Thursday, July 05, 2012

If you are a decision maker, you have to learn this

Good decision making is not a skill that can be learnt in a classroom; it is developed by ‘being aware of the flow around oneself and making use of it’. In other words, it is not a static ability that can be learnt outside the playground (while doing MBA/Executive MBA), but a dynamic trait that can be learnt only on the playground; only when one is ‘aware of one's self and the situations around oneself'. Let us understand how. 

Good decision-making requires willpower, an ability to focus on ‘issues at hand long enough’ so that one can ‘choose’. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have shown that willpower ( ability to focus our thoughts on something) is not 'constant', but it depends on our available mental energy . This mental energy is required for making choices as well as for resisting temptations. And as this mental energy is also consumed while taking small choices, our ability to take big decision is impaired.  The experiments of willpower now confirm our grandfather’s notion that willpower is like a muscle that is fatigued with use, and therefore our grandfather was right when he told us to conserve it by avoiding temptation. 

Both small/big choices and resisting temptations deplete willpower

We need willpower ( self control ) both for taking small or big decisions, or for resisting temptations that come along the way. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whether to go for a jog or not, what to shop at what price depletes mental energy and therefore the willpower. Even shopping , which involves trade-offs, also depletes willpower dramatically. At the same time, big decisions as whom to hire, which job to take, which flat to purchase also depletes willpower. 

Why do choices deplete mental energy? Because when we choose something, we also have to forsake other options. The word “decide” shares an etymological root with “homicide,” the Latin word “caedere,” meaning “to cut down” or “to kill”. This has now been proved by several researchers. One can also read Sheena Iyengar's Art of Choosing to understand the difficulties of decision making. 

Not so surprisingly, resisting temptations also depletes willpower. Resisting the decision of not to see the 11 pm night program, avoiding to have icecream after dinner, resisting to remain stoic in a emotional movie also depletes willpower. 

Effect of depleted mental energy

The cumulative effect of these temptations and small decisions is Ego-depletion, a word to name the 'state' of a person with a very low level of mental energy , lower than a threshold level. 

Ego depletion tends to make a feeling more intense than normal. When our ego is depleted, we tend to spend recklessly or say stupid things that we regret later. We have needless fights over turf. If we are making decisions, we take illogical shortcuts. We tend to favor short-term gains or chose safer and easier options instead of 'right' options. 

To compromise is a complex human ability and demands high mental energy. It is therefore the first to suffer when ego is depleted. You over-simplify decisions. If you are shopping, for instance, you will ignore other dimensions and just focus on one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you may focus on quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying). Or you may 'follow' others and buy what others are buying, finding solace in the majority. 

How do professionals take big decisions?

As our grandfathers had fewer decisions to make, they had less decision fatigue. Today in a typical office we are overwhelmed by the numerous choices we are forced to make. You come at the office and are fatigued with the continuous decision making that is forced on you - whether to reply to the mail, or continue to work  on the document that is unedited, or checking out with subordinates, or  follow a link to a website to get more information or call someone to get something done. Our ego-depletion is more likely to happen than our grandfathers!

Psychologists therefore have found that professionals with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. By conserving their willpower, they do not oversimplify difficult decisions. Instead of waiting for the 'time' to take their decisions, they take tough decisions even if they do not like them. How do they manage to do this? They take four separate actions: 

1.They establish routines that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning when to get up and what to eat, they set up a schedule that is regular. Instead of using their willpower to exercise in the morning , they set up a work-out with a friend. They establish habits ( like eating early etc) that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. They avoid taking decisions when their routines are disturbed, such as when they are travelling.

2. They avoid getting into situations that will tempt them. For instance, instead of confronting their temptations to eat rich foods, they avoid buffets,  late night parties and weekend bashes. They avoid seeing needless TV serials that will unnecessarily create needless diversions and temptations. 

3.They delegate 'small decisions' to others: Taking decisions for others is more difficult than taking decisions for ourselves. These professionals learn to delegate decisions to subordinates, colleagues and even family members so that their mental energy is not depleted with small choices. This is easier said than done !

4.They take big decisions only when they are ready: Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions. For instance, they don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings to avoid fast ego depletion. They do not take tough decisions in the late evenings. They do not take short cuts in taking big decisions. They confront big decisions even when they are unsettling. 

How do you take the big decisions in your life? 

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