From the time we wake up until we finally turn in for the night, we’re constantly making decisions. According to researchers from Cornell University, we make an average of 226.7 decisions per day about food alone. It’s no wonder that we sometimes experience decision fatigue, or a depletion of mental energy that makes us lazy when it’s time to make a decision. It might be fine to take a shortcut when you’re weighing your options for dinner, but in the workplace, it’s important to understand what drives good and bad decision-making.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnerman provides a helpful metaphor to illustrate how our mind approaches decision-making. He divides the decision-making mind into two systems: System 1 and System 2. System 1 operates immediately and instinctively and System 2 judges, analyses, and calculates. Sometimes, the two systems work together - System 1 responds rapidly, and then System 2 assesses System 1’s conclusions in order to accept them, reject them, or analyse them further. System 1 is immediate and effortless, and System 2 can be impaired by fatigue, alcohol, and distractions. When System 2 becomes bogged down, we default to System 1.
Acting on instinct, or letting System 1 decide, is not always a bad thing - in fact, it can protect us from potential dangers. For example, if you’re walking alone at night and see a stranger approaching, System 1 might prompt you to cross to the other side of the street. As Rolf Dobelli explains in The Art of Thinking Clearly, System 1 is the result of human evolution. If, instead of walking home alone tonight, you were walking in a forest during prehistoric times, and other people started running, you would immediately start running as well. Stopping to analyse the situation could mean that you become a predator’s next meal. Quick-thinkers were more likely to survive (and contribute to the human gene pool).
That’s not to say that we should always let System 1 take over. Our immediate instincts are often the result of bias, and lack analytical support. In the hierarchy of knowledge, gut instincts lie at the bottom. System 1 can be useful in deciding between similar options, but should never replace logic and sound advice. It’s also important to then employ raw data, collections and analyses of that data, and knowledge, which lies at the top of the hierarchy. Knowledge is what results from testing and validating data, and proving that data to be correct.
Even when we make an effort to engage System 2, we can still face some pitfalls that get in the way of good decision-making. For example, we might put off decisions to avoid painful or uncomfortable situations. Firing people, breaking partnerships, and other unpleasant decisions may cause short-term pain, but putting them off will always lead to bigger problems down the road. We also sometimes let logical fallacies cloud our judgement: we might make assumptions based on perceived patterns, unknowingly let emotions shape our assessment of a situation, or even recall irrelevant memories that lead us in the wrong direction. There are, however, steps we can take to avoid these pitfalls.
To combat your personal biases, there are a few simple questions you can ask yourself: What are your assumptions about the subject at hand? What are the opposites of those assumptions? How would you accomplish each reversal? When you imagine yourself living with the opposite of what your gut tells you to do, you might start to see the downsides of your way of thinking - or it could reinforce your original argument.
Then, of course, you want to back up your gut instincts with research. The amount of time you spend researching should be proportional to the importance of the decision, so you don’t waste time on insignificant decisions to the peril of more significant ones. It’s always a good idea to look into potential costs, potential risks, and what types of outcomes have resulted from similar decisions in the past. Consider the credibility of each of your sources, and ask yourself if those sources are subject to their own personal biases.
Above all, the most important aspect of good decision-making is actually making the decision. Delaying decisions can cause even more harm than making decisions that are less than ideal. You might not always have as much information as you would like, but sometimes it’s necessary to work with an incomplete data set. The law of diminishing returns applies to most opportunities that will come your way - that is, the longer you wait to act, the smaller the return will be. In fact, some opportunities will vanish completely if you do not seize them.
Getting your instincts and your analytical side to work together effectively takes a lot of practice. Remember that while your gut is good at pointing out red flags, those red flags should be analysed further before you let them influence your thinking too heavily. Do your research, challenge your assumptions, and most importantly, don’t choose inaction.