While I was at the gym earlier today, I was faced with an important decision. Do I drive home and warm up leftovers for lunch or walk next door and have a hot bowl of noodle soup at my favorite Vietnamese joint? 🙂
This may not seem like a big decision. It apparently wasn’t a do or die dilemma. It did, however, take a surprisingly long time to make the call. The deliberation started about 10 minutes into my workout. On and off, I noticed my mind – as if it was a separate entity – thinking about what to do. There was no clear answer. It wasn’t until I was walking to my car that I instinctively kept walking right past it to the noodle shop. I was happy with my choice. Though, admittedly, eating leftovers at home would have been fine as well.
Reflecting on this choice, and many other decisions I run into in my daily life, I’m amazed by how crazy the decision-making process can be. Why should it take so long to decide what to eat? Why do we so often fret over which shirt to wear in the morning? Why do we walk out of the library with a stack of books, instead of with just the one book we really want to read?
Decision Making Is A Vital Life Skill
When you wake up every day, it’s like a new birthday: it’s a new chance to be great again and make great decisions.
~ Poo Bear
As an Executive Coach, I regularly work with people who are faced with choices that loom large. Should they quit their job and travel the world? Should they jump from the safe confines of a corporation to start their own company? Should they gut it out in a situation that is wrecking their soul – but pays well – for a less financially lucrative but more fulfilling career path? Should they speak up for their beliefs in the workplace or shut up and go along with the party line? How should they deal with company politics and turf-wars between teams?
Knowing how to make the right choices is a crucial life skill. From the time we decide which stuffed animal to snuggle with as an infant to which college to attend, we are practicing and honing our decision-making capacity throughout life. Knowing how to be decisive has a profoundly practical utility. Procrastination is fueled by indecision. Companies grind to a halt when leaders don’t make tough calls. It’s well worth doing whatever we can to hone our skill in choosing well.
I just read an interesting book on this topic of decision making, called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It offers a behind the scenes and scientifically-based look at how we make choices. It also highlights blind spots – with potentially life-threatening implications (Lehrer profiles decision-making errors of pilots and firefighters, for example) – that show up when we ignore the full range of inputs that humans have evolved over time to apply when choices present themselves.
Caveat: Two of Lehrer’s books, How We Decide and Imagine (about creativity), were pulled from publication after it was discovered that he plagiarized his own work (lifting material from previously published essays) and fabricated interviews and quotes (including quotes from Bob Dylan, featured in Lehrer’s book Imagine). While falsifying content is a high-crime in the world of journalism, I found enough value in the books to invest the time in reading them. The big ideas in the book seem to hold water and vibe with other research and works I’ve read on the topics of decision making and creativity. While not available in print, you can find used copies for sale, or do as I did, and get them at your local library.
The Big Idea
The big idea of the book is that humans make decisions based on a dance between rational thought and fuzzy feelings. While we might think that rational decisions are always the best decisions, this is not the case. The quantity of data we can consciously process is severely limited to just a few variables. Most of this work is coordinated by the executive control center of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex. The other parts of the brain – from the fear-inducing amygdala to the other vast regions of the brain that are still not fully understood – are capable of processing a seemingly infinite amount of data. Our challenge is in making sense of all those squishy, feeling-oriented signals that bubble up outside of our rational thoughts.
Understanding that rationality is limited points us to explore and better understand the depths of the emotional and feeling-based signals we are getting. We learn that instead of letting data run the show of our lives, we would be well served to allow the subtleness of our emotions and feelings to guide us as well. How much should you listen to your instincts and emotions? Well, according to How We Decide, that depends on the nature of the choice you are making.
Making Simple Decisions Slowly
Imagine that you are standing in the aisle at Bed, Bath and Beyond trying to decide what type of vegetable peeler to buy. Which one do you pick? For these types of choices, assuming that any vegetable peeler will do the job just as well – you should choose whatever is cheapest, so long as it doesn’t look shoddily made. If there is one item that has a “SALE” sticker, you might be drawn to that. In this case, you engage your analytical reasoning, comparing prices and looking for the cheapest item.
It turns out that for simple choices with just a few key variables, analytical reasoning is a great way to decide. When there are only a few variables – like price and quality – we can choose better by putting on our thinking cap – even for a moment, and doing some mental math.
This is a counter-intuitive idea. One would think that for simple choices, you should just “go with your gut.” However, it turns out that your gut isn’t as good at making these types of decisions. How you “feel” about what vegetable peeler to buy isn’t going to help your decision-making process. In fact, it will probably steer you towards the one that looks good and is marketed the best, regardless of price.
The same holds true if you should find yourself on a game show like Deal or No Deal. While stakes might seem high on a game show like this, the premise of the game is a simple one – based on a few variables. To maximize your odds of winning, you must ignore your feelings of panic (and loss aversion) and stay calm enough to make a decision based on what choice is probabilistically in your favor as the host offers you deal after deal. The host, after all, cares most about a good drama playing out on TV, not that you make the most money.
