she loved to fast do these fasts and it wasn’t for weight loss as much as it was for her. I don’t know. She felt like it did something for her spiritually, but then she would come to work and just kind of swoop and poop. She would just come in and just cause a lot of hectic, chaotic kind of outcomes because she was very an impulsive decision maker. And then we were left with this kind of mess. Not a great idea to do that. I like to, I don’t have one right now, but a jar of almonds at my desk so you have something healthy to snack on and set an alarm, have a structure. If you set an alarm that reminds you go have lunch or go make lunch and bring it back to your desk, it could keep you satiated enough. And it’s not just eating something, it’s what you eat too. There’s a lot of research on how sugar diets make us less collaborative in groups when we make decisions. We’re more likely to punish each other socially if we eat a pancakes for breakfast versus eggs or something like that, like a high protein breakfast. So just the stuff that you know have to do, sleep well. Exercise, eat nutritious food, not crap food. It’s not just about weight loss. It’s not just about your cholesterol. It’s about making decisions that could impact everything about your life.
Stephanie Everett (15:17):
Love it. We’re going to serve eggs at our next leadership retreat,
Nika Kabiri (15:21):
Stephanie Everett (15:22):
Well, let’s take a quick break in here from our sponsors. When we come back, we’re going to tackle some questions that people can ask themselves to help frame their decisions and protect their brain.
Zack Glaser (15:35):
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Stephanie Everett (18:07):
All right, so we’re back and we’re talking about how we can make better decisions and avoid decision fatigue. And one of the things you talk about is putting that decision in the bigger picture, which I love and I know I do with a lot of the attorneys that I coach, and a lot of people think it’s like consultants speak when we say, what’s your vision or what’s your long-term goals here? But I was excited to see that the research backs me up that these are really good questions.
Nika Kabiri (18:37):
Yeah, I mean, if you don’t have a destination, then how are you ever going to get there? How are you ever going to get anywhere? You’re just going to spin in circles with your decisions. So even if your goal or your objective is very short term, have one, have some reason, have some kind of outcome or place you need to get to and your decision making will be a lot easier. It’s really often all you need to avoid struggling over decision and getting fatigued to know that, wait, okay, an easy example is dinner. What should I have for dinner? What should I order? Should I get a pizza order? Asian, what should I get? And if you really understand that at the end of the day you’re just hungry and you need sustenance and it doesn’t matter and you can let yourself go and just order pretty much anything, you’ll probably enjoy it. I think we struggle because we don’t understand where we’re trying to get to.
Stephanie Everett (19:30):
And with our businesses, it seems like when I talk to people and they have a decision, let’s say around compensation, it’s sort of the end slash beginning of the year, and that feels like something, everyone’s talking to me right now. They’re thinking about team compensation and bonuses and inflation and all these things. So they feel like really big heavy decisions. And I’ll ask them like, well, what’s your long-term goal for your business and what values are important to you? Because that might then inform what we’re pulling from to make those decisions.
Nika Kabiri (20:01):
Absolutely. And I actually think of it more, it’s very similar, but think of the destination that you’re trying to get to. What is it that your business really wants to accomplish as a business, as a firm or as a business? And then laddering it backwards. Okay, under what conditions is that objective going to be possible? And does giving a bonus adhering to this bonus structure going to make that more possible or less possible? And working backwards that often makes it a lot more simple. I think I had a client once who was struggling with deciding whether to give just cash gifts to employees who did a really great job, and they struggled and struggled and struggled, well, how much should we give them? Who should get them? Should it be a public reward? What if other people get upset because they didn’t get a reward? And at the end of the day, really what matters is that the employees were feeling recognized and cash isn’t necessary. A $50 gift card may not be necessary for that. They just want to be seen. So that kind of eliminates all of that back and forth, all that fatiguing work.
