How To Exercise Your Decision Making Muscle

“Sometimes it’s easier to gain traction once you slow the spinning wheels.” ― Curtis Tyrone Jones

April 15, 2020 ~ Written by: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner

Approx. Read Time: 11 Minutes

Decision Making

“Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” – Mark Twain

We can’t think of any phenomena that so closely integrates neuroscience and business (per the Business Brain Model) than that of decision making – evidenced by the fact that we have posted some 45 articles on this topic to date. Specifically, the focus of this article is on the hub of decision making – the analysis and the related complication – “analysis paralysis”. Incidentally, a Google search of “analysis paralysis” shows no less than 1,330,000 resources.

Format

The assorted points referenced above cover several important ideas – at least to some degree. Herein, however, we have included a few different perspectives on the challenge of avoiding analysis paralysis ranging from simple heuristics to a “training program”. We’ve also included simple summaries on analysis as highlighted within previous articles.

Rationale

“Too much knowledge and analysis can be paralysis.” – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Author Becky Kane (#2) sets the stage, as follows:

“Psychologist Barry Schwartz who coined the phrase “Paradox of Choice” to describe his consistent findings that, while increased choice allows us to achieve objectively better results, it also leads to greater anxiety, indecision, paralysis, and dissatisfaction. In addition, the author cites  a 2010 LexisNexis survey that showed on average, employees spend more than half their workdays receiving and managing information rather than using it to do their jobs!”

woman at work

Implications

“I don’t reject caution, but you also have to be careful about caution because there’s a stage when it turns into paralysis.” – Yair Lapid

Here are four not-so-obvious ways that the same author describes as evidence that overthinking your decisions is holding you back. The following is an excerpt for her aptly named The Science of Analysis Paralysis: How Overthinking Kills Your Productivity & What You Can Do About It.

1. Overthinking lowers your performance on mentally-demanding tasks

  • If the ability of working memory to maintain task focus is disrupted, performance may suffer.
  • Researchers think that both anxiety and pressure generate distracting thoughts about the situation that take up part of the working memory capacity that would otherwise be used to complete the task.

2. Overthinking kills your creativity

  • Essentially, the less the participants thought about what they were drawing, the more creative their drawings were.

blank notebook

3. Overthinking eats up your willpower

  • You can think of willpower as a muscle. The more you use it, the more it wears out, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

4. Overthinking makes you less happy

  • “Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met; when they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied.”
  • In contrast, “Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.”

It seems like Kane could end up in analysis paralysis about analysis paralysis?

Illustrations of the Heuristic Approach

“Action based on hope just felt better than the paralysis of certainty.” – Christopher Moore

There are certain rules of thumb that people resort to in an effort to avoid analysis paralysis:

  • Jeff Boss (#1) suggests the following:
    1. Set a “drop dead” date
    2. Get a sanity check
    3. Curb your curiosity
    4. Recognize that the moons will never align. Remember, just because you arrive at one conclusion doesn’t mean you can never adapt to a new one
    5. Stair step your decisions
  • Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. (#4) has a similar list:
    1. Recognize when AP is kicking in
    2. Decide how important the problem is
    3. Be alert to perfectionism
    4. Stop walking on eggshells
  • Finally – Becky Kane, who was cited earlier also offers several rules from which we have selected the ones we know work (from personal experience) centering around time management: 
    1. Structure your day for the decisions that matter most
    2. Set a deadline and hold yourself accountable
    3. Get out of your own head and talk it out with someone else

In closing – we have often resorted to the well known trick of Richard Branson: “Start before you feel ready.”

