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HOW TO MAKE DECISIONS
- The first thing to say about making decisions is that there is not one process that works best for all people in all situations. Instead this page seeks to describe some techniques and offer some insights that will enable you to determine what works best for you in the case of any particular decision-making situation.
- The best advice is that, for most people most of the time, speedy decision-making works fine. How do we know this? In the book "Blink" by Michael Gladwell [for review click here], he describes lots of studies that demonstrate that we can make sound judgements incredibly quickly - a process he calls "thin-slicing" and which apparently uses our "adaptive unconscious". So, most of the time I would advise: just decide. Most decisions are not choices between right and wrong and so it's not that important if you make one decision as opposed to another. Even when decisions do involve right and wrong, it's amazing - as Gladwell shows - how good quick decision-making can be. Too many of us deliberate for too long, procrastinate too often, and worry too much about making decisions.
- Some might find this advice difficult to accept and argue that, unless one really has to do so, it is always better to take time over one's decisions. Well, consider some of the costs of postponing decisions:
- Not taking the decision now because we think it will be easier later is usually false thinking. It is unlikely to be any easier and there is rarely significantly more information, so we're simply guilty of procrastination.
- Not taking the decision now, but coming back to it, maybe several times, is a poor use of time. We're all busy people and quick decison-making is generally an efficient use of time. Most successful people make lots of decisions and make most of them quickly.
- Leaving things to be decided later often adds to one's sense of worry and stress levels. Getting a decison out of the way - even if one is not 100% sure that it is the right decision - will usually make you feel better.
- All the time that you haven't made the decision, you can't be benefiting from the decision. So all the time you're thinking should you go on holiday or where you should go for that holiday, you're missing out on the holiday itself.
- Clearly, however, there are circumstances where it makes sense to take more time in making a decision. When is it sensible to deliberate more carefully? A non-exhaustive list would include the following situations:
- When some key information is missing - so you would not take out a loan without knowing the rate of interest and the repayment period.
- When a large sum of money is involved - so you would not decide on buying a house or car without some careful thought.
- When a substantial commitment is involved - so you would not take on a mortgage or have a child without thinking things through very thoroughly.
- When there is an element of serious risk - so you might want to think for some time before making a first parachute jump or climbing a tough mountain.
- When there is danger of hurt to individuals - so making someone redundant at work or breaking off a serious relationship needs real consideration.
- When you are in an emotional state as a result of, for instance, anger, arousal, alcohol, drugs, tiredness or depression - so it's unwise to respond immediately to an e-mail which angers you and it's not necessarily a good idea to propose in the middle of lovemaking.
- In all decision-making situations, there are factors of which one should beware:
- Beware of a bias towards an earlier decision - just because you said 'no' to a proposal some time ago, it doesn't mean that you have to make the same decision if the suggestion is repeated.
- Beware of a bias towards the familiar - when deciding on a holiday, it's tempting to go to somewhere you've been before, but trying somewhere new could be exciting and rewarding.
- Beware of a bias against risk - moving to a new job might involve an element of risk, but it could be just what you need to expand your horizons and realise your potential.
- Beware of a false assessment of risk - on the one hand, some parents decide that their children should not have the MMR injection because of just one, deeply flawed, study suggesting a risk of autism, while on the other hand many smokers continue with their habit because they have convinced themselves that the health risks are not as serious as repeated, large-scale studies have shown beyond any reasonable doubt.
- Beware of a compulsion to keep doors open - frequently we have a tendency to want to keep options open, but this often merely complicates our life and it's often better to close a few doors.
- In decisions involving purchases, books on behavioural economics - such as "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely [for review click here] - teach us that there are factors of which one should beware:
- Beware of the impact of anchor prices - we tend to compare things that are easily comparable and, as a result, sellers often create an 'anchor' price (typically artifically or unacceptably high) that is intended to direct us to another pricing choice that is more acceptable to us and what the seller always expected and wanted us to choose.
- Beware of the illusion of high prices - we may assume that something that is priced high (or packaged attractively) is worth more, but this is not always the case, especially with designer goods and medicinal products.
- Beware of the impact of zero prices - studies show that zero is not just another price, but often a cause of some irrational excitement so, for instance, when offered 'buy two - get one free', we are tempted to buy twice as many as we originally intended.
- Beware of herding behaviour - just because everyone else seems to be buying shares in a particular company or sector doesn't necessarily make it a good buy and, on the contrary, may simply be the precursor to a bursting bubble.
- In moral or life decisions, certain perspectives are useful:
- I happen to believe that, where morality is concerned, we instinctively know what is the right decision - the problem is that we find that decision difficult or uncomfortable or materially disadvantageous. So we all know that we shouldn't exaggerate an expense claim or falsify an insurance claim, but for some it is just too tempting.
- If the decision is about you, try asking yourself what advice you would honestly give to a relative or close friend in exactly the same circumstances. That's probably the decision you should take.
- If the decision is about someone else, try asking yourself how you would like that person to treat you in exactly the same circumstances. That's probably how you should act towards them.
- What are useful decision-making strategies? I started by asserting that, for most people most of the time, speedy decision-making works fine, but here are some other suggestions on how to make decisions:
- Obtain all the key information that you need - it would be stupid to make a final decision on a house purchase without studying an independent survey.
- List the arguments for and against - not all arguments have equally weight, of course, but the very exercise might help you to make a decision.
- Try breaking a big decision down into smaller decisions - maybe before you decide to make a career change, you simply decide to apply for some other posts or even more simply just to look at advertisements for other posts.
- Talk through a problem with a relative or friend - simply describing the problem and the options to someone else will clarify your thinking as to the right decision.
- Seek professional advice - if you're thinking of investing a significant sum of money, it makes sense to see an independent financial adviser.
- Seek professional counselling - if you're having problems in your relationship and don't know whether to leave it, seeing a relationship counsellor (preferably with your partner) could transform your situation or at least how you see it.
- Sleep on it - postponing a decision until the next morning (but not beyond) can often make matters look clearer and the decision more obvious.
- Impose a personal deadline [timeline if you're American] - for example, if someone has made a proposal to you that you're not sure whether to accept, tell them that you'll give them an answer by a certain date or time.
- Impose a public pressure - for instance, if you announce on a social networking site or on your blog that you're going to lose a certain amount of weight in a certain time period, you've put yourself under some pressure to make the necessary decisions.
- Toss a coin - if you really can't decide between two alternatives, you could do worse than simply toss a coin and let chance make the decision for you.
- Delegate or reassign the decision - if you really can't decide on a business decision, perhaps you could delegate it to a colleague who is less indecisive (she may find it empowering but she might later want your job) or, if you can't decide on a domestic decision, perhaps your partner will be willing to make the decision for you (and you may later return the favour).
- If all else fails, you could try prayer - as an atheist, this is not an option open to me, but if you have a faith it might help you and it can't do any harm.
- Once you've made a decision, take whatever action is necessary now and don't revisit that decision anytime soon. Querying a decision won't make it better and is only likely to take up your time and make you anxious. Just let the decision work it's way through. Later on, once you know the full consequences and ramifications, you can review the decision if you want and this might well be very sensible, especially in a political or business or policy-making environment.
"Five frogs are sitting on a log. Four decide to jump off. How many are left?
There are still five - because there's a difference between deciding and doing."
"Five Frogs On A Log" by Mark L Feldman & Michael F Spratt
Link: "How Consumers And Citizens Make Choices" click here
Last modified on 21 August 2011
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