The unrelenting chore of having to make decisions may be one of the most imposing stressors of all. Society today is awash with material goods and service options. For whatever you want or need to acquire, there are more brands, features, or options than you can comfortably fathom. On the job, you face an endless stream of decisions regarding equipment and supplies; subscriptions; which calls to return; what to file and where; what to schedule and when; whom to call on and whom to ignore; and which tasks to tackle and which to delegate, among dozens of others.
Two groups of executives were surveyed. Both groups were comprised of individuals who were each facing a purchasing decision. The first group of executives made their decision based on articles, collected information, spec sheets, and other data. The second group made their decisions based on instinct–gut feeling–with a dearth of data.
After three weeks, when each group had the time to see the ramifications of their decision, everyone was polled again, to determine how happy they were with the decision. As it turns out, the second group–those who chose based on instinct and intuition –were happier with their decision. How could this be? They were happier because they weren’t deluged with data, but more importantly, because they weren’t making a decision out of the blue.
Every cell of their being–all of their intelligence, down to the cellular level–was brought to bear behind that decision. Instinctive decisions aren’t made out of the blue, but are based on a complex set of decision-making guidelines that have been developed over the years.
If it’s Good Enough for the General…
General Colin Powell said that one of the reasons he was able to make effective decisions in his military career was that he would wait until he had about 60 percent of the data that he could amass for a decision; he then would make his choice, rather than wait for all the information.
More data before choosing is not always desirable. Enough data exists to lead to all answers, which clearly gets in the way of choosing. Many people tend to seek out information that confirms or reinforces what they already know or believe. By collecting more data, are you merely defending against a worst-case scenario? Or are you simply supporting your initial position? What you’re collecting could lack balance, which could lead to a poor choice.
Other Shortcuts Abound
Getting an answer with less effort is possible! You are three or four phone calls away from any expert on any issue. Suppose you’re making a big purchasing decision, or deciding whether to relocate your plant or terminate half your staff–any big decision.
Can you find an industry expert, or someone who maintains a database or has similar case studies you could review? Perhaps you could call a librarian, look on the Internet, or contact someone in your organization. By the third or fourth phone call, you can reach a party that has some gems for you. Perhaps you can find a trailblazer, someone who’s gone through exactly what you’re up against.
It’s also useful to become a consultant to yourself. Richard Nixon did this often, referring to himself in the third person. He’d ask himself, “Now, what should Nixon do next?” This generated for him a measure of objectivity that he wouldn’t have otherwise had. Nixon often found that he came up with different answers than he would have if faced with the question, “What should I do next?”
Surmising what another party would suggest to you gives you an added measure of objectivity.
Pros and Cons
Benjamin Franklin used to make his choices with the “pros and cons” technique. He listed everything favorable about choosing one way, and everything unfavorable about that same potential choice. If the pros category greatly outweighed the other, the decision was clear, and vice versa. Nowadays, with software, you can weigh pros and cons, and perhaps assign them specific values or probabilities of occurring to make your decision-making more objective.
The simple process of writing down what you’re up against helps you in your choice process.
Choosing with Others
Often, many of the choices you face lend themselves to consensus or majority-rules decisions. Can you employ brainstorming, with the right group and the right facilitator? It can often lead to a much faster decision. When working in a group, remember that people are willing to undertake an analytical approach, but ultimately, are guided by what they feel.
President Jimmy Carter was a highly analytical thinker who often devised practical solutions to tough problems, but had difficulty selling them to the American public. He often failed to see that people like to be emotionally swayed on their way to a decision.
Cold numbers and statistics hardly sway most people. If you’ve noticed that you’ve applied all the analytical processes but still have trouble persuading others, it may be because you’re not selling them on the emotional appeal of a decision.
The Stress of Too Few or Too Many Choices
I visited Poland in 1985, when it was still under Communist rule. There, I was beckoned by a man at the train station. His major revenue activity was going down to the train station and finding Western tourists like me who needed to find a good, clean, inexpensive room and didn’t know a word of Polish. I balked at first, but it turned out he and his wife had a nice room indeed– the one room that they had to spare of their two room apartment.
During my stay at his apartment, I learned that he experienced the stress of too few choices in life. He couldn’t leave the country. He couldn’t travel without presenting a series of papers. There were many restrictions he faced in his business.
Everybody has their stressors, you see. When you are besieged by too much competing for your time and attention, you may long for a simpler life or simpler era. When you meet people who, by virtue of social, economic, or political conditions, don’t have many choices, you find that they experience equally undesirable stress and anxiety about their confinement, and about the freedoms that they know they’re missing.
Welcome to Your World
The reality of your life and the working world you inhabit is that you’re going to face more decisions on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis as time proceeds–more than your counterparts in any other generation in history. You can flourish despite this ever-present reality if during each day you stay focused on the few decisions that are worth making. You’ve made a lot of decisions in your life, and many more face you. You’ve gotten this far, and you’ve done pretty well. And you’ll do as well in the future.