Decisions shape our lives.
In the workplace, the decisions we make and execute also shape the lives of our team members, colleagues, direct reports, customers, suppliers, and even the communities in which we operate and live.
As humans, the decisions we make impact and shape the lives of our families, friends, neighbors, and communities.
Fortunately, decision making is a skill. And like all skills, it is something that can be learned, practiced, and enhanced over time.
Later in this book, I will share with you how mindfulness can help everyone overcome and manage their decision-making related fears and mistakes.
First, however, I want to share with you some critical factors that can impact and influence your decision making.
Your Decision-Making Brain
Scientists are gaining a grasp on the regions of the brain most responsible for our decision-making processes.
A study published in Cell revealed that the time it takes for the brain to create an answer to a problem correlates with the perceived difficulty of the decision and the decision-making level of cautiousness. This study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, was focused on the decision threshold, which is the brain's ability to determine the level of a task based on the perceived difficulty of the task. Interestingly, our brains infer the difficulty of a task based on the initial information available to it. From this inference, the brain assigns a specified level or degree of difficulty threshold.
Intuitively, this makes sense. One of the first tasks in any decision-making process is to determine the perceived difficulty of making a viable decision. What to order at lunch at a favorite restaurant? A pretty easy decision most of the time. What to order from a restaurant in Lisbon when the menu is printed in Portuguese? That's a higher level of difficulty, unless you are fluent in Portuguese.
This study revealed one fascinating aspect of the brain's decision-making process. Apparently, the brain makes an assessment of the difficulty of a task in one single event, based on the information it initially receives. Hence, new information obtained does not, according to this study, change the perceived difficulty threshold of the decision.
Thus, based on the information absorbed at the beginning of a task or a problem to be solved, the brain determines and sets out a decision difficulty threshold in that first instant. This directly impacts how quickly or slowly a decision will be made.
It also means, in today's world of information overload, that insufficient information getting through to the brain at the start of the decision-making process is what turns relatively straight-forward decisions into more difficult ones.
A lack of quality information getting through to the brain raises the perceived difficulty threshold and reduces the ability to make quicker decisions, even when timeliness is a critically important need.
The Oxford research did not look into how stress impacts the initial information received by the brain. However, other research strongly shows that stress directly impacts the prefrontal cortex, and thus is likely to impact the amount and quality of information reaching the decision-making regions of the brain.
We all know that emotions can hijack the brain's thinking processes. I believe it was psychologist and author Daniel Goleman who first described this as an "emotional hijacking." Scientists are now proving how this happens and validating mindfulness as an approach for preventing and managing emotional hijacking.
The brain comprises numerous, highly specialized modules, which are used for analyzing situations and preparing reactions to them. It is the interplay between these modules of the brain that determine behavior. Unfortunately, most of this interplay occurs subconsciously and automatically.
In a process that neuroscientists call pattern recognition, our brains reflexively try to counter decision-making anxieties by narrowing and simplifying our options. This attempt to find certainty in uncertain situations leads to premature conclusions based on previous approaches, preventing more and better options to surface or be considered.
In a similar way, emotional tagging in our memories sends us signals as to whether or not to pay attention to something or someone and what sort of action we should be considering. Interestingly, neurological research shows that when the parts of our brain controlling emotions are damaged, we become slow and incompetent decision-makers, even though we retain the capacity for objective analysis. We all know how it feels to make poor decisions when we are "emotionally hijacked."
Because some modules of the brain focus on gathering benefits and other modules concentrate on delivering benefits, your brain is often in conflict. Hence the issues people who are trying to lose weight face when they stumble upon the smell of freshly baked donuts. One part of the brain wants to gather the benefits derived from eating the donuts while another module is sending signals to reduce calorie consumption.
While these modules are interconnected, they are not integrated. Hence there are many so-called captains in the brain trying to assert command authority. While some people refer to the brain as being similar to a computer operating system, this really is not true. It is more like a collection of smartphone apps all opened at once and clamoring to be used. Just as a phone can only operate one app at a time (with the rest running in background mode), the brain only operates one module at a time with all the rest eagerly awaiting in standby mode.
