Taking your time with decisions

English: A simple decision tree showing the ma...
English: A simple decision tree showing the major elements: Squares, circles and triangles (decisions, chances, end nodes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Steve Fleming has an interesting article at Aeon on the advisability of sometimes taking your time with making decisions.

Whether lingering too long over the menu at a restaurant, or abrupt U-turns by politicians, flip-flopping does not have a good reputation. By contrast, quick, decisive responses are associated with competency: they command respect. Acting on gut feelings without agonising over alternative courses of action has been given scientific credibility by popular books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005), in which the author tries to convince us of ‘a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately’. But what if the allure of decisiveness were leading us astray? What if flip-flopping were adaptive and useful in certain scenarios, shepherding us away from decisions that the devotees of Blink might end up regretting? Might a little indecision actually be a useful thing?

via Indecision is sometimes the best way to decide – Steve Fleming – Aeon.

As someone who has been in a management position for a number of years, one thing I’ve learned to resist is the pressure to make immediate decisions.  That pressure can come from a lot of sources: customers, salesmen, employees, bosses, even family members, and of course, from ourselves.

Sometimes the time needed to make a decision is only a few extra minutes, sometimes hours, days, or months.  Unless I’m under a deadline outside of my control, I’ve learned to hold off until I feel good about a choice.

Now, I’m not talking about minor decisions, such as what to have for lunch or which route to take to work.  Those types of choices have only short term consequences.  There is usually a limited amount of grief that can come from them.  One thing  you should probably think about, when you’re struggling with a decision is, how critical is it?  Most of the time it isn’t, and I’ve learned to then quickly move forward with my best guess.

Another key question is whether the decision is easily reversible.  Again, if it is, then I might be inclined to make a quick decision, knowing that I could adjust it later.

But if a decision is both important and hard to reverse, I take my time, sometimes much to the chagrin of those around me.

Taking the extra time often allows me to see options that might not have been initially apparent.  Sometimes a decision that looks like an exclusive binary choice has a third option (or a fourth, or more).  I’ve had this happen enough to me that I almost reflexively now look for those hidden options, options that salesmen and others often would prefer I didn’t see.

Have I sometimes lost opportunities by dithering?  Yes, although usually I’m aware of the time pressure and that is a factor in how long I take.  But sometimes I’ve taken too long to ponder things and had events make the decision irrelevant, and not always in a good way.

But I’ve found that I’m far more likely to regret hasty decisions.  I’ve had a lot more decisions that I wished I could undo than ones where I regretted the extra time.

Fleming talks about the issues of hastily sending emails, particularly ones sent in anger.  I’ve learned never to send emails in anger, or make phone calls, or even go visit someone, until I’ve calmed down.  When I’m angry, I’ve learned the best response to disentangle myself from the situation, if possible, to get away to think for a bit, kind of like an self enforced time out.

I make no claims to being perfectly consistent with this.  I’m human and sometimes get carried away and make hasty decisions.  But as I’ve gotten older, it’s become easier to resist those urges.  Maybe some wisdom does come with age.

3 thoughts on “Taking your time with decisions

  1. Thanks ‘SAP’, great article and write-up, some excellent reasoning and good advice on both Fleming’s and your part. I actually read it a couple of days ago, but your posting it and my subsequent revisit brought Fleming’s blog, ‘The Elusive Self’, to my attention – looks like some good stuff there. Somehow I’d missed that – thanks!

    I’m immensely enjoying Haidt – Elephants Rule!


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