Improve Your Decision-Making, Part 1

As a manager, a significant portion of your work is making decisions.  While that may seem easy, it can be hard and exhausting.  Psychologists have determined that we can actually develop something called decision fatigue, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  Our brains get tired and less effective the more decisions we make without resting. The problem is that we often don't realize we're making decisions and needlessly use up our decision-making resources.  Here are some strategies on how you can maximize your brainpower and approach decisions more strategically.

Automate your habits.

The first step in making better decisions is actually to reduce the number of decisions you have to make.  This is where habits can be really helpful, both in your personal life and with your team.  Identify the actions that need to happen on a recurring basis, and then "automate" them by making them a habit.  Some people apply this even to their clothing and wear the same thing so that they don't have to waste decision power on their outfit every day.  You may not want to go that far (or have the option to wear jeans daily like Steve Jobs could), but here are some ideas on ways to reduce the number of decisions you make each day:

Routinize meetings.  

Pick a schedule that is realistic and stick to it.  The predictability alone will save you time and energy  because you won't have to discuss it or even thing about it.  Come up with an agenda framework for those recurring meetings that you can use every time.  For example, allocate the first 20-30 minutes for discussing the most pressing issue for the team.  The exact topic will change every time, but you'll still have that routine of spending time on what matters most, first.

Set thresholds for decisions your employees can make without your input.   

This is something Tim Ferriss mentions repeatedly in the Four-Hour Work Week, and it makes a lot of sense.  For example, you could set a standard that anything that will impact the original schedule by a certain number of days or fewer or the original budget by a certain dollar amount or percentage can just be mentioned to you as an FYI without having to get your approval first.

Turn off all non-critical alerts on your computer and your phone.

One of the biggest impediments to productivity is the "you've got mail!" ding.  Every time you get an alert, you are interrupted and have to decide whether or not to attend to the alert.  If you decide to check it, you then decide what needs to be done (if anything) and whether to do it now or not.  That means you are wasting decision power every time you get a new message.  Is that really how you want to spend your precious cognitive energy?  Make sure that people know how to reach you for truly urgent situations, and then turn off all other interrupting alerts.

Don't let e-mail dominate your whole day.

Related to turning off the alerts, try to stay out of your inbox.  Check e-mail every few hours, process it, and then close it again. Otherwise, you'll keep reading the same subject lines over and over and remaking decisions about what to do about each e-mail.

Don't multitask.

Seriously.  It's one of the biggest wastes of cognitive resources you can come up with.   Dividing your attention between multiple things doesn't work.  Our brains unfortunately are not capable of focusing on more than one thing  on a time, so you're switching back and forth, making decisions about each task but also making decisions about when to switch.  You don't realize that this is happening, but it's why doing multiple things at once is often really tiring.  

For the things that you do need to make decisions about, make sure you're clear what the decision actually is.  Sometimes, there is an intermediate step of identifying which criteria matter before a decision can be made, so in that case the decision is "what criteria should be used to make the decision," not "what is the best option." In team meetings, it's particularly important to make sure everyone is clear on what is actually being decided.  It's worth writing it out on the whiteboard just to be sure, because it's really easy for people to talk past one another because they have different ideas of what is being discussed. 

Process for approaching decisions in a more strategic way

1.  Define the immediate decision to be made.  

2.  Determine how the decision will be made and who needs to be involved.

3.  Agree on the criteria to be used.

4.  Reduce the number of options as quickly as you can.

Once you've clarified what the decision actually is, the criteria to be used, and the options to be evaluated, you can select from a variety of decision-making tools to help you choose the best option quickly.  In Part 2, we'll look at some simple but surprisingly useful tools you can use to make the actual decisions.

Related resources

  • Terrific summary of decision fatigue by James Clear 
  • Ways to simplify decisions from Seth Godin
  • TED talk with the main ideas from Paradox of Choice, a fantastic book on how better decision-making affects happiness 

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