by Arthur Piccio . October 6th, 2013
Management is a series of decisions – some harder than others. The process of decision-making, as well as the mental and physiological mechanisms behind decisiveness has been the subject of hundreds of thousands of studies. What is clear is that making good, timely decisions is a function of both cognition and willpower.
The need for cognition is pretty straightforward. You can’t make good decisions if you can’t understand your choices for what they are. For most people – indeed most managers – the real problem lies in willpower. Willpower is what keeps you from making choices on impulse.
Unfortunately, the line between procrastination and waiting for the best time to act can be extremely blurred – in business, speed is often more important than the small details.
To make matters more complicated, willpower can be negatively affected by huge number of factors, including but not limited to as how much sleep you got, when your last meal or break was, social pressures, and your genetic predisposition to compulsive behavior.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that self-control is a skill. Not only is it learned, the ability to easily exercise it is finite. Think of all the times you’ve been stressed out, then did something you didn’t mean to, like cheat on your diet, or make impulse purchases.
Fortunately, like almost any other skill, self-control can be maximized, and willpower can be stretched considerably. It’s not that simple though. Just ask anyone who’s made a New Year’s Resolution or tried to lose weight.
A popularly cited study (Gailliot et al., 2007) strongly suggests that willpower is tied to glucose levels, citing improved mental endurance in athletes when drink something sweet, or merely swish it in their mouths.
Other studies refute this, saying that the activation of reward centers in the brain (when test subjects taste something sweet) is the more likely reason. A recent study asserts that decision fatigue only occurs when people believe it exists, contradicting the evidence presented by previous studies.
There’s plenty of convincing arguments from all sides. Decision fatigue is however, very real phenomena, at least for most people, and this is true whether or not glucose is actually responsible for it.
If you’re one of those who believe they get stuck or fatigued at having to make too many decisions, it makes sense to try to expend as little effort as possible when making each choice. These are some of the proven methods we’ve found that can streamline your decision-making process.
We’ve previously discussed the effects of distractions in a work setting in a two–part series. While we all could use a distraction every once in a while, they can lead to serious dips in productivity and cause your brain to have to ramp up again when you go back to your original task.
As far as decision-making goes, diversions, even when related to work, can easily derail you and use up mental resources needed to make other future choices.
Office Distractions: Part One – How Divided Attention Costs Businesses
Office Distractions: Part Two – Simple Ways To Stay Focused At Work
We extensively discussed this on a previous post, but this bears repeating. While the lack of sleep doesn’t reduce cognitive capacity as much as popularly believed, it severely reduces your ability to focus, and your mind will be jumping all over the place. Your ability to process memories will also take a hit. Combined, these can make for some bad decisions.
Attack of the Killer Z’s – How Napping Boosts Productivity
In an interview with Vanity Fair, President Barack Obama said “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits…I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make”. Steve Jobs also famously wore a black mock turtleneck and jeans almost every day. Albert Einstein also had multiple suits of the same color and type because he claimed he didn’t want to waste any brain power.
Fewer choices often mean more time and mental energy to think about other things. More choices are often downright paralyzing. McDonald’s has recently cut down on the number of items on their infamously bloated menu.
One of the many good reasons they had for it was that it would help speed up customer decision time. Having plenty of choices is appealing, in theory. However, the reality is that too many choices can leave you pointlessly bogged down.
In a popularly cited study by Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University, researchers set up a booth with jam samples. They switched from offering 24 different flavors to just six every couple of hours. Regardless of the number of flavors offered, customers sampled an average of two flavors and were given purchase coupons.
What’s fascinating though is that while more people (60%) were drawn to the stand when there were 24 choices available, the researchers were only able to get a 3% conversion rate. When the stand only had 6 flavors, they could get 40% to come over for samples. However, 30% of those who sampled from the small set went on to purchase a jar with their coupons.
While this is all interesting from a sales point of view, what it tells us is that when we have more choices, we are likely to hold off on a decision. In situations where getting something fast is a lot more important than getting it done perfectly, holding off can be a liability.
Something as simple as a pen and paper decision matrix can help you quickly narrow down your choices. Asking others for their recommendations or finding out which choices are popular for the application you need is also a good way to start weeding out the options you don’t really want to pay attention to.
Delegating the decision or letting the matter go to a vote can also do wonders for making a wide range of choices less of a problem for managers.
You can’t really plan if you don’t have anything to plan for. If you don’t set clear goals, then you will have a much tougher time narrowing down your possible options. When you have something specific in mind for your enterprise, it becomes so much simpler to make informed choices without as much mental effort. If your goal is too general, then that just leaves you with more options to waste your time thinking about.
