Our brains do not automatically prioritize the importance of daily decisions
Information overload Is a bigger problem than you think
There’s no possible way that our 120 bits-per-second brains can keep up with the 300 billion billion exabytes of online information. How can we make informed, effective decisions under the weight of this exponential growth in available data?
Because our analogue brains have such low processing capacity, we are unable to follow more than two people talking to us at the same time. So, it should come as no surprise that our world–with billions of people now online–is so beset with misunderstanding, overwhelm AND poor decision making. We try to keep up, of course, taking in 500% more daily information than we did 30 years ago.
To get a broad sense of the scope of this challenge, add up the number of hours you spend online with the virtually unlimited social media, television and computer gaming choices available. Less apparent, but more critical, is how routinely making so many media/information consumption choices undermines your decision-making ability. That impact is both real and measurable.
Strategy #1 for making better decisions: prioritize
The heart of the problem is that our brains do not automatically prioritize the importance of daily decisions. We have great trouble distinguishing the trivial from the important, much more than you may be aware. It seems that our brains are structured to make a finite number of decisions per day and once we reach that limit, our decision making ability plummets regardless of how important a specific decision may be for our future wellbeing. In scientific terms, the ever-increasing demand for information processing taxes our neurons’ ability to metabolize oxygen and glucose.
Looking at it another way, the continual, insignificant small decisions we make minute-to-minute make us ‘brain weary,’ (as folks in the South call it). This underscores the importance of reenergizing strategies such as meditation, exercise and other stress reduction strategies, a subject I’ll revisit in a future blog.
Next, I’ll outline unconscious biases you need to be aware of that have been implicated in poor decision-making. I’ll introduce several advanced, elegantly structured techniques with a record of improving the outcomes of important decisions.
We are hard-wired to take decision-making shortcuts
I already outlined scientific evidence establishing how information overload undermines our ability to make important decisions. The easiest, most effective strategy for dealing with this ever-present challenge is to periodically rank those decisions most critical to our success in work and life.
In his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey asserts that most of us reactively focus on what seems to be important in the moment but neglect spending time and energy on long-term critical goals. He made this observation well before the digital age–and it resonates more than ever now.
Unconscious biases often lead to bad decisions
We are hard-wired to take decision-making shortcuts. Industrial psychologists describe ‘unconscious anchors’ as the key elements of this dynamic. Only by gaining awareness of these unconscious biases can we hope to discern when our ‘instincts’ are leading us astray.
• Rushing to closure
Over time, deadlines and other constraints increase when we slip into reactivity. Without a proactive sense of strategy, of mission and purpose, it’s easy to lose direction.
• Failure to solicit feedback
It’s easiest to make decisions based on whatever information is quickly available. But when facing an important decision, doing a simple Google search and getting feedback from only a few coworkers isn’t enough. Be sure to do a finely tuned browser search, looking critically at the credibility of your sources. Also, obtain feedback from ALL stakeholders who will be affected by an impending decision. The latter will get you the buy-in you need even if things don’t turn as planned.
MORE about how to solicit objective feedback in Part III of this article.
• Accepting ‘Facts’ uncritically
In a negotiation, the first person to throw out a dollar figure has created an ‘anchor’ that gives them a distinct advantage in the outcome. Be aware that some of your sources may be using this tactic against your company’s better interests to ‘sell’ you on misrepresentative ‘facts’ to prod you into decisions skewed to their advantage.
Strong confidence, even overconfidence, is standard for leaders. If this describes you, how do you avoid over promising and letting down your team or company? For starters, slow down the decision-making process to gain more information to better ground your decisions. That said, there are times when even the most proactive, inclusive leader will encounter emergencies in which decisions have to be made on the fly.
• Confirmation bias
Even scientists are subject to confirmation bias, i.e., structuring research in such a way that facts supporting a desired outcome are oversampled/overrepresented. To avoid this, be sure to look carefully at disconfirming evidence. It’s always advisable to be constructively skeptical when arriving at any important decision. So, by all means, take the time and energy to formulate a ‘devil’s advocate’ argument against your initial decision.
Make better important decisions
So far I described how information overload undermines our ability to make important decisions and that prioritizing decisions–combined with an understanding of mental biases–contribute to better results.
Improving subject matter expert/stakeholder feedback
Standard business meetings have a bad reputation. Far too often, they are unfocused, meandering and leave participants feeling frustrated and bored.
By comparison, meetings dedicated to making critical decisions are usually structured with some version of classic brainstorming.
If participants find these crucial meetings boring, you’re in real trouble…
Brain Storming is a long-standing, enjoyable team-based method for creating and sorting through a comprehensive list of possible solutions to a problem. First, members meet and contribute their ideas about an upcoming decision without any initial evaluation/judgment, e.g., determining the theme of a new marketing campaign. Multi-voting and other techniques are then applied to narrow down options to a final, short list. The pros and cons of each can then be carefully evaluated, including any new spin-off ideas, before making a final decision.
“Fixing” brain storming
Recent research supports the benefits of adding another step to this process. After briefing participants with e-documents compiling Subject Matter Expert (SME) and other findings, training specialists now recommended that participants be required to submit 2-3 ideas for the initial list before the meeting. This facilitates the contributions of less assertive members who are less likely to speak up at meetings.
Getting better SME and group feedback
Though participants come to such meetings with the benefit of SME feedback, unfortunately, research shows that such information is usually incomplete, even misleading, because interviews generally lack question/answer uniformity and precision.
I received certification in ‘precision questioning and answering’ several years ago from Vervago, an organization that has trained the nation’s top software, internet retail and other corporations. Their approach has proven effective both in improving the accuracy of SME feedback and employee analytical skills. In my next blog, I’ll provide an introduction into how you can apply some of their techniques–whether you choose to solicit their services or not.