These modules can also create conflict in emotional behavior. For instance, while giving someone a tongue-lashing over poor customer service may deliver an emotional benefit of expressing outrage, another brain module will be signaling that an angry outburst can have adverse effects on blood pressure and heart health. This is why people rarely feel satisfied and good after losing their temper.
The interplay of working memory and short-term memory also impacts the decision-making processes of the brain.
Working memory is task-oriented. This is how the brain creates interfaces and connections between the various processors of perception, attention, and memory. Working memory holds the information and associations relevant to a current task.
Short-term memory, on the other hand, is a cognitive process that allows us to store information (data, facts, words, sentences, concepts, etc.) for a short period of time. Short-term memory is associated with chunking, a concept that says most of us can remember about seven "chunks" of information for a brief amount of time.
When a task or decision requires a high cognitive load — the amount of mental processing power required to learn or process information — this puts a high burden on working memory. Tasks and decisions that tax our working memory capacity thus become harder to handle. Additionally, too much information, or incongruent and conflicting information, overloads short-term memory.
In either case, the decision-making brain starts to cough and sputter as cognitive stress takes over. Indecision and procrastination urges arise. Sometimes the overloaded brain triggers an emotional outburst or meltdown. In other circumstances, the brain defaults to relying on previous decisions and experiences, creating the "gut feelings" of how to proceed safely and securely, though not necessarily creatively or innovatively.
It does not take a scientific research study to acknowledge that cognitive stress interferes with creativity and innovation. We have all experienced episodes of mental fatigue caused by hits to our working memory and/or short-term memory capacities.
Fortunately, there is a readily available prescription for handling these episodes — pause, breathe, step back, take a short break, recalibrate, and then return to the task or decision-making process. Whether you need two minutes, twenty minutes, or even two hours for this mental medicine to work does not matter. You will make better decisions, and drive better outcomes, by pausing than by pushing on with a tired or overloaded brain.
Unfortunately, too many leaders and decision makers consider using this prescription to be a sign of weakness. They fear the hardness of their leadership shell will appear softened if they are seen needing to pause and take a mental refresh break. So instead, they chug on, often at a greater clip to mask their need for a recalibration pause, and rush headlong into making decisions under cognitive stress. Both their organizations and their own leadership personas suffer as a consequence.
Think of your brain in such situations as an overheated engine. Like the engine, your brain needs to cool down to function at optimal levels. Take the time you need if you want to make better decisions. Otherwise, your tired and overworked decision-making brain has no capability to produce anything except less-than-stellar decisions.
After all, numerous research studies have shown that we each have a limited amount of mental energy available to utilize when making decisions and choices. Thus, it is critical that important decisions — especially those that impact others — are made when mental energy levels are at full power.
This also explains why people tend to make poorer decisions later in the day than in the morning hours. It is a concept known as decision fatigue, and it is a common type of cognitive stress familiar to us all. There is a biological price to be paid for making decision after decision after decision all day long. The more choices made throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for an unrested and spent brain.
Similar to physical fatigue, the main difference is that most people are unaware of when they start to become low on mental energy. The problem gets escalated when an energy-depleted brain looks for shortcuts to its decision-making processing. One typical shortcut is to encourage impulsive actions that have not been thought through clearly (sure, go ahead and send that email, what could possibly go wrong?).
Another shortcut is to take the easy way out and do nothing. This saves the brain from further energy depletion as the need to agonize over options is put aside, either for a later time or forever. Doing nothing eases the mental strain of cognitive stress, but a decision to not make a decision is still a decision. And it is one with consequences and outcomes.
Sufficient and quality sleep also influence the brain's memory and decision-making functions. A recent study from researchers at the University of Zurich states that depriving ourselves of adequate sleep may lead to riskier decisions (casino operators have known this for years). Even worse, these researchers concluded that sleep shortcomings might even prevent us from realizing the increased risks from our decisions.
In the next chapter, we will explore some decision-making limitations that you are likely to encounter from time to time.