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Don’t Overthink It: 5 Tips for Daily Decision-Making

Indecisiveness is a productivity killer. We look at the science of decision-making, and how you can make better choices.


In an interview last year, I asked acclaimed graphic designer James Victore what made him so efficient. His simple reply: “I make decisions.” We make hundreds, if not millions, of micro-decisions every day – from what to focus our energy on, to how to respond to an email, to what to eat for lunch. You could easily argue that becoming a better (and swifter) decision-maker would be the fastest route to improving your daily productivity.

After digging into the research, I learned that there are no hard and fast rules for decision-making. (If only!) There are, however, a number of interesting tendencies that play into how we decide, which we should all be aware of.Here’s a quick stroll through some of the key findings on the art of decision-making:

1. Satisficers vs Maximizers.

Coined by the economist Herbert Simon in 1956, “satisficing” is an approach to decision-making that prioritizes an adequate solution over an optimal solution. Gretchen Rubin sums up the difference between the two types of decision-makers well in a post over at the Happiness Project:

Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice…

In a fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers must spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.

You’d think maximizers would at least feel content with their decision after all that work, but no! As anyone who’s ever researched a possible illness on the Internet knows, more information does not necessarily lead to peace of mind or better decision-making.

Takeaway: Gathering additional information always comes at a cost. We’re better off setting our criteria for making a decision in advance (as in, “I’ll make the call once I know X, Y, and Z”). Once you have that information, make the choice and move on.

2. How less can be more.

Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, whose work was cited in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Blink, argues that we’re designed to make smart snap decisions based on limited information. In fact, his research shows that we do it all the time. Here, Newsweek neatly sums up Gigerenzer’s findings on the “Take the Best” strategy that most people use to make decisions:

“Take the best” means that you reason and calculate only as much as you absolutely have to; then you stop and do something else. So, for example, if there are 10 pieces of information that you might weigh in a thorough decision, but one piece of information is clearly more important than the others, then that one piece of information is often enough to make a choice. You don’t need the rest; other details just complicate things and waste time.

Gigerenzer has demonstrated this in the laboratory. He asked a large number of parents to consider a scenario in which their child wakes up after midnight short of breath, wheezing and coughing. They are told that a doctor could make a home visit in 20 minutes; it’s a physician they know but don’t like all that much, because he never listens to their view. Alternatively, they could take their child to a clinic 60 minutes away; the doctors there are unknown, but good listeners by reputation. Which to choose?

In the end, almost all of the parents based their decision on just one key piece of information: Whether or not the doctor was a good listener. Considered in this light, the wait time and other factors were just not that important.

Takeaway: We are designed to process information so quickly that “rapid cognition” – decisions that spring from hard thinking based on sound experience – can feel more instinctive than scientific. Trust your gut.

3. The three kinds of intuition.

In the creative and business worlds, you hear a lot of talk about intuition, and (see above) “trusting your gut.” But what does that really mean? It’s less simple than you might think. Columbia Business School professor William Duggan believes that there are three different types of intuition:

Ordinary intuition is just a feeling, a gut instinct. Expert intuition is snap judgments, when you instantly recognize something familiar, the way a tennis pro knows where the ball will go from the arc and speed of the opponent’s racket… The third kind, strategic intuition, is not a vague feeling, like ordinary intuition. Strategic intuition is a clear thought… That flash of insight you had last night might solve a problem that’s been on your mind for a month.…Expert intuition is always fast, and it only works in familiar situations. Strategic intuition is always slow, and it works for new situations, which is when you need your best ideas.This difference is crucial, because expert intuition can be the enemy of strategic intuition. As you get better at your job, you recognize patterns that let you solve similar problems faster and faster. That’s expert intuition at work. In new situations your brain takes much longer to make enough new connections to find a good answer.

A flash of insight happens in only a moment, but it may take weeks for that moment to come. You can’t rush it. But your expert intuition might see something familiar and make a snap judgment too soon. The discipline of strategic intuition requires you recognize when a situation is new and turn off your expert intuition. You must disconnect the old dots, to let new ones connect on their own.

Takeaway: We should trust our expert intuition (based on experience) when making choices about familiar problems. But when we need a break-through solution, we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to conclusions.

