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Which decisions to focus on?

Thank you for joining me for the sixth blog of the series, highlighting decision-making and the brain. This is my public exploration of what drives decision-making and how we can use that information to make better decisions, resulting in better outcomes.

In previous blogs, we have talked about the limitations of how much information we can take in and how we try and shortcut the decision-making process. Today is more about cutting through competing priorities and wants - how to decide which decisions to focus on.

Too. Many. Decisions.

Research from the University of North Carolina suggested that an average adult human makes 35,000 decisions per day, including more than 200 decisions on food! Some of the barrage of decisions are trivial and quick, but others are more involved. Our brain does not differentiate well between big decisions and small decisions and sometimes we overwhelm our decision bandwidth by processing too many decisions.

The impact of making too many decisions is 'decision fatigue', which is when people's decisions deteriorate in quality after a certain number of decisions. Typical symptoms of decision fatigue are:

1) Procrastination or indecision, not being able to make decisions in a timely manner

2) Falling back to easy or overly conservative choices like maintaining the status quo

3) Acting impulsively just to get the decision off your plate

4) Avoiding the decision completely and sticking your head in the sand

I have personally experienced decision fatigue whilst considering the last items in a long meeting. Note to self - avoid being the 13th item on an agenda!

Outright take stuff off your to-do list

When I started working life I was sent on a course about how to prioritise (as a twenty-one year old, it didn’t come naturally!). I was taught the traditional Eisenhower Urgent vs Non-urgent and Important vs Not important matrix. It's a great place to start and helps people decide what to just outright get rid of.

The problem I have with this, is it does not go nearly far enough and there is a lot of art (and science) on deciding whether something is important or not (it also feels a bit reactive to me). I would rather dispense with important and focus on whether a decision is big or small.

Is this a big decision?

The people I respect most focus their time on big decisions. How can we decide on whether a decision is big or not?

Two metrics that seem to drive whether a decision is big or small:

1) Current Impact - What is the impact on me today from making this decision?

2) Leverage - How much cumulative impact will this decision have going forward?

Of the two metrics, my experience is that it is easier to underestimate leverage (i.e. the impact going forward) so think through the potential future impacts of a well made decision.

Reducing decisions in your personal life

Let me give you an example. Let's say you are hungry, here are three approaches you could take:

a) you can make a decision there and then and find something to eat and, if you are like me, when you leave it to the last minute, you settle for an easy and not necessary enjoyable lunch (whether on taste or healthiness).

b) You could ask a nutritionist friend to give you a meal idea that is both healthy and tasty.

c) You can once and for all, decide 2 places you will get lunch from and what you would get. Rotate between the two choices each day.

We all know that a) felt like a small trivial decision but one you have to make every day and b) felt like you put some art into the decision to improve it. But c) actually meant that unless both restaurants were closed, you would not need to ever think about what you would have for lunch again (unless you actively chose to do something different).

Thus, everyday little decisions can be reduced by making one big decision once i.e. having a strategy. There are many strategies people employ in their lives: eating, exercising, relationships, savings, investing, enjoying and even resting strategies! President Obama was said to have bought 4 suits and multiple shirts, and shoes so that he would never have to think about what to wear each morning.

Which methods do people use to reduce daily decisions?

Whilst researching this, there were four effective way to reduce the number of decisions that kept on coming up

i) habits - taking choice out of the equation

ii) reducing your options - having some pre-selected choices that you will be happy with

iii) automating - e.g. have every bill on direct debit

iv) outsourcing - can someone else do this for you?

Each option requires a bit of upfront work but result in ongoing extra headspace. We will be discussing habits next week which will put some actionable steps to this.

When to make big decisions?

The biggest decisions tend to require the most planning. You would want to be in a high energy mindset to summon the cognitive energy required to unpick a decision that you dread to make but has to be done now. For me, that time is first thing in the morning and, from speaking with other people, that is when they make their best decisions too. Once I have made the biggest decision of the day, I feel unburdened and get some energy/relief from having made some progress on an important topic. I wonder if other people, due to them being night owls, make better decisions in the quiet time at the end of the day? In any case, it's best pairing your most energetic time with your biggest decisions.

Business Decisions

A business without a clear strategy, ends up making lots of disjointed tactical decisions. Imagine a CEO saying 'we just see what comes up and decide at the time', would that inspire confidence? Would people know what they were aiming towards?

Too many decisions leads individuals to avoid, procrastinate on or be conservative, those same outcomes can be seen in companies too, with a result that companies keep doing things the way that they have always been done and do not innovate.


The three take-aways from today are:

1) We are confronted by so many decisions each day that we might experience decision fatigue. This results in delaying, avoiding or rushing decisions because we cannot give the situation enough focus.

2) Whilst traditional models of decision-making focus on prioritisation, you can take them a step further and actively reduce daily decisions through habits, reducing options, automation and outsourcing.

3) Identify big decisions, and make them when you are at your most energetic (which tends to be in the morning)

Thank you for joining. Next week, I will focus on the topic of habits.


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