When you’ve set specific goals, you can work backwards to easily figure out what you want done. When that’s done, to-do lists can be immensely helpful in helping you take action on things without having to spend any more time and mental effort trying to remember them.
To-do lists and set plans are great for helping keep you focused and on things that actually need to be done without expending much mental energy – precisely why pilots go through them each and every flight.
Here’s the pre-flight checklist for a Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet. Even if you trained a pilot to be a mental athlete, it would stretch credibility that they could consistently go through these procedures without accidentally skipping a step after a few hundred flights. Checklists for routine tasks likewise, greatly reduce the chance you’d make a mistake, and help with your own peace of mind.
For routine items on your list it’s also important to set quotas. If you’re new to something it’s important however, to start small, then slowly but continuously ramp your way up to higher numbers, as you don’t want to set unrealistic goals and quotas. Doing so will only set you up for disappointment.
Goals and quotas always work best though when you:
Back in 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an essay that got published in The Economist . The opening line would prove to be far more enduring than his own name:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
The same thing absolutely applies to decisions. Give yourself as limited a time as possible to make decisions. More time means more time agonizing over it and second-guessing yourself.
If faced with no clear choice and no time to gather more details, trust your instincts. A recently published study demonstrates that gut instinct can be surprisingly accurate than was previously been given credit for. Note though that this only works if you have at least some knowledge about what’s going on, so we wouldn’t want you to make rash decisions just to save time.
If you can’t reach a satisfactory decision in the time you gave yourself:
Sometimes, it’s best to take no action on something and just move on. Try to come back to it later after you’d gotten other stuff done.
Same thing if you decided to go on a less than ideal choice. Fixating on bad choices or opportunity costs that you couldn’t correct anyway is unproductive.
If you feel like you did the best you could do with the information you had at the time you made the decision let go. If you didn’t feel you did, then learn from it, and let go anyway. This will help conserve your mental endurance for other decisions you’ll have to make later on.
Another way you could let go is to of course, delegate to someone you trust. Make sure not to hover over them or second-guess them constantly, as that would not only negate the rationale for delegation, it could lead to resentment within your business.
Rituals help put you in “the zone”. A few moments of prayer or other forms of meditation, or even focusing on a lucky charm can do wonders for your cognitive ability as well as your willpower. Even if you don’t really believe in them.
Multiple studies (we’re talking dozens, if not hundreds of different studies by reputed universities all over the world) demonstrate that meditation boosts neural connections, gives a statistically significant increase in wakefulness, cognitive ability, relaxation, while simultaneously helping reduce stress, anxiety, blood pressure – and brain aging.
Even things that aren’t necessarily thought of as meditative help. There is evidence that engaging in extra activities that require some self-control will allow you to stretch out your willpower incrementally over time. These activities don’t need to be related to work either. The idea is not new. Martial artists and monks have been doing these sorts of exercises for millennia.
Activities need not be strenuous either. Using your non-dominant hand for example, or committing to do a couple of simple exercises every time you see some arbitrary object should do fine. Something meaningful such as contributing a dollar a day to company Halloween party fund or a charity would be even better.
Increasing the amount of willpower available to you should in theory help you make more decisions throughout the day before your prefrontal cortex finally decides to call it quits.
The only way to ensure that you set yourself up for consistently making good decisions is by repetition. This might be the toughest thing to do out of everything on the list.What you are trying to do here is to literally rewire your neural connections. As anyone who’s ever tried to learn a specific skill knows, this part takes time.
The problem we often encounter when we try to learn to increase or maximize stuff like willpower or cognitive efficiency is that it’s all abstract, and tracking progress can be difficult or impractical. This makes it far too easy to fall off the wagon.
You can only notice yourself get better at it after an extended period of time, depending on how well you stick to your routine. It’s same as when you learn to paint or play and instruments. Even the best painters and musicians start out pretty horrible. Their transitions through fluency, and eventual greatness are all gradual and as slow as it gets.
So if someone says you could learn how to increase your willpower in weeks, you probably shouldn’t believe them. The process of creating habits involves building neural pathways in your brain – and this takes a heck of a lot of time.
How much time? In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says 10,000 hours. Another author says it takes approximately 45 days.
As everyone is different, and as all authors like a good digestible factoid to throw around, it might be reasonable to suspect it may take much longer 10,000 hours, let alone 45 days.
How long it takes shouldn’t matter though. If you plan to be in the entrepreneurship game for the long haul, learning how to be genuinely decisive is one of the best time investments you could ever make.
Perhaps Daft Punk said it best
A bit old, but if you haven’t seen this yet, do yourself a favor an watch what will be the best 3:45 minutes of your day.
Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.
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