4. Why we should trust experience. (Anyone’s experience.)

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of the bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, studies the cognitive biases that we use to make decisions. According to Gilbert, we do not make very rational decisions in most cases, nor are we particularly good at predicting what will make us happy. (See his great TED talk for more on this.)Gilbert argues that if we don’t have the knowledge or experience to make a decision, the best course of action is to just ask someone else. Says Gilbert:

In many domains of life, the experience of one randomly selected other person can beat your own best guess by a factor of two… We all like a trip to Paris better than gallbladder surgery; everybody would rather have a compliment than have their thumb nailed to the floor. The differences between you and other people are so unimportant that you would do better predicting how you are going to like something simply by asking one randomly chosen person how they like it.

Takeaway: If you’re wrestling with a difficult decision, consult a friend or colleague who’s been in your situation before. Their insight will likely be significantly more valuable than almost any research.

5. Choosing your battles.

Some decisions, like how to handle a dicey client situation, are worth mulling over. Others, like deciding what brand of dental floss you buy, are not. Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, points out that we are constantly bullied into feeling like trivial decisions are incredibly important:

The modern marketplace is a conspiracy to confuse, to trick the mind into believing that our most banal choices are actually extremely significant. Companies spend a fortune trying to convince us that only their toothpaste will clean our teeth, or that only their detergent will remove the stains from our clothes… Why does the average drug store contain 55 floss alternatives and more than 350 kinds of toothpaste? While all these products are designed to cater to particular consumer niches, they end up duping the brain into believing that picking a floss is a high-stakes game, since it’s so damn hard. And so we get mired in decision-making quicksand.

Takeaway: Ask yourself if this decision is really that meaningful. If it’s not, stop obsessing over it, and just make a call!

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (71)
  • Georgette

    This was right on time as I’m currently mulling over a business decision with a friend involving money. Thank you 99 percent!

  • Jørgen Sundgot

    On satisficers vs maximizers: People typically trend from the latter towards the former with age (and experience), having gained the wisdom to realize that it’s hard to justify the added expenditure of energy to achieve what can be viewed as a relatively small percentile of improvement.

    Then again, being a maximizer can also be a recipe for success. Hit the dictionary for “Stephen P. Jobs” for that one.

  • Pete R.

    Excellent Article! Very informative, quoting every point. I am actually both satisficer and maximizer at certain situation. Some situation may require you to be maximizer and vice versa. One is better in certain situation in my opinion. 

    Any way, this is a must share insight. 🙂

  • Brian Lemen

    Very nicely written article, I love the bit about the three types of intuition.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent points all around. Here’s another tip that I’ve found to be incredibly helpful for people who struggle with decision making: 

    Minimize the number of decisions you have to make about when and how you do routine activities so you have more mental capacity to focus on when and how to do what’s most important.

    Here’s why:
    -Daily activities like getting up, getting ready, eating, exercising, planning and answering e-mail can all be turned into routines that require no mental effort to flow into throughout the day.

    -That then gives you the time and space and mental capacity to get “lost” in a creative project for an extended period of time and do higher level thinking without worrying that you’ll forget to do something like go to the grocery store or answer a client’s e-mail.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • jkglei

    Great point, Elizabeth. And, handily, we just did a post about forming habits! ; )

    http://the99percent.com/tips/7

  • электромонтажный инструмент

    That article is so interesting and makes a very nice image in my mind. That is very much helpful in nominating the board of directors.

  • Bill

    ‘I used to be indecisive but now I’m not too sure’ – Libra T shirt 

  • janz

    I love it – have shared this with my clients. Reminds me of a great quote from Magnum P.I. 

    “It’s better to dive in and make a totally wrong choice than not to make any choice at all.”
    -Magnum P.I.
    (from-the-TV recording of the quote posted on this site: http://menacingsparrw.posterou

  • Andy Feliciotti

    Great article! I have to stop over thinking everything 😦

  • Wide Eyed Pupil

    This is why I follow 99%!

    Perhaps this explains why a handful of _otherwise_ intelligent geologists and physicists cannot fathom climate science being anything more than most elaborate and expensive hoax conspiracy ever played on mankind by many thousands of climate scientists including all the leading ones in the world. Those that aren’t working for the mining industry already that is.

    The causation is outside anything they have considered as important for so long it just doesn’t register against their gut. Of course science is about data, a verifiable hypothesis, falsifability, peer review, and replication not gut, expert or _otherwise_ in the case of these deniers.

