Strategic Thinking

Understanding why quitters win

Make Good Decisions Faster

How to change your life one decision at a time

Decisions are the most basic building blocks of our lives, our careers, and our communities.  The faster and more strategically we stack those blocks, the faster and more successfully we achieve positive change.  

According to studies done by Sheena Iyengar at Columbia University, Americans make an average of 70 decisions each day. We make mundane decisions about what to have for lunch and which route to take to work, as well as defining decisions such as where to live, whom to marry, and whether to keep this job or accept that other offer. As Albert Camus said "life is the sum of our choices."  

What few of us realize is that every decision we make impacts the decisions that come after it even in totally unrelated situations. For example, the longer you spend waffling over what to have for breakfast, the harder it will be to make a good decision with a customer or co-worker later that morning.  The more we hem and haw about what to buy at the mall on Saturday afternoon, the more likely we are to choose to throw back a pound of fries and double dose of fudge dessert on Saturday evening. In their book Willpower, noted psychologist Roy Baumeister and John Tierney label the phenomenon “decision fatigue,” and it effects everyone from shoppers to judges.   

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A simple Know-Think-Do framework can help solve this problem by enabling us to make all of our decisions--big and small; daily and defining--quicker without sacrificing quality. To paraphrase Einstein, this framework is "as simple as possible, but not simpler."

1. Know the ultimate strategic objective. The biggest hurdle to sound, timely decisions is criteria overload. Trying to weigh every possible objective and consideration from every possible stakeholder shoots the decision process in the foot before you even get off the starting line. Of the seven or eight possible goals you would love to meet with this single decision, which one or two will make the biggest positive impact? Of all the possible people you could please or displease, which one do you least want to disappoint?

2. Think rationally about how your options align the ultimate objective. The vast majority of judgment errors can be eliminated simply by broadening our frame of reference. The quickest, easiest, most effective way to do this is by "consulting an Anti-You" before you make every decision. As one banking executive explained to me, "It's amazing how many poor decisions can be avoided simply by asking one other person for their opinion." An impressive amount of empirical research backs up his observation. (The article "How Decisions Can Be Improved," spearheaded by Katherine Milkman of Penn's Wharton school, provides an excellent summary. [PDF])

Consulting an anti-you works in two ways. The act of explaining your situation to another person often gives you new insights about the decision before the other person even responds.  And the fresh perspective they offer in response is the second bonus.

3. Do something with that knowledge and those thoughts. After you've clearly defined the primary strategic objectives and laid out your research and thinking with one or two key Anti-You's, it's time to call it quits on all of the planning, strategizing, number-crunching, and critical thinking. You simply must select one option while letting go of all the other "good" options.

Finally, it is helpful to remember that in the real world, "perfect" options are a myth. Decision-making will always be an exercise in coping with an unknowable future. No amount of deliberation can ever guarantee that you have identified the "right" option.   The purpose of a decision is not to find the perfect option. The purpose of a decision is to get you to the next decision.

Nick Tasler has a background in organizational psychology. He is the author of Why Quitters Win: Decide to Be Excellent.

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