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May 10, 2021

Need to make a difficult decision? Don't believe these 11 myths.

Daily Briefing
    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on May 10, 2022.

    When faced with a complex decision, many of us fall into counterproductive behaviors that impair our ability to make well-informed choices. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Cheryl Einhorn, founder and CEO of decision sciences company Decisive, dispels 11 myths about decision-making—and offers tips on how to avoid making these common mistakes.

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    11 myths about decision-making—debunked

    1. You need to be efficient.

    Many people think being efficient means "jumping right in and making a decision," but that's not true, Einhorn writes. Instead, you need to take time to clearly define the problem you're solving so as to avoid rushing and making "a decision based on the wrong factors, which ultimately will lead to regret."

    2. You can put off a decision because you're too busy.

    "Putting off a decision is a decision in and of itself," Einhorn writes. If you're busy, make sure to slow yourself down to clarify the issue you need to address—that way, you won't waste time later revisiting a poorly made decision.

    3. You just need to solve the present problem.

    Focusing solely on the current problem is an example of "losing the forest for the trees," Einhorn writes. Always remember that problems have a context surrounding them. If you keep your focus narrow, you could either solve the wrong problem or only partially solve the actual problem.

    4. You don't need to involve anyone else in your decision.

    Every decision you make involves other stakeholders, Einhorn writes—and failing to recognize this "can, at best, only partially solve the problem, and may exacerbate it."

    5. You know the right answer, you just need data to back it up.

    This type of thinking, known as confirmation bias, has led to a number of famous failures—such as the NASA Challenger explosion and the Bay of Pigs—in which "disconfirming data was available," but no one raised a red flag, Einhorn writes. Instead of falling victim to confirmation bias, "look for contrary examples and evaluate rival explanations" as these can "prevent 'frame blindness'" and "keep you from seeing what you want to see rather than what may be present."

    6. Trust your instincts.

    If you only rely on your gut, you can end up making a decision based on "bias and faulty memory," Einhorn writes. Instead of relying on your instincts, you should make a decision by "prying open cognitive space to allow for new information and insight."

    7. Making decisions is a linear process.

    In fact, Einhorn writes, decision-making is a circular process, one that requires "a feedback loop as we gather information and analyze it and our thinking." Sometimes that means going back over information to find things we may have missed, or gather new data, or perform a different analysis.

    8. You can keep all your ideas together in your head.

    If you try to keep all the different pieces of information you have in your head, you'll end up "relying on a faulty memory and a distracted mind," Einhorn writes. Your emotions can also influence your decision-making this way, which can lead to biased thinking. Instead, be sure to keep an external record of your thinking so as track your rationale, she writes.

    9. You've got all the information you need.

    It may be tempting to push forward, but decisions are made better by investing in research and "confronting assumptions with evidence," Einhorn writes. Looking to experts to gain knowledge "can help you make an educated decision that's also right for you."

    10. You're able to make a rational decision.

    Despite what we may think, humans are not rational beings, Einhorn writes. "We all operate through a dirty windshield of bias based on past experiences and feelings," and it's important to acknowledge that.

    11. There's only one path forward.

    There are always multiple ways to get a "yes," Einhorn writes. "We've been conditioned out of listening to other voices, siloed in our information, environment, and social (media) circles. But getting outside your routines and patterns leads you to seeing things differently."

    How to avoid falling into these behaviors

    One of the best ways to avoid falling into any of these behaviors is to take a "time-out" in your decision-making, Einhorn writes. Pausing yourself can "empower you to check and challenge your biases, consolidate your knowledge, include others, and enable you to decide whether to pivot and move in a new direction or stay the course before accelerating again," she writes.

    When you take one of these pauses, Einhorn advises you ask yourself five questions:

    1. Which myth am I relying on to make this decision?
    2. How will the decision I'm making move me toward my goals?
    3. Are my feelings about the decision related to what's going on, or are they reflecting my learned patterns of behavior?
    4. What information could help my decision-making?
    5. How can I better understand how others involved in the decision view it?

    Engaging in this questions as you think over the decision you have to make will help you "see past decision-making myth 'trees' and beyond the 'forest' of biases that they rely upon, improving your decision-making skills" (Einhorn, Harvard Business Review, 4/20).

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