Do you have a tendency to overthink things and struggle to make decisions?
Unless you’re a chronic fence sitter or a “decidophobe,” chances are that your day to day life is governed by decisions. Hundreds of them, maybe even thousands of micro-decisions every single day – from what shirt to wear, whether or not to have that extra cup of coffee, which task to focus energy on, and how to respond to a stressful situation. In fact, decisions are so plentiful that being able to make them faster will essentially make you a more productive person.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a set of rules for the decision making process. (We wish there were!) There are, however, interesting factors that affect how we decide, which everyone should be aware of.
Aim for satisfaction instead of maximisation
In 1956, economist Herbert Simon coined the term “satisficing,” to refer to an approach to decision-making that favors an adequate solution
over the optimal solution
In simplest terms, satisficers are people who make decisions or take action once their criteria are met. This doesn’t in any way mean that they settle for mediocrity, but as soon as they find something that has the qualities that they want, they’re happy.
By contrast, maximisers want to make the best possible decision. Even if they find something that seems like what they want, they can’t decide until they’ve examined every other option.
A satisficer will buy the pasta sauce if it tastes good and is made from fresh ingredients. A maximiser will buy the pasta sauce if tastes good and is made fresh ingredients, and he has consulted his mother, Google, the pasta message board, the sales clerk at the grocery, the chef at his favorite Italian restaurant, and the fortune teller down the street. Well, not really, but you get the point.
In general, satisficers tend to be happier than maxisers. Maximisers tend to exhaust a lot of time and energy into reaching a decision and, once they have, will feel anxious about whether or not their decision was the right one.
Tip: If you’ve ever researched an illness online, you’d know that more information doesn’t always lead to peace of mind. To get yourself through that next major decision, set your criteria in advance. Make your decision as soon as you know A, B, and C., call it, and then burn the bridge behind you.
Firm up your criteria
Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer believes that human beings are hard-wired to make quick decisions based on very little information. He even has a lot of research to back it up. An article from Newsweek
elaborates on his “Take the Best” method of decision-making
“Take the best means that you reason and calculate only as much as you absolutely have to; then you stop and do something else. So, for example, if there are ten pieces of information that might weigh in a thorough decision, but one piece of information is clearly more important than the others, then that one piece of information is often enough to make a choice. You don’t need the rest; other details just complicate things and waste time.”
Gigerenzer tested his theory by asking a number of parents to imagine a scenario in which their child is awakened in the middle of the night by coughing and wheezing. The parents are then given access to either one of two doctors. Dr. A, available to make a house call in 20 minutes, is someone who they know but don’t like because he never listens to their views. Dr. B, who is at a clinic an hour away, is someone they don’t know but has the reputation of being a good listener.
Most parents made their decision on a single factor: whether or not the doctor was a good listener. In an emergency scenario, no other factor was more important.
Tip: Trust your gut. Human beings have the capacity to process information so rapidly that decisions made purely on intuition are actually more well thought out than they seem.
Use the right intuition
Speaking of intuition, did you know that there are three types? Columbia Business School professor, William Duggan, thinks so. According to him, ordinary intuition
, the most familiar, is just a feeling or gut instinct. Expert intuition
is a snap judgment, when you instantly recognise something, like the way an experienced jeweler can tell the value of a diamond in a single glance. Strategic intuition
is a clear thought, a Eureka! moment in the middle of your shower for a problem that you’ve had for months.
The most important part of harnessing the power of your gut is knowing when to use the radically different expert and strategic inuitions. Since expert intuition is lightning-fast and works best in familiar situations, it’s best to employ it in routines, like at work or when you drive. Have you ever noticed that the more often you do something, the faster it takes you to recognise patterns and solve problems? That’s your expert intuition kicking in.
In new situations where your brain takes it sweet time processing information and making connections, your strategic intuition is at play. Its discipline entails recognising when a situation is new and preventing your expert opinion from making a hasty judgment. When we need a break-through solution, it’s best not to jump to any conclusions.
Tip: Making a conscious effort to distinguish between new and old situations is the first step in using your intuition properly.
Ask for help
Daniel Gilbert, psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness
, studies cognitive biases
or the errors that human beings make in processing information. An example of a cognitive bias
is our tendency to believe things that many other people believe in.
According to him, so many things factor in to our decision making process that, at the end of the day, we aren’t that great at making rational decisions in the first place, nor are we good at guessing what will make us happy. Gilbert says that our best course of action is to ask someone else.
“In many domains of life, the experience of one randomly selected other person can beat your own best guess by a factor of two… We all like a trip to Paris better than a gallbladder surgery; everybody would rather have a compliment than their thumb nailed to the floor. The differences between you and other people are so unimportant that you would do better predicting how you are going to like something by simply asking one randomly chosen person how they like it.”
Tip: If you’re having trouble with a decision, consult a peer or coworker who’s had the same predicament. Their opinion will probably more valuable than any research that you can do.
Choose your battles
At the end of the day, the decision-making process boils down to a single factor: is this decision one worth spending time on? New research is saying that the excessive energy that goes into what should be a simple choice, like choosing a detergent, is actually an effect of today’s marketplace. The enormous array of options and information leads our brains to view basic decisions as things ones that require much more thought.
Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide
says, “The modern marketplace is a conspiracy to confuse, to trick the mind into believing that our most banal choices are actually extremely significant
. Companies spend a fortune trying to convince us that only their toothpaste will clean our teeth, or that only their detergent will remove the stains from our clothes… While all these products are designed to cater to particular consumer niches, they end up duping the brain into believing that picking a floss is a high-stakes game, since it’s so damn hard. And so we get mired in decision-making quicksand.”
A good strategy to have when faced with a decision is to set your criteria early and decide as soon as it’s met. The rationale behind this is that there are key factors and a bunch of other, less important ones. Making a split second decision isn’t necessarily hasty, but an indicator that the most important criteria have already been fulfilled.
If there’s a decision that you’re having trouble with, another thing to do is to assess whether or not it’s worth the agony. Sometimes even the simplest decision, like choosing toothpaste, can feel monumental. The marketing and advertising industries have convinced us that trivial decisions are important, so it’s important to find out if your decision is a meaningful one.
Could a short course help you make better decisions?
Upskilled offers a variety of online short courses
that are designed to give you skills for your career. From Leadership in the Workplace
to Self-management and professional development
and Introduction to Project Management
there is a course out there to fill the skills gap you have, available in an online format that will suit your lifestyle.