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Leadership

Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making

Indecisiveness is a productivity killer. We look at the science of decision-making, and how you can make better choices.


In an interview last year, I asked acclaimed graphic designer James Victore what made him so efficient. His simple reply: “I make decisions.” We make hundreds, if not millions, of micro-decisions every day – from what to focus our energy on, to how to respond to an email, to what to eat for lunch. You could easily argue that becoming a better (and swifter) decision-maker would be the fastest route to improving your daily productivity.

After digging into the research, I learned that there are no hard and fast rules for decision-making. (If only!) There are, however, a number of interesting tendencies that play into how we decide, which we should all be aware of.Here’s a quick stroll through some of the key findings on the art of decision-making:

1. Satisficers vs Maximizers.

Coined by the economist Herbert Simon in 1956, “satisficing” is an approach to decision-making that prioritizes an adequate solution over an optimal solution. Gretchen Rubin sums up the difference between the two types of decision-makers well in a post over at the Happiness Project:

Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice…

In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.

You’d think maximizers would at least feel content with their decision after all that work, but no! As anyone who’s ever researched a possible illness on the Internet knows, more information does not necessarily lead to peace of mind or better decision-making.

Takeaway: Gathering additional information always comes at a cost. We’re better off setting our criteria for making a decision in advance (as in, “I’ll make the call once I know X, Y, and Z”). Once you have that information, make the choice and move on.

2. How less can be more.

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work was cited in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Blink, argues that we’re designed to make smart snap decisions based on limited information. In fact, his research shows that we do it all the time. Here, Newsweek neatly sums up Gigerenzer’s findings on the “Take the Best” strategy that most people use to make decisions:

“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 10 pieces of information that you 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 has demonstrated this in the laboratory. He asked a large number of parents to consider a scenario in which their child wakes up after midnight short of breath, wheezing and coughing. They are told that a doctor could make a home visit in 20 minutes; it’s a physician they know but don’t like all that much, because he never listens to their view. Alternatively, they could take their child to a clinic 60 minutes away; the doctors there are unknown, but good listeners by reputation. Which to choose?

In the end, almost all of the parents based their decision on just one key piece of information: Whether or not the doctor was a good listener. Considered in this light, the wait time and other factors were just not that important.

Takeaway: We are designed to process information so quickly that “rapid cognition” – decisions that spring from hard thinking based on sound experience – can feel more instinctive than scientific. Trust your gut.

3. The three kinds of intuition.

In the creative and business worlds, you hear a lot of talk about intuition, and (see above) “trusting your gut.” But what does that really mean? It’s less simple than you might think. Columbia Business School professor William Duggan believes that there are three different types of intuition:

Ordinary intuition is just a feeling, a gut instinct. Expert intuition is snap judgments, when you instantly recognize something familiar, the way a tennis pro knows where the ball will go from the arc and speed of the opponent’s racket… The third kind, strategic intuition, is not a vague feeling, like ordinary intuition. Strategic intuition is a clear thought… That flash of insight you had last night might solve a problem that’s been on your mind for a month.…Expert intuition is always fast, and it only works in familiar situations. Strategic intuition is always slow, and it works for new situations, which is when you need your best ideas.This difference is crucial, because expert intuition can be the enemy of strategic intuition. As you get better at your job, you recognize patterns that let you solve similar problems faster and faster. That’s expert intuition at work. In new situations your brain takes much longer to make enough new connections to find a good answer.

A flash of insight happens in only a moment, but it may take weeks for that moment to come. You can’t rush it. But your expert intuition might see something familiar and make a snap judgment too soon. The discipline of strategic intuition requires you recognize when a situation is new and turn off your expert intuition. You must disconnect the old dots, to let new ones connect on their own.

Takeaway: We should trust our expert intuition (based on experience) when making choices about familiar problems. But when we need a break-through solution, we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to conclusions.

4. Why we should trust experience. (Anyone’s experience.)

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, studies the cognitive biases that we use to make decisions. According to Gilbert, we do not make very rational decisions in most cases, nor are we particularly good at predicting what will make us happy. (See his great TED talk for more on this.)Gilbert argues that if we don’t have the knowledge or experience to make a decision, the best course of action is to just ask someone else. Says Gilbert:

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 gallbladder surgery; everybody would rather have a compliment than have 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 simply by asking one randomly chosen person how they like it.

Takeaway: If you’re wrestling with a difficult decision, consult a friend or colleague who’s been in your situation before. Their insight will likely be significantly more valuable than almost any research.

5. Choosing your battles.

Some decisions, like how to handle a dicey client situation, are worth mulling over. Others, like deciding what brand of dental floss you buy, are not. Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, points out that we are constantly bullied into feeling like trivial decisions are incredibly important:

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… Why does the average drug store contain 55 floss alternatives and more than 350 kinds of toothpaste? 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.

Takeaway: Ask yourself if this decision is really that meaningful. If it’s not, stop obsessing over it, and just make a call!

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (71)
  • Angela

    These days style conscious folks have attached great seriousness to fashion jewellery. It appears that without any addition of fashion jewellery, one’s outfit will not be finished. Incorporated with modern styles and popular designs, these surprising fashion pieces present discernible features that terribly charm those fashion addicts. So your jewelry designs looks like fashionable jewelry and will suit on everyone.

  • Geoff Talbot

    Don’t think just write, just create, don’t doubt.