Stephanie Everett (21:07):
I also sense that a lot of business owners and Lawyerist I work with, they’ve made a decision, but it’s like they keep stressing about it. They keep wondering, was it the right one or do I need to change it, or I don’t know. It’s like they relive it a hundred times. Is that something
Nika Kabiri (21:24):
Stephanie Everett (21:25):
Nika Kabiri (21:26):
So that without knowing who they are, it could be a couple of things. It could be that they haven’t made a decision that they really are still deliberating and they rush to a decision or what they call a decision like, this is what I’m going to do. And then once they’ve made that call, their brain is then weighing the pros and cons. The other thing is that a lot of people struggle with regret or anticipatory regret. They worry that the decision they make is going to be one that they’ll either regret or be blamed for. And it plays a lot of people and it causes a lot of analysis paralysis, but regret is an emotion, it’s a feeling, and feelings are elusive and they’re not facts. And sometimes managing the regret separate from the decision, understanding where that regret comes from and managing it outside of the decision is the best way to go as opposed to using the decision in order to feel better about that regret. Does that make sense?
Stephanie Everett (22:30):
Well, I was going to say, boy, that sounds simple when you say it and it feels really hard to do in the moment.
Nika Kabiri (22:36):
Yeah, it does. Well, anything emotional is hard to do at the moment because emotions tend to carry us away and we put a lot weight on them being very important and real. I am very emotional person. I feel very deeply. But I think there’s a difference between allowing yourself to feel deeply and letting those feelings drive the decision. The process for making a good decision really comes down to knowing where you want to go and going backwards from that. What is the objective you’re trying to reach? And under what conditions is that objective possible? And then of all of those conditions, which is the most feasible, which is the most likely to give you a successful outcome? That doesn’t have to be an emotional process. So you can feel like, oh gosh, I recently had to make a very difficult medical decision. I basically just let myself cry it out and let it just go through my system before I did the rational thing or rationality perfectly as a pipe dream, but did the more thoughtful thing where I processed all the information that was relevant, I thought through where I wanted to be. I calculated risk. That was not an emotional process. So that’s sort of what I’m talking about. You just have to override that tendency to let your emotions drive the decision making as opposed to just feeling it, just letting yourself feel it and then deciding.
Stephanie Everett (23:55):
Yeah, how do you bring in other people’s feelings? Like I’m thinking again, back to team. I think I’ve had a lot of calls recently where people are struggling with team issues, so that must be top of mind for me. And it feels like sometimes as an owner, as a leader, it’s really easy to sit there and say, well, here’s the rational decision. But then you layer in, well, here’s how this team member’s going to potentially feel or react or this team member’s going to potentially feel and react. And I think it gets it all murky and cloudy then in our heads again.
Nika Kabiri (24:25):
Yeah, I think we’re really sensitive to how others react because we’re social creatures. It’s a natural thing to do. Social harmony and social order are we crave that. We need that. Without that, there’s too much uncertainty and uncertainty can really freak us out. So I think unfortunately a lot of the problem is that we can’t tell other people <laugh>, okay, I understand that you’re feeling this way, but let’s set it aside right now because they feel invalidated. And unfortunately, that’s the culture we live in where we don’t validate each other’s feelings and we’re pretty much we’re assholes, but that’s a construction. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you’re invalidating someone by asking them to feel here and make a decision over there, the feelings are just like everything else. If you help your team process through the feelings rather than react to those feelings as feedback that the decision was poor and adjust, then you might do a better job. So a lot of it is just management of the emotional state separate from management of the decision.
Stephanie Everett (25:33):
And one of the things that you wrote that I read was even with a spouse, we’ve always heard, don’t go to bed angry, talk it out, and you’re like, actually, if you can, maybe you should <laugh> because
Stephanie Everett (25:45):
You’re in the emotion and you’re tired. It’s the end of the day and you’re not going to make good decisions. I was like, oh, wow, I really struggle with that one. That would be good for me to do.
Nika Kabiri (25:54):
Yeah, I mean, fatigue keeps the arguments kind of going sometimes, oh my gosh, I used to be this person my twenties, where I’ve had to resolve every argument right then and there. I had to just figure it out and I thought it was healthy. But what I’m realizing now after reading a lot of the science is that it’s just another example of impulsivity and this kind of compulsive need to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible. I just want that resolution because my brain naturally is uncomfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen. Are we going to break up? What’s the deal? That kind of worry can really be a problem, and it can force you to make, if you’re fatigued at the end of the night to make decisions that are worse for the relationship than if you rested. So again, compartmentalizing that decision, going to bed, maybe not huffing and puffing where you don’t sleep, but shifting gears, putting it on hold with your partner. Hey, we both loved to watch this show on Netflix. Let’s just take a break and watch this show and cuddle and we’ll pick it up in the morning. But picking it up in the morning, I think unfortunately in my relationships, I was with men who just wanted to avoid, and that’s not healthy either, so you have to make a commitment to pick it up, listen to music, which always makes you feel better. Stuff like that.
