The challenge of everyday decision-making

10 August 2018

Michelle Gibbings

Michelle is a workplace expert and author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’. For more information, click here.

Decision-making can become habitual. So, when it comes to making an important decision, take some time to ponder, reflect and think about the decision, rather than rushing in.

We make thousands (if not tens of thousands) of decisions every day. What to wear. What and when to eat. Which lane to drive in. What to say in a meeting. Which email to respond to and how. The list is endless.

Many of these decisions are tiny, almost inconsequential in the scheme of life, but many are important and require deliberate thought.

However, much of our decision-making is done habitually. It’s undertaken with little thought, involving limited or no conscious processing.

Academic researchers, Bas Verplanken (University of Bath) and Wendy Wood (Duke University), confirm this, with their research revealing that more than 40 per cent of the actions people perform each day aren’t decisions, but habits.

There are times when our decision-making habits need to shift.

Know when to get deliberate

It can be easy to fall into the trap of making decisions that are easy and popular, and consequently take the path of least resistance.

When you do this, you are making decisions using your established patterns of cognitive processing, making it more likely that you’ll ignore new pieces of information or data that doesn’t fit with your expectations, assumptions or views of the world. When you are facing situations that are new – either at work or home – these default patterns of thinking can lead to poor conclusions and outcomes.

Complex and adaptive problems are not solved by the ‘quick fix’. Instead, they require deliberate focus, acute awareness of any bias or limitations that may be impeding how the decision is made, and a willingness to work against the grain of your established decision-making patterns.

Sleep on it

When your brain is tired, it is more prone to making poor decisions – letting expectations and assumptions drive how you think and act.

If you want to make better, more deliberate decisions, you need to be fully alert and aware of the type of decision you are making, the likely impacts and consequences, and the potential courses of action. This means making decisions when you are fresh and alert.

The concept of ‘sleeping on it’, isn’t silly. Your brain processes overnight, and you are far more likely to make better decisions early in the morning, when your pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in executive processing and complex reasoning) is rested.

Be okay to say ‘no’

If you always say ‘yes’, you lose your voice and your right to make decisions that work for you.

A key part of making good decisions, avoiding burn-out and having the career you want, is learning to say ‘no’. This means a ‘no’ with conviction and no ‘sorry’ attached to it.

When you constantly say ‘yes’ to things you don’t want to do, you ultimately give up your voice and disempower yourself.

The acclaimed author Paulo Coelho said: When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself.”

That doesn’t mean you say ‘no’ without careful thought. Rather, it’s about saying ‘no’ with consideration of others, and compassion for them and yourself.

Understand what influences you

We all like to think we’re independent thinkers, and yet it is very easy to absorb other people’s opinions and to heed well meaning, but potentially unhelpful advice.

This is particularly the case when it comes to career and life decisions.

For example, when you are considering a career shift, many people will offer you advice about what you should and shouldn’t do. Their ideas may be filled with good intentions, and in some cases, helpful. However, they can also limit your views of what’s possible.

In reflecting on their advice, it is useful to consider:

  • Are their ideas limiting my decision-making in some way?
  • Are their expectations holding me back from embarking on the career I really want to pursue?
  • Do their expectations inspire me or tire me?

Think long-term

It can be easy to make short-term expedient decisions. In fact, one of the brain’s most common bias afflictions is ‘discounting’.

It’s where we discount future benefits, even when they are likely to be greater; to take the immediate reward or benefit, even if it’s of less value.

That’s why people buy things they can’t afford or fail to save for the future. They are focused on the immediate benefit, rather than the long-term benefits from regular savings.

This short-termism can hold you back. When you are clear on your long-term goals and what you need to sacrifice in the short-term to get you there, it becomes easier to overcome this decision-making bias.

Next time you are faced with an important decision, take some time to ponder, reflect and think about the decision, rather than rushing in.

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