    Free association exercises are great for the part of the project which is essentially the creative inception. Thinking too much too early is a fatal mistake in the scriptwriting business…

    Don’t think, don’t judge everything is crappy when it first hits the page. You can argue with it later.

    Know the stage of your creative process and give it what it needs; I trust that I know because somewhere inside me the story lives, just got to let my creativity flow

    Geoff Talbot
    Blogging and Commenting in Seven Sentences

  • Yelle Tolete ヤエル

    Love this. Sometimes I’m guilty of being a maximizer.. :)) now, I know better. Thanks!

  • Bobbi Jo Woods

    I really liked this article and re-tweeted it.  I guess I’m a Maximizer, at least until my brain realizes that perhaps I’m overanalyzing something and I should trim down my expectations!

  • Marilyn

    I’m a satisfier and my husband is a maximizer. Now I understand what’s going on around here. Thanks, very helpful.

  • Daniel França

    What kind of job a maximizer can do? Tks!

  • Piotr Rauchfleisch

    Great article. I’ve always over complicated the decision making process, but having that pointed out can go a long way to helping me get over researching those trivial decisions.

  • carl razazi

    Quite the interesting read.

  • essay writing uk

    Wow great interesting iformation!So informative grreal article!

  • Steve Williams

    I love the concepts described by Simon, Gigerenzer and Lehrer and the whole satisficing vs. maximizing debate. The limitation of the prior work you have nicely described is that it is simply what people do. Not necessarily what they should do. For example, if there is a situation where the consequences of failure are high, the value of success is high and you have a lot of resources at your disposal (e.g. choosing the best new business project in a large company) then you should maximize. On the other hand, as you correctly point out, most of the time the value and consequences are low, and you don’t want to invest resources in the decision then you should satisfice.
    The point is that there is no “universal best” method that works in all situations – see “Decisionability” on Amazon.com for a comprehensive evaluation. 

  • Eric Kelsey

    I am constantly over-thinking trivial decisions (#5.) Eventually I began to realize when I was doing this and now I just flip a coin. I do this all the time. As the coin is in the air if hope it lands on a specific side then I follow my instinct and chose that decision. If that doesn’t happen then I just listen to what the coin tells me.

  • Geoff Talbot

    Thinking can really slow us down. I write a Creative blog each day and the posts are nearly always the best if… I have no idea what I am going to write before I sit…

    In a sense life is really found in those improvised moments, the unplanned, the interrupted and the unscheduled.

     Why do you plan so much?

    Why?

    Are you and I avoiding life by planning? Just wondering.

    Geoff Talbot
    Blogging and Commenting in only Seven Sentences

  • Mdodzo

    Great stuff I must say. Good for work and good at home. I personally feel men are more of satisficers than women, who tend to be more of maximizers. I have also observed that the satisficers are those people who are usually not so serious with life, those who have a kind of care-free appraoch to life and those who believe that life is not in the control of their arms. But this takes me back to the Bible. What did JESUS mean when he said ” … worry (plan) not about tomorrow (the repercussion of our decisions)…”. Again, we read “… a man’s steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can a man understand his ways?” Proverbs 20:24. We need not think to hard about the decisions in this life; but we should not lead reckless lives. I do not know now how we can build a balance… Overall, very good advice. I think I will start to live better, having been armed with this knowledge.

  • Cynthia Howard

    Really great post! Number 3 really resonated with me. Thanks! 

  • Keith TenBrook

    Satisficers, in some cases, may be considered Maximizers that have a better sense of the cost of the decision effort. The value of the time and effort required to improve a decision outcome may not lead to sufficient added value in the outcome to justify the attempt at maximizing. In essence, the adequate decision made in less time becomes the “maximized” decision outcome.

  • Karrie

    I work with small business owners and find that the clients who make the most money and who move to the top of their game with the most velocity have one thing in common: they are quick decision makers. Maximizing is a safety zone for people but it’s also a big success killer.

  • Ariel Prieto

    Good one. I like the way you “find out” what you really want…I’ll be borrowing this method from you! Thanks.

  • Intuition

    The advantages of Developing
    Intuition

    1. Unleashes your imagination and creativity

    2. Helps identify and address problems

    3. Reduce stress more effectively

    4. Integrates right and left brain functions and gives you a more comprehensive
    perception on issues

  • Pauline

    I really liked the author’s distinction between expert and strategic intuition … The Natural Step (TNS)’s strategic framework (vision, purpose, core values, and principles) promotes strategic intuition/decision-making towards sustainability for complex systems … worthwhile reading! … http://www.naturalstep.org/our

  • TheAndHeDrew

    Oh, yeah the Satisficers / Maximizers issue is a big one. It’s terribly difficult for a maximizer to back down and accept “good enough” when what he really wants is “best”.

  • Vedette

    I would have to agree with Karrie. In the word today, we need to be fast thinkers in order for us to survive.

  • Shannon DeFazio

    I use to over think things constantly ! I flip a “mental coin” because i barley carry around change! But I do the same thing normally when I am flipping the coin I already know what I want to pick!

  • Shannon DeFazio

    I also agree with Karrie and Vedette! When making decisions, it needs to be fast because if you sit on a topic or an issue for to long it can make it harder to come up with a solution. Squashes the creativity. I am most creative when I have to do something fast!

  • Rob Ryser

    Nothing personal, but over thinking is an art http://bit.ly/RSFQpo

  • hayaat

    hi everyone, can you please help me out i have to do a presentation on satisficing decision making…. that describe a business situation where we have applied satisficng decision making….can you help me out of this? that will be really grateful

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