Tackling a tough problem at work? Try this new approach
It’s said that President Obama prefers to keep his work outfits limited to two color choices: gray or blue. He says it’s a deliberate tactic to reduce the number of decisions he has to make in a day. This way Obama can divert that extra mental energy towards the many other important decisions he needs to tackle on the job.
But even if you’re not the president of the United States, you’re still likely to face many situations that require tough decisions on the job. When these arise during a hectic work day, we often make spur-of-the-moment choices, perhaps based on strong gut feelings at the time. This is fine — for the most part. There’s great merit to being a decisive leader and trusting your gut. After all, business moves so quickly that drawn-out deliberation is generally a luxury few can afford.
However, when it comes to making more complicated, high-impact decisions, it is crucial to take some time out — or to “sleep on it,” as the old saying goes. I’ve found time and time again that when making big, complex choices at Hootsuite — like key hiring or fundraising decisions — it’s paramount to take a “time out,” before making the final call.
It turns out that decades of research in the field of cognitive psychology also backs this up. I recently chatted with Dr. Justin Davis, a neuroscientist and scientific director at Nognz Brain Fitness, about the value of “sleeping on it” at work. When it comes to making tough, complex decisions, here are some key points he suggests we consider:
Our brains have two cognitive systems: There’s the fast system, a primitive, “instant response” type network that quite literally allows us to operate on autopilot. It can be helpful for allowing us to simultaneously read an article on our phone and drink a cup of coffee. Then there’s the slower system, a “higher order” network that allows us to objectively reason and make rational decisions.
The fast system can be detrimental to our decision-making process: The faster system, by default, guides our general behaviour and decision-making process. It quickly pieces together bits of information from our sensory environment to make sense of the world around us. However, in doing so, “It can blind us to important facts and cause us to fall victim to cognitive biases that cloud our judgment,” says Justin. This is why you want to lean on the slower, second system for more complex decisions.
Shifting complex decisions over to the slower system requires effort: Avoiding the faster system and engaging the slow system to improve decision making “requires deliberate effort,” Justin explains. Resisting the urge to go with your gut and make impulsive decisions is a form of mental work.
The best way to do this is, simply, to not make the decision (especially if you are in these states): When we are tired, hungry, emotional or in a state of frustration, flipping the switch to engage our slow system is more challenging. So when faced with important decisions, the best way to avoid biases influencing your judgment is simply to not make the decision… for a while, anyway. You might instead eat something, exercise, meditate or do whatever to take your mind off it. This way, you can free up the mental capital needed to make better strategic decisions, according to Justin.
I can attest. I often find the best solutions come to me when I’m not thinking about the problem any more. Very often, in fact, these come to me when I’m doing some type of exercise, like yoga.
The bottom line? When you’re faced with an especially complicated or consequential decision at work, try not obsessing on it … instead let it “spin” in the back of your mind for a while. Sure, it can be tempting to just get it over with. From my own career, I know taking some time to mull the important things over almost always pays off.
It turns out that history is on our side here, too. More than 100 years ago, the legendary neurologist Sigmund Freud advised one of his students: “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters however … the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves.”