Knowing When to Decide

The most important productivity skill?

Posted Mar 18, 2019

Nick Youngson, CC 3.0
Source: Nick Youngson, CC 3.0

My just-concluded career counseling session motivated me to write this. My client has a Ph.D. and is looking for a post-doc in a narrow specialty. He believes that eventually, he needs to reach out to some of the field’s heavy hitters to get guidance as to where to turn but, week after week now, he continues to do more research to try to figure out who the right people are. He’s still not sure. He admits that's a manifestation of his lifelong problem with excessive rumination and insufficient action.

By the end of the session, he felt more optimistic that he can ameliorate his problem. The following lessons should be applicable to your personal as well as professional life.

My client came to recognize that while there's always more information you could try to get, successful people stay alert for the moment that they guess, yes guess, that the benefits of making a decision outweigh the benefits of additional rumination, data gathering, resume primping, etc. Fast Company founder Alan Webber, who has interviewed countless Silicon Valley’s successful people said that their typical approach is “Ready, FIRE, Aim!:” After modest rumination, they try something and revise based on early feedback. They're ever asking themselves, "Is this the best or at least a good use of my time?"  And if you're not sure, ask or brainstorm with someone. Even if you don't know what to ask, it's okay to say, "I'm stuck. Any idea of what I should do?|

To practice that decision rule, I asked my client, “What’s one university that may have a relevant professor you should reach out to. He gave me a name. I said, "Let's look at faculty bios in a relevant department at that university. In just a minute, we found a professor who might suggest an appropriate post-doc. The client was reluctant to call whereupon I reminded him of the risk-reward of calling versus further rumination: If he calls, worst case, the professor can't help or the client gets tongue-tied and the professor blows him off. We agreed that the risk-reward would be optimized if he took just a minute to practice a conversational 30-second presentation of his situation. He practiced it once and then made the call, leaving a voicemail for the professor. (Professors are almost never at their desk.) After the call, I asked how he felt and he said he felt better. I asked him to, after the session, call 10 more possibles, and that while the likelihood is that 8 or 9 will lead nowhere, one or two will more likely help him more than additional rumination would justify. He agreed to make the calls.

A related concept is to consciously assess when the discomfort of an action is outweighed by the benefit to you or to your sphere of influence. My client was uncomfortable at the thought of making the call but forced himself to do it, perhaps only because I was there, benevolent despot, prodding him. I pointed out that he must come to accept that, when it's in his interest to take an action, he must do so not because someone’s flogging him but because it’s intrinsically in his interest. Intrinsic motivation is far more useful and applicable than extrinsic—There just are too many times when no one will be breathing down your neck to do the work you know you need to do—Preparing my income tax returns comes to mind. And ultimately we feel better about ourselves if we do tasks because we and not some external force are driving us.

The takeaway

Whether in your work life or personal life, if you’re prone to excess rumination, data gathering, or other not-important activity to avoid decision-making, consider trying this two-step solution:

1. Stay vigilant for when the benefits of making a decision and taking action outweigh additional rumination, information gathering, etc.

2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable when you know it’s in your interest, whether or not a despot—benevolent or not—is breathing down your neck.

I read this aloud on YouTube.