Productivity Update

© Helm and Associates, Inc. July 2017

How to Make Better Decisions

Know Your Brain

When we make decisions, we aren’t usually aware of how our brain is working to make that decision, but we should be! Having a better understanding of how our brain works, and what it is doing while we are making a decision will help us make better decisions. Read further to find out why, and how!

The Brain Works at Two Speeds

Research has shown that the brain has two processing, or thinking, speeds: fast and slow.

Fast thinking is what we use most of the time because it requires little effort and there is no sense of voluntary control. Thinking fast is what we do without having to think about it, which is just fine because most of the circumstances we encounter (such as having conversations, driving a car, preparing a meal) don’t require deep thought.

Slow thinking occurs when we consciously slow down and think more deeply about what is going on; this is what we are doing when we actually ask ourselves questions about what we are thinking about. It takes awareness and a conscious effort to slow down and give a matter under consideration the attention it deserves.

Fast Thinking Leads to Snap Decisions

In your brain, fast thinking is a form of autopilot – it just keeps going on, from one thing to another, getting decisions out of the way. This ability to handle most situations on autopilot reinforces the idea that making fast decisions is all that is required. As a result, we may not recognize circumstances that require careful evaluation – that is, time to explore the consequences of the decision – before making the decision.

When Snap Decisions Go Bad

Why is it that it is so difficult to admit that we made a mistake when our fast-thinking brain pushes us into making a bad decision? Partly, of course, it’s because we don’t like to think that we made a bad decision. But it is also because our “slow” thinking brain – the part that likes to deliberate – tries to protect us by searching, more or less automatically, for good reasons to explain why we made that (bad) decision.

It’s as if we say to ourselves, “Hmm, that wasn’t a good decision. But I’m a smart person and I make good decisions! I must have had good reason(s) for that decision (that I made without thinking very much about it), so let me see if I can figure out what they were.” And our slow-thinking, deliberative brain finds them!

The kicker is that all of this happens more or less without our being consciously aware of it.

No Excuses; We Need Better Decisions

We can put our deliberative brain to better use by engaging it sooner in the decision-making process. In that way, we don’t waste all that horsepower making excuses for quickly-made, bad decisions.

When the consequences of a decision will be complex and far-reaching, it’s time to slow down the decision-making process and use that slow-thinking brain. Or, when the consequences of a decision have potentially significant downsides if you get the decision wrong, put on your slow-thinking cap. And, it turns out, there are three simple steps you can follow to engage it.

3 Steps to Better Decisions

When your autopilot brain seems to be saying, “Hey, I’ve got this. Let’s make the call and move on,” remind yourself of the 3 Cs.

Cause – what caused the situation in which you have to make a decision? Is it a symptom of a larger issue? Is this a person error or a process error, or is it both?

Cost – what is the immediate cost, in dollars, time, or other resources, of the decision that you make? What are the long-term costs? Where will those resources come from? What are the implication, both short- and long-term, on profitability, teamwork, or customers?

Consequences – Who or what in the company will be affected by this decision? Who is aware of the situation, and who needs to be aware of the decision (solution)? Who needs to be informed of the decision? How many people, departments, work teams, etc., are touched by this issue, and how serious is it for each of them? What are the ripple effects of the decision that you make, and how far will they reach?

Train Your Brain

Your brain is a muscle; if you want it to be strong and work for you, you’ve got to exercise (use) it. The more aware you can make yourself of when circumstances need your full attention (and your thinking-slowly brain,) the better able you will be to consciously downshift from zooming along on autopilot.

Fast Thinking = Snap Judgments = Mixed Quality Decisions

Slow Thinking = Solid Judgments = Better Decisions