Marketers are also well aware that humans aren’t rational decision-makers. People are swayed continuously by biases and use promotions and even store layouts to influence your feelings. To avoid being caught in the traps set by marketers, put on a thinking cap when the choices are simple!
If only your decisions were limited to choices in kitchen utensils or acing a game show with a simple premise! Most of us have more significant decisions that cause us sleepless nights. Let’s see how to make those complex choices, where there are a lot of variables at play.
Making Complex Decisions Quickly
When I graduated from college, I had a difficult choice to make. Do I go back to college, graduate with my class and accept a job offer to work on Wall Street (my dream job!). Or, do I say “Yes!” an offer to stay at Microsoft (where I was an intern at the time) and finish my degree part-time, away from my family and friends (who were all on the East coast), with an unclear career path.
My analysis showed that going back to school and accepting the job on Wall Street was the better choice. The pros were endless: Getting to spend my senior year on campus with my friends. Working in downtown Manhattan at a great company. Make a lot more money. Be on track to get an MBA in a few years (as most Wall Street analysts did). Be on a career track that was well-known (Wall Street analysts tended to get MBA’s and then move on to management roles in the industries they covered).
My choice, however, was accepting the offer at Microsoft. It was an irrational move, but it just felt right. In hindsight, I am delighted with the choice. I can’t explain how I made it. But I remember that in spite of my crafting a detailed written list of pros and cons, the job at Microsoft simply felt better. I liked the people. The work was interesting. I ended up working there for over 13 years.
My training as a yogi, meditator, and coach has helped me to understand more about the nature of how I made that decision, and how I should make other complex choices going forward. How We Decide sums it all up well. Big decisions overload the rational mind with data, including factors that don’t matter. While I fixated on a few key variables in my choice of which job to choose, there were hundreds of data points my brain was analyzing to come up with an answer. I’m best served to allow the full depth and processing power of my entire mind to help me decide, instead of relying on the limited capacity of only my rational thought.
In the book, there is a telling story of research done about people choosing what type of furniture to buy at IKEA. The essence of the study was that the more research and deliberation people did on what furniture to buy, the less happy they were with the choice! The same applies to decisions about what type of artwork to take home. More analysis results in less satisfaction with an option over time.
Likewise, there is research on the limits of rational analysis choosing a car. Even for such a purchase, that for most people is expensive and important, but still bounded by a finite number of variables (cost, color, engine size, style, etc.); it’s clear that beyond a basic level of research and understanding of the various options, more research and analysis results in worse choices being made. Same can be said about buying a home. Over-analyzing doesn’t result in better choices, only buyer’s remorse.
What is going on? How can complex decisions benefit from less rational thought?
It turns out, that rational thought isn’t unimportant, it just has a usefulness limit without being aided by the emotional and intuitive aspects of our humanity. It stands to say that the bigger the choice you are making, the more critical it is to listen to your heart and gut!
An apt metaphor for the topic of decision making, as used in many spiritual texts, is one of the horse and the rider. The rider is the conscious thinker – the one who seems to be calling the shots – and the horse is the infinite depth of vast intelligence beyond conscious thought. The horse can get crazy, unruly and surprising at times. The rider is also a weakling in comparison. Both the horse and the rider are important instruments. A wild horse will run amok. A domineering rider will not get far.
When faced with simple choices, it’s OK to lean more heavily on your analytical mind. Mull the pros and cons. Look at prices and all the variables. Slow down and analyze.
However, when faced with complex choices, like what job to choose, who to marry or whether to fold or go all-in at a high stakes poker table; do the same thing AND also be sure to give yourself the time and space to check in with what your innate intelligence (beyond logic) is telling you. What irrational signals bubble up? What does your heart say? What does your gut tell you? Sleep on it and see how you feel about the decision in the morning, while your rational mind is still half asleep.
How We Decide is by no means a definitive work on how to make better decisions in life. If anything, I think the book understates the power of innate intelligence, a type of smarts that transcends rationality, to guide life choices. However, the book is rooted in a scientific understanding of how the mind works and the field of decision science and research is young. The depths of our emotional intelligence is just beginning to be understood. Even less understood is how we can reliably interpret the feelings that bubble up into awareness. Just because we fear a choice, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad one.
What is needed is a level of self-awareness and discernment about the nature of our feelings and what they really say. The good news is, there are time-tested ways to cultivate this discernment and self-awareness. Meditation is one. In my experience, working with skilled coaches (and therapists, depending on the nature of your goals and challenges) is another. I find writing and journaling to be a profound way to reflect on and learn from choices big and small. If nothing else, whatever your decision making skill is, there is one built-in asset we have, thanks to your evolutionary past – we are all capable of learning from the errs (and glories) of our ways.