Ever encountered a project where only one decision needs to be made before you can finish the project? It may only take you a few hours to finish the project once that decision is made, but invariably, it’s the decision that takes forever to make. It’s because decision-making is as much a skill as riding a bike: it’s something that you learn and improve on as you practice.
I think my first introduction to the concept of improving my own decision-making abilities was in The 4-Hour Workweek — one of the exercises Timothy Ferriss recommends is making snap decisions. But the issue of decision-making is being considered on a much wider level than just productivity gurus. Yesterday, the New York Times posted a column from John Tierney on their website titled “The Price of Dithering.” The reason that writers from Ferriss to Tierney are focusing so much on the topic of decision-making is the fact that dithering really can be quite expensive. An inability to move on to the next project can have massive opportunity costs, in addition to the financial upkeep needed to keep other folks ready to spring into action once a decision has been made. Avoiding these price tags is a matter of improving your ability to quickly make decisions and move on.
When I talk about improving your decision-making skills, I’m talking about quantity rather than quality. Having the discernment to make the best decision in every situation is a skill that each of us spends our entire life working on. Instead, the quick fix is reducing the time that it takes us to reach our conclusion — while still coming to the same decision we would if we spent hours on an issue.
The first step to handling big decisions quickly is dealing with small ones immediately. Most of us have too little time to spend even an extra half hour trying to pick out an outfit to wear to the office. As long as your proposed outfit is within the guidelines of your office’s dress code, put it on and get on to the next decision. Some of these small decisions can even be eliminated entirely. Effectively, you just need to make a blanket decision to cover a variety of situations — like if you are planning an investment strategy. Sitting down once a year and choosing where your money is going saves you from having to decide every time you get a little spare change.
Whenever I struggle with a decision, I ask for advice. An expert opinion can often simplify a decision, after all. However, I’ve found that getting too much advice can be a double-edged sword — sure, information can help you make a better decision, but some advice can be faulty and sorting through the unhelpful information can extend the decision-making process. I’ve heard a variation on the classic example from just about every graphic designer I’ve ever met: a client is at some important decision-making stage and is looking at a design. The client asks for some time to consider and proceeds to ask for advice from his girlfriend/secretary/trash collector/whoever and that advisor just flat out doesn’t like the design. The problem is that none of those advisors has any experience with graphic design. They haven’t been in on the developmental meetings, they don’t know the logic that led the client and the designer to a particular design, and, therefore, they probably don’t have the necessary knowledge to help you make the best decision.
My advise to decision-makers is simple. For any decision, limit yourself to one or two advisors who happen to be experts in their field. You should, of course, discuss the matter with those individuals who your decision affects (your spouse if you’re considering taking a job in another state, your employees if you’re moving your company to another state, etc.) but don’t necessarily consider them experts.
When you first start thinking about making a large purchase — television, car, whatever — odds are that you start out with a specific brand or model in mind. But then you start doing research, looking at other options and generally dithering about your decision. The whole process can take months, and, when you finally make up your mind, there is a fair chance that you went back to your initial choice.
I’ve had plenty of problems with ignoring those initial inclinations myself. It comes down to the fact that many of us simply don’t have a whole heck of a lot of confidence in our own abilities to make decisions. And I’m the first to admit that my decisions are not nearly perfect. There have been plenty that I want to take back. The easiest way, however, to speed up the process of making decisions is to realize that you will make the best decision you can, based on the information you have available. Delaying isn’t guaranteed to give you the time to learn more and you may already have all the information you need.
Look at it this way: you’re not going to intentionally make a poor decision. Keeping the fact that you’re going to do your best in your mind may be able to provide you with a bit more confidence. That’s the optimist’s option, of course. For those of us who lean to the pessimistic side of things, thinking about worse case scenarios can be equally effective. It’s rare that we make a decision that cannot be repaired if something goes wrong. Sure, it might take a little work or money, but most decisions really aren’t life and death. I remember thinking that choosing a college would determine who I would be for the rest of my life. But college students certainly aren’t stuck with that decision: while I liked my school just fine, I had a classmate who transferred three times and a few who dropped out entirely.