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Want to make great decisions?

These 4 tips will help you choose with clarity.

by Dave Osgood, Senior Partner

You did the research, analyzed the options, and put together a clear and compelling recommendation. Now it's time to gain approval from the head of your business unit. But during the meeting, you just couldn’t get the buy-in you were looking for. In fact, you didn’t get much of anything – she asked you to “clean up the recommendation” and schedule a follow up meeting with her in a week.

You leave the meeting wondering, “What the heck went wrong?”

Then it hits you.

Your 3:00pm meeting was the seventh of eight “one-on-ones” the Vice President had scheduled for the day. She seemed only partially tuned in to what you were saying – not fully engaged like normal. Frankly, it looked like she wanted to avoid making any decisions on what you were discussing today.

Don't take it personally. What your VP most likely was experiencing is called Decision Fatigue, a very real and very debilitating cognitive bias.

Decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making.

It shows up in one of two ways: As decision fatigue grows, people will a) tend to make progressively poorer quality decisions, or b) avoid making any decisions – despite the opportunities or costs.

Author John Tierney explains it this way:

“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways.”

One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of spending the energy to first think through the consequences. The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing.

Instead of agonizing over decisions, those suffering from decision fatigue may avoid any choice. Ducking a decision eases the mental strain of the moment, but it often creates messy problems in the long run.

Anyone who has taken on a major home improvement project knows about decision fatigue. My wife and I recently remodeled our home, and it seems we caught the decision fatigue “virus” several times each week. Here’s a sample of the decisions we faced during a single week:

  • What style and color carpeting do we want for the family room?

  • What do we want our entry doors and porch door to look like?

  • Do we replace the garage service door, or refinish the existing door?

  • What stain color do we choose for the new window in the garage? Same as inside windows, or clearcoat?

  • What type and color for the new roof shingles?

  • Should we refinish or replace the hardwood floors? If we replace them, should we replace them in all rooms or just selected rooms? What style, material, and finish do we pick for the new hardwood floors?

  • What colors should we paint the walls in the kitchen, dining area, laundry, media room, laundry room, guest bath, living room and front entry? Should we do accent colors, or go with the same color throughout each room?

  • Now that we have new window and new wall colors, should we update the window coverings, or use the existing ones? If we replace them, what brand, styles, colors, and installer should we use?

  • Does the entry way chandelier look ok with all the new colors, or should we get a new one? If we get a new one, can we choose it, buy it, and get it delivered in time for the electrician to install it when all the other new lighting is installed?

  • The kitchen now has stainless appliances, but the current blender, coffee maker, bean grinder and microwave oven don’t match. Should we replace these or live with the existing colors? If we replace them, what models of each do we choose? Where do we buy them? When?

  • We need to re-locate the piano while the floors are being re-done. Which room should we put it in? Maybe we take it offsite altogether to avoid possible damage. If we go offsite, where do we take it? Who should we hire to move it? How do we know they will be reliable? When can we schedule it?

Yikes! No wonder people procrastinate on major home projects.

So what can you do to prevent decision fatigue or minimize its negative effects? Here are some proven tips:

  1. MAKE A GAME PLAN. When making decisions, be aware of your own personal decision fatigue indicators – low energy, general disinterest, feeling of avoidance, or feeling like you’d rather have someone else make the decision rather than facing the mental work of doing it yourself. Decide in advance how you will handle these scenarios. One executive we work with refuses to make any major decision after noon each day. He’s learned over time that his best decision making occurs in the morning, when he’s fresh.

  2. BE AWARE OF OTHERS’ DECISION FATIGUE SIGNALS. When asking others for decisions, again look for signs of possible decision fatigue - i.e. avoidance, impulsiveness, exhaustion - and then adapt. For example, being the seventh of eight one-on-one meetings is not a good time to seek approval on an important decision. Instead, schedule the meeting for early in the day or right after lunch, when the chance for fatigue is lower.

  3. FOLLOW A PROVEN DECISION-MAKING PROCESS. The process should allow you to accurately assess the decision situation, apply sound reasoning and logic to the analysis, be visible and easy to understand and communicate. If you start to short circuit the process, it probably suggests that physical or mental fatigue may have set in.

  4. CREATE A DECISION-MAKING FRAMEWORK. If you are part of a decision recommendation or approval team, construct a “decision landscape” for each major project. This is a listing of the key decisions that will need to be made, recommended, or approved during a set period of time. I recently facilitated this exercise with a leadership team, and they identified 22 important decisions in an upcoming five-week period. This uncovered the very real possibility for decision fatigue, so the group developed clear and specific roles and processes for how and when these decisions would be made during this crucial period.

Have you made a big decision lately? What was your biggest obstacle, and how did you handle it?


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