Similarly, in the words of Einstein: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Training for the Challenge

“Routine is not organization, any more than paralysis is order.” – Arthur Helps

Finally, for those convinced that it is worth being a bit more proactive in dealing with this challenge, we cite: How to Make an Important Decision by Donalee Markus, Ph.D. (#3)

checklist

Within the context of avoiding “analysis paralysis” the author describes “context free progression exercises” amongst the salient points from the paper we quote:

  • We don’t always get all the information as a complete set—we get fragments here and other pieces there, and they often look at things from different angles.
  • We must be able to quickly search for and prioritize information as well as swiftly identify relationships among sometimes disparate ideas. If we can’t, we are stuck in analysis paralysis.
  • Content-free progression exercises contain so many complex variables that the brain cannot discern (much less apply or habituate) a pattern without carefully analyzing and documenting these relationships. Thus habitually force us to identify the explicit change and to reframe how we characterize the change.
  • The changes go beyond simple color or placement and require more abstract thinking.
  • We can see that something has been removed or disappeared— and something has changed place.

Having summarized these – the real essential value of this reference is the illustration of these progression exercises so we encourage you to go to the source.

She concludes with what seems like a logical overview:

  • You just have to figure out the rules and how they apply in each situation.

Relevant Business Brain Model Articles

The following represents a small cross section of the almost 50 blogs on the Business Brain Model that seem to be particularly relevant:

Topic/Title Salient Points
1. Pattern Recognition and its Role in Decision Making “Applied pattern recognition draws upon a more holistic, intuitive or gestalt awareness in accurate and effective usage? If so, then the ability to troubleshoot, problem-solve and spot issues and resolve them very well, broadly conceived as pattern recognition, is a key ability or capability to cultivate in doing anything well.”
2. Deciding How to Decide to Make Decisions

In his TED Talk, Sebastian Wernicke looks at the application of data analysis to predict the future and in so doing he raises two points:

  • Computer/data analysis is particularly good at taking vast amounts of data apart and analyzing it.
  • However, the brain remains the best tool when it comes to putting it back together again.
3. 10 Paradoxes that Will Bite You in the Ass (1st in Series) As is always our objective – the takeaway is simple: responsible decision making (especially in business) involves (1) an awareness of the ‘facts’ that seem to be irrefutable and (2) a balance between the polar positions.
4. TPN vs. DMN – Brain Structure and Mindfulness

A review of the literature shows some of the physical effect on the brain:

  • Prefrontal Cortex: executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation.
  • Connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.
  • Enhanced connectivity between brain regions.
5. Are we as dumb as we think we are?

In sharp contrast to earlier posts on cognitive biases, thinking errors and other shortcomings that I have flagged – this one is more a celebration of how special the human mind is:

  • Generating rich inferences from sparse data.
  • Possessing basic instincts for statistical information.
  • Recognizing causal relationships based on circumstances.

Bibliography

  1. Jeff Boss – How To Overcome The ‘Analysis Paralysis’ Of Decision-Making
  2. Becky Kane – The Science of Analysis Paralysis: How Overthinking Kills Your Productivity & What You Can Do About It
  3. Donalee Markus, Ph.D. – How to Make an Important Decision
  4. Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. – Do You Have Analysis Paralysis?

Additional relevant Business Brain Model articles:

  1. Pattern Recognition and its Role in Decision Making
  2. Decision Making: A New Approach to Groupthink
  3. Deciding How to Decide to Make Decisions
  4. Our View of the World is Misleading – Part 2
  5. 10 Paradoxes that Will Bite You in the Ass (1st in Series)
  6. How Embodied Is Your Cognition -What is principle
  7. Thaler Explained Why It Makes Sense That Things Don’t Make Sense
  8. Body & Brain: Part Three – Is Your Gut the Most Important Part of Your Brain?
  9. Thinking Errors: Part Four – Arming Yourself in the Battle with Your Mind
  10. TPN vs. DMN – Brain Structure and Mindfulness
  11. Are we as dumb as we think we are?
  12. Thinking Errors: Part Three – A Field Guide to Thinking Errors

About the Author: W.B. “Bud” Kirchner is a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist with more than 50 years of business success. He is not a scientist or an academic but he does have a diversified exposure to neuroscience, psychology and related cognitive sciences. Generally speaking, the ideas he expresses here are business-angled expansions of other people’s ideas, so when possible, he will link to the original reference.