  • Amanda

    I’m such a maximizer it drives me mad!   Helpful I’m not alone… and to know I’m not always helping.  And thanks for the quotes from both Lehrer & Gilbrt.  I’ve read both those books but had forgotten the salient points.  Am about to make a big career transition and have been stressing about it.  Gilbert’s quote reminds me that some of my concerns are really irrelevant.

  • jkglei

    I agree, Janz. And I love that you quoted Magnum P.I.!

  • Martina McGowan

    This is interesting. I am a surgeon, and am frequently referred to as being fast, nota term I embrace, but I am efficient. My procedures go more quickly, I think because of this concept of Expert intuition. And as I have read thriugh your article, I can see that this is the way that I tend to deal with all “data.”
    It alexplains why I have difficlty with peple who drag out the process trying to get more and more information.
    Thanks…

  • ramv36

     The whole climate change debate doesn’t factor in that we are making a claim backed up by data representing a fraction of a fraction of Earth history.
    It’s like walking into a pitch black room and having the light turned on for exactly 1 second, and from that brief observation you need to tell my beyond a doubt which room in the house it was. Well, you saw a water glass, and it’s all you saw…..so based on that data, you’re convinced you are in the kitchen. Too bad that glass was on a nightstand in the bedroom that is on the other side of the house from the kitchen.
    Also keep in mind that only a few centuries ago, it was scientific FACT that the universe revolved around the Earth….and if you disagreed, they’d execute you for heresy. Much like the climate debate today, such striking similarities.

  • ramv36

     Perhaps if Steve had been a satisficer HE would have the dominate market share today (or maybe if he had catered to businesses too)

  • Faming-lips

    I’ve always wished I were a Maximicer. I guess I’m better off.

  • I'm 12 and what is this

    90% of the time, I’m happy with what I buy. I do a lot of research beforehand.  I rarely get something I wasn’t expecting.

  • Jørgen Sundgot

    Good point, although it’s difficult to argue with the market value of AAPL,
    I think. Would love to see a more business-oriented approach as well though
    – no reason that market couldn’t benefit from a good ol’ shake-up too.

  • Beth Nicol

    I tend toward Maximizer (probably not surprising since I type out as an INTP on the Meyers-Briggs scale.)… But the I’d like to try being a Satisficer more often… it would certainly preserve the mental/emotional energy for the important things! Good write up. I’ll be referring back frequently to remind myself why I don’t need to argue over what brand of laundry soap my husband buys (unless it makes me itch).

  • Young&Gullible

    All perfectionists are Maximizers. I am a perfectionist. Hence I am a Maximizer.

  • Jack McMackin

    I think this is solid information for the types of people who read this blog. Speaking generally, we are analytical, self-reflective, and focused on long term success. These tips help us avoid “paralysis by analysis”—a very real threat for anyone who seeks optimal decision making.
    However, I think we have to be really careful when we rely on our snap cognition. The fact of the matter is that this skill evolved over millennia when our needs were much more immediate (food, shelter, safety, reproduction). Now, most of us are trying to live good lives as opposed to simply make it to tomorrow.
    Our desires and intuitions can fool us, and they can also be manipulated. So I would just add a caveat to this article:
    Decision-making can and should be done quickly most of the time, but decisions still need to be made within frameworks that take into account our long term goals and aspirations, because leading the best life we can isn’t an easy task.  It takes a lifetime of doing the right thing—not just “trust[ing] our gut.”

    I develop these ideas further at TheRestInvestPost.com

  • Lis Golden McKinley

    To me, what makes someone a “maximizer”or a “satisficer” depends on the risk/reward outcome of the decision.  When the stakes are higher, I think most people are more likely to be maximizers because they don’t want to live with buyer’s remorse later. For example, wouldn’t it be likely that you are going to be a maximizer if you are deciding between contractors to do a major renovation on your home versus being a satisficer when you are deciding which ketchup to buy?

    Lis Golden McKinley
     Oakland organizer

  • Kay

    Regardless that I am a “satisficer” I know that parents could maximise their child’s health by taking the 20 minute option for shortness of breath/wheezing at night. Believe me and any asthmatic, that the wait between feeling you can’t breathe and the relief of a medication inhalation or injection, needs to be as short as possible, no matter the personalities involved. Any doctor can tell if your child is short of breath & will fix them immediately if possible. Many older children and many adults of all ages suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the repeated terror they felt that they might die when short of breath. It feels like drowning. If endured for more than a few minutes, it’s agonising and the effects can last a lifetime.

  • Essay writer

    Thank you for sharing this article. I love it.

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