a Counterintuitive Approach to Decision-Making

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Here’s a question: the last time you had a business decision to make, was your desktop covered in spreadsheets, blossoming like an invasive plant species? Did you wake up bleary-eyed, knowing you’d spent all night dreaming of optimization and assumptions, positives and negatives, risks and rewards?

Now ask yourself this: after all of that, how much did your decision deviate from the choice you somehow knew was right at the beginning?

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As you may be aware, recent neurological research has shown that our gut is – sometimes – better at evaluating complicated situations than our hyper-rational brain is. No matter how much we like to think that logic is driving the bus, in many situations, the work we do to “discover” the best solution ends up being a way to conveniently justify the decision we wanted to make all along.

Does this mean you should always trust your gut? Of course not. Relying too much on blind intuition can subject you to all sorts of potential failures. But when it comes to decision-making, your gut can be an extremely valuable resource.

If, that is, you train it properly.

So how to do this? How to judge when it’s best to use the spreadsheets, and when it’s ok to jump off the cliff and build your parachute on the way down?

Well, next time you have a decision to make, try these approaches.

Write Down Your Gut Feeling. Then Figure Out the “Rational” Solution.

Before even starting to “figure out” what to do, write down your first thought. Don’t judge yourself (you’re not bound to it!) – just write it down. Then put that paper in a drawer.

After you’ve made charts and graphs, run the numbers, gotten feedback, and revised your plan four thousand times, go back and visit your first thought. How do the answers compare? Do this exercise a few times to get a sense of both how much your gut knows and how much you tend to follow it, even if you don’t know you’re doing so.

Keep Yourself Off-Balance

When do gut decisions go wrong? When they’re followed blindly, and rely on unseen biases.

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How to avoid this? Keep yourself off-balance. Make a gut decision, then convince yourself that the opposite choice is the right one. Imagine you’ve been paid a million dollars to convince a room of people that the opposite choice is the one they should make. See if that changes your mind.

Remember Domain Specificity

This is a big one. Having good intuitive sense in one domain doesn’t always (or even doesn’t usually) translate well to a different arena. Many people mistake good judgment in a specific field for overall good judgment, when in fact there’s no such thing. There’s just experience and familiarity with a given field, enough to know what usually works (but not always!) and what usually doesn’t (but sometimes does!).

If you’re new to something, take the time to figure things out — while still writing down what your gut says. Avoid overconfidence, and let your intuition develop over time.

Let Yourself Be Wrong

If you let yourself make decisions by instinct, you’ll make some mistakes. This is good: It means you can learn.

Remember that every decision isn’t only about making the right choice at that point in time – it’s a way to help make a better decision next time. So use it this way.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t employ effective methods for managing work or planning projects, but when your decisions result in a less-than-ideal outcome, recognize the experience as an opportunity for growth.

Yes, You Can (Sometimes) Flip a Coin

That’s right – sometimes it’s best to just flip a coin. In fact, the economist Steven Levitt ran an experiment where he asked people to make a decision in just this way. It turned out that six months later, the people who ended up changing their life because of the coin flip ended up happier than those who didn’t.

The lesson? Sometimes you don’t even have to make the decision on your own.

As the above shows, you shouldn’t blindly trust your gut. But you can use it, often quite effectively.



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