Stephanie Everett (27:17):
Yea, it’s so helpful and it’s like real advice, real things that we can apply to our life because like you said, we’re making decisions. How many decisions do we make on a day? You said like over 30.
Nika Kabiri (27:28):
Oh, 31 researcher. I don’t know how they counted 35,000 and not all of them are really big decisions. It’s even just, which sweater do I wear? Should I put more salt on my food? Just little ones. But yeah, it’s a lot.
Stephanie Everett (27:41):
That was a lot. Yeah. What question do you wish people would ask you more?
Nika Kabiri (27:48):
Ooh, that is a good question. In business or in just life or general? Or
Stephanie Everett (27:54):
You can pick, I made it really wide open there.
Nika Kabiri (27:57):
Okay, here I’ve got it. This is the one thing that I wish people would ask me more less because the question is good and more because they need to hear the answer. I wish they would ask, why am I such a bad decision maker? Because the answer is you’re not. Like, what I’m trying to get at is I often get people telling me they’re bad decision makers because they’re too indecisive or they’re too emotional and they’re judging their decision making. They’re very judgmental about how they make decisions, and they want to know, how do I fix myself? How do I fix what’s wrong with me? And really, there’s nothing wrong with you. We are pretty much designed to make decisions the way we make them. We have a brain that’s designed for efficiency. It takes up 2% of our body mass, but 20% of our fuel, which it has to be efficient or else we couldn’t sustain ourselves.
So it’s going to take shortcuts, it’s going to have biases, it’s going to jump to conclusions. All of these things lead to bad decisions. We’re naturally social creatures, so we’re always going to be swayed by people around us. All the things that make us able to go to the moon and do all these crazy amazing things as humans are the same traits that cause us to mess up from time to time. And so it’s less about fixing what’s wrong and more just overriding those natural tendencies when you need to in order to serve your best interests.
Stephanie Everett (29:24):
Awesome. That was amazing. I think that was a great place to wrap up. Great. Thank you so much for being on the show today. I’ve learned so much, and I’m going to use this, I think I’m going to say practice. I don’t think I’m going to get it perfect, but I’m not going to judge myself because it doesn’t mean I’m a bad decision maker. It just means I’m learning.
Nika Kabiri (29:43):
As long as you’re improving in the odds, that’s all that counts.
Stephanie Everett (29:46):
Awesome. If people want to learn more about the work you do around decision science, where should they go?
Nika Kabiri (29:52):
To my website? It’s your next decision.com. Awesome. And I have lots of information there. Thanks
Stephanie Everett (29:59):
Nika, for being with me today.
Nika Kabiri (30:00):
Speaker 1 (30:03):
The Lawyerist podcast is edited by Brittany Felix, are you ready to implement the ideas we discussed here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First, if you haven’t read the Small Firm roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at Lawyerist dot com slash book, looking for help beyond the book. Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities are right for you. Head to Lawyerist dot com slash community slash to schedule a 10 minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.
The Lawyerist Podcast is edited by Britany Felix. Are you ready to implement the ideas we discuss here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First. If you haven’t read The Small Firm Roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at Lawyerist.com/book. Looking for help beyond the book? Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities, are right for you. Head to Lawyerist.com/community/lab to schedule a 10-minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.
Nika Kabiri has spent 20+ years studying decisions in a variety of contexts, from business to politics to relationships. She writes, speaks, and consults, helping people get real, move forward, and minimize regret. Nika is currently serving as Senior Director of Decision Science at Clio. She has worked with clients like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and more, and she is a former University of Washington faculty member.
Nika’s work on decision-making has been featured in Fast Company and Yahoo, and she was recognized as a top decision coach in LA Weekly. She has been quoted in the Washington Post and Gizmodo and has contributed to media sources like The Hill, Huffington Post, and Inside Sources. She is also co-author of the bestselling book Money Off the Table: Decision Science and the Secret to Smarter Investing.
Last updated January 25th, 2023