Although most people love freedom and choice, especially the freedom to choose, psychological science has long suggested that too much choice comes not only with an inability to make decisions, but also higher levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction with our choices. Remarkably, this holds true even when algorithms and AI are deployed to take care of much of our decision-making, and allegedly simplifies our choices. If you find yourself spending more time on picking than watching a movie, or if deciding what restaurant or hotel to book can turn into a six-hour existential crisis, it is clear that a surplus of choice and information does not obviously increase the efficiencies of everyday life.
Likewise, many employees, managers, and leaders find themselves overwhelmed by the wide range of options and choices they encounter when faced with everyday work problems. Whether it’s setting strategy, designing new products, putting together a team, or deciding on a future career move, nothing seems painless and straightforward, and the potential to think about hypothetical scenarios and outcomes creates a sort of decision fatigue, consuming our mental resources like the memory RAM of a 90s computer. When you also include the range of #firstworldproblem dilemmas workers of the developed world must tackle on a daily basis, such as navigating the sea of choices for their online lunch delivery, deciding how to customize their coffees, or keeping up with the latest Black Friday sales, it is no wonder that technological advances have not let to an increase in productivity rates.
While we cannot stop the world from becoming more complex (even by temporarily escaping to an ashram in India, a meditation retreat in Morocco, or a perfect wave in Costa Rica), we can and should address our ability to make better decisions in the face of ever growing complexity and uncertainty. Complexity is not an objective and inherent quality of the world, but our interpretation of things. This is how ignorance may convey the illusion of simplicity, and why a little bit of knowledge results in a much higher sense of complexity than strong expertise does. Complexity, at least from a psychological perspective, is largely self-inflicted.
A common problem is the failure to prioritize, which leads to smart people devoting their precious intellectual resources to solving mundane and trivial problems. Intelligence should be about making complex things simple, rather than simple things complex. When you are moving everything forward and piling even trivial decisions such as where to meet a friend for lunch, what to eat, what to wear, or how to respond to a tweet, you will neglect more important and consequential decisions, such as reaching out to a potential new client or colleague, learning a new skill, or picking up a new hobby. The longer it takes you to make small decisions, the more change-averse you become. The perceived effort of executing the simplest of tasks leaves you deflated and exhausted, just like exercising self-control ends up weakening your mental strength.
Not making a decision is also a decision. How this relates to complexity of the world and how to deal with it and what the consequences will be in a world of constant change might be of an increasingly importance for both individuals and organizations. How do you train and make sure your team is equipped to deal with uncertainties in a world of constant change, always on and connected?
Working in an interconnected world means that opportunities that were once restricted to specific industries and locations can now cause ripple effects. It is not hard to see how this new world impacts the decision-ability needs. It creates a fear that any choice we can make might be the wrong one. There are now so many uncertainties and, at the same time, so much data that it can create an immense stress and a unconscious feeling of impotence. An anxious world is not one in which we are always hitting refresh to update the news, but one that gives us just that—an opportunity to get the latest news.
We need to make decisions quickly, but we also have to wave in all the data and insights possible before we formulate our beliefs to dare to make a bet. Success and failure may lie in the response time, and still we keep collecting big and small datasets. When we are anxious, any choice can be potentially disastrous. Anxiety leads us to a state of passivity, because we fear to make the wrong choice. Therefore, we tend to delay decisions and actions.
So, how do you practice making better and faster decisions when you are struggling to keep up, or you are overwhelmed by tedious distractions? Here are six practical recommendations.
When to be decisive and trust your intuition
You have most likely been in this situation before. Your intuition and instinct is nothing but bottled experience. Because your decision is reversible, what is there actually to think about? Situations that are incomprehensible require transparency and intuition. When something is incomprehensible, we can’t take the time to fully explore everything before making a decision, so we must develop our intuition and rely on it.
When to practice precision
When your decision really matters, you need data, knowledge, experience, empathy, and mindfulness. The best way to cope is raising awareness. You won’t be able to make decisions if you do not understand the consequences and it is not irreversible, and we cannot control what we are not aware of. Training employees in decision-making, positive thinking, soft skills, and having the willingness and courage to practice precision with speed will become increasingly essential.
When to use your critical thinking and curiosity
What is your context and adaptability? Are you able to approach your problem at hand with no expectation? It’s easier said than done, having a candid, open mind to opportunities, strategies, people, and technology. Organizations that don’t innovate and only rely on proven leaders and methods often find themselves repeating a behavior and decision pattern and will be behind the competition sooner or later.
Dare to make a decision and own it
Making small iterations will make you and your team less stressed, less negative, and create less of a feeling of running and talking in loops. It is important to practice and show capacity and stance. Communicating a clear, consistent, and compelling decision while also preparing an alternative, even for something that is apparently working well, helps organizations to build grit. Seeking a culture of adopting well developed funnels of decision-making and investing in training are tools that can help make your organization more resilient. Implementing a learning culture can increase the willingness to choose and transparency when decisions end up being wrong. Daring to fail is beneficial as long as the learning is fast and collective.
Do not make decisions about how or what you feel
Or even about your own vanity. Make them more about the bigger picture, the greater good, and less about your own (hidden) agenda. We have a tendency to think that the world revolves around us, which is why there are big advantages in understanding that most people care less about you than they do about themselves.
Avoid becoming a decision “hoarder”
That is, do not pile onto mini decisions that will fundamentally make you bad at making big and important decisions. Be mindful and aware if you yourself are increasing your decision-making fatigue, your anxiety, and cementing a reputation for indecisiveness and becoming an anxious boss.
While good decision-making is more of an art than a science, you will still benefit from a system or process to fine-tune your decision-making ability. The ultimate goal is not perfection or being right all the time, but finding better ways of being wrong. Developing a reputation for smart, objective, pragmatic decision-making will not just help your career, but also the success of your team and organization.
Katarina Berg is the chief human resources officer at Spotify and she’s also head of the company’s Global Workplace Services and Strategy Operations teams. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, PhD, is the chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup and a professor of Business Psychology at Columbia University and University College London. He is the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It).