Tips from psychology to help you make better decisions in a complex world

The world is complex and crowded. In the minute that it took me to think of this introduction, Facebook alone recorded 2 million likes. According to a 2012 article in the BBC online, the world creates 2.5 exabytes every day – that’s 2.5 billion gigabytes (GB) of data. A movie is around 2.5 GB each – so every day of 2012 the world generated the equivalent of a billion movies-worth of data. Living in a world crowded with so much new information, how can we hope to make better decisions?

Most people make decisions instantly and emotionally. They might make a pretense of getting information, or checking in with their own emotional state, but mostly they just go with whatever they’re feeling at the moment they first encountered the need to decide. This works for some people. This doesn’t work for me. Even a lack of sleep can throw me off, and I want a process that can be generate good decisions even when I’m not feeling my best.

Why use a process at all? In my experience, approaching decision-making in a ritualized way has a few distinct advantages.

Standardization allows easy comparison
Google used to infamously ask candidates a variety of brain teasers as part of their interview process. Now they use a similar format for each candidate. This gives them an easy to way to compare candidates, and a way to measure the predictive performance of their interviews across time.

It lessens procrastination
We all know what it’s like to make a big decision. We push in blindly, or put it off until the last moment. Both have their problems. Having a system gives us the confidence to wade into a tough decision and at least start the process.

It focuses our attention
Barack Obama has a closet full of blue and black suits. His logic is that he has limited willpower, and he needs to expend that willpower to make important decisions. Choosing clothes would be a needless drain on his energy. In a similar way, having a system for making decisions saves our willpower for the tough choices ahead. A decision-making system allows us to focus on the details and moving through each stage of decision making with intention and clarity.

Feel free to create your own system –  It almost doesn’t matter what it is – rituals are personal. The  most important part about them is that they are followed. Their similarity and structure relaxes our nervous system and focuses our attention.

If I approach everything in the same way, it doesn’t matter what new information exists. I can fit it into a flexible yet pre-defined system, I’ll have a better chance of being able to move forward without getting bogged down.

Here’s my system:

I slow down or stop all action. This can last 30 seconds, or it can last for months. Don’t be afraid to take time to learn about the problem at hand. Don’t be afraid to push back against people who feel an urgency for action. Learn about the problem and solutions. Learn what’s been done and why.

Check in
If you’re making a decision in less than a few minutes, all you really need to do is recognize your emotional state. What are you feeling? Are you anxious, neutral, relaxed? Are you comfortable – have you eaten recently, gone to the bathroom, gotten enough sleep? These aren’t ridiculous – far from it. These are basic emotions – be aware of them, and take care of yourself where necessary. Your decision will be much, much improved because of it.

Start small
Small projects in a long decision cycle will help you understand the context of the area in which you’re working. Get feedback on those small projects and feed those back into your learning. In an immediate decision, sometimes you don’t have the option to start small – you just have to decide, and live with it.

Give yourself a break
Sometimes we’re forced to make snap decisions. You do the best you can with the information on hand. Remember the context of the decision. People may question you. Remind them of the context, and if they weren’t involved in the decision and don’t know the context, my advice is to push back hard against their ignorance. It’s a cognitive error people succumb to all the time – thinking in hindsight that they would make the ‘correct’ decision given the same information. They might, but they easily might not. Remind them of this cognitive bias, and own your expertise of the decision and the context around it.

Make incremental changes
Keep a journal so you can analyze your approach and the results that your approach is getting. Compare results and adjust your approach as necessary. Use the same system for all decisions unless you make a conscious decision to adjust.

As you get feedback and refine your actions, the artifact of your actions will begin to build on each other. If you’re creating a product, then the artifact will be something that people will want to buy, and you can refine your vision to widen your market.

Most people don’t approach problems in a systematic way and so they never learn from each successive decision. Don’t make this mistake. You’ll move faster and experience less anxiety.


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