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!