6 Reasons We Make Bad Decisions, and What to Do About Them

By Mike Erwin
September 9, 2020

The typical person makes about 2,000 decisions every waking hour. Most are minor — what to wear to work in the morning, whether to eat lunch now or in 10 minutes. But many of them require real thought and have serious consequences. Consistently making good decisions is arguably the most important habit we can develop, especially at work.

Based on my experiences from three deployments as an Army officer and from researching my book, “Lead Yourself First,” I’ve found certain mindsets to be detrimental to good decision-making. When you have to make an important decision, be on the lookout for:

DECISION FATIGUE: Our ability to perform mental tasks and make decisions wears thin when it’s repeatedly exerted. One of the most famous studies on this topic showed that prisoners are more likely to have parole approved in the morning than when their cases are heard in the afternoon. Identify the most important decisions you need to make, and, as often as possible, prioritize your time so that you make them when your energy levels are highest.

A STEADY STATE OF DISTRACTION: Researchers estimate that our brains process five times as much information today as in 1986. Many of us live in a continuous state of distraction and struggle to focus. Find time each day to unplug and step back from email, social media and news.

LACK OF INPUT: The Kellogg School recently found that in a typical meeting, an average of three people do 70% of the talking. Send out a meeting agenda 24 hours in advance to give everyone time to think about their contributions, and work to set a meeting culture that allows people to contribute their ideas after the meeting is over.

MULTITASKING: Research shows that performance, including decision-making effectiveness, suffers by up to 40% when we focus on two cognitive tasks at the same time. When you need to make important decisions, carve out and commit to several blocks of time during the day to focus deeply on the task at hand.

EMOTIONS: You probably don’t need to see the research to know that our emotions, especially during moments of peak anger and happiness, can hinder our ability to make good decisions. Resist the temptation to respond to people or make decisions while you’re emotionally keyed up. Practice walking away from the computer or putting the phone down, and return to the task at hand when you’re able to think more clearly and calmly.

ANALYSIS PARALYSIS: Today there’s no end to the amount of information we can access. And the more information we have to consider, the longer we typically take to make a decision. Review the pertinent information you need, set a deadline to make a decision and then stick to it.

Inevitably, we all make some poor decisions every day. But if we’re aware of these six enemies of good decision-making and take steps to outmaneuver them, we can make better decisions that have a positive impact on the people we work with and lead.


Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.


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