The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain.  As it tires, your brain looks for shortcuts.  The 2 most common decision avoidance tactics are:

  • to act impulsively (without seeing the consequences of the decision)
  • to procrastinate (do nothing)

Taking decisions takes willpower.  Willpower is a form of mental energy that can be exhausted. It is like a muscle that gets fatigued with use.

There are a limited number of good decisions that one can take in a day.  You might be a more effective decision maker than those around you, but you will still have a finite limit on the number of good decisions you can take in a day.

Decision Fatigue for Leaders

How do you Ration your decision making?

In the toughest days of my life as a CEO – dealing with the fallout from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the collapse in bank lending at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, I hit my limits of decision fatigue.  In order to get through the weeks and have energy to deal with the things that would allow us as a business to get through these tough times, I rationed my decision making.

The first step was to specify when and where I would take decisions.  (Initially… when: on a Friday; where: only in my office).  Previously my team would approach me at any time in the day, over coffee, over lunch, via email, via sms to request budget for small projects or permission to do some new activity.  I felt responsable as leader for providing an immediate answer.  It was killing me and leaving me with no energy to dedicate to building our future once we survived the immediate crisis.

“That’s great, bring it on Friday…”

I decided that I would take all budget decisions on a Friday between 9-12.  If someone came to me with a request, I learnt to say “that’s great, bring it on Friday and we can take a decision”.  It was hard at first, people were frustrated and angry and didn’t like my lack of willingness to engage at the time and place that they wanted.  Over the following months, the people around me learnt to plan ahead and bring the information necessary to take a good decision on the Friday before they needed the decision.

It gave me peace at lunchtimes, in the break area, even in my office when someone opened the door on a Tuesday.   It was a challenge to remove my sense of responsibility to decide at all moments.  I learnt to be able to have a conversation where I could contribute ideas, but allow it to be clear that no final decision would be taken during this discussion.

When One decision is not really One decision…

My wife realised that one of her struggles with going to the gym is that it was never just one single decision.  Each trip to the gym was a series of decisions: do I change at home or at the gym? do I shower at the gym or at home?  will I eat there or not?  which t-shirt will I bring? which trainers will I use today? which bag will I use?  As the idea of gym came up, her brain knew that it would be exhausted by the series of 20 decisions.  Her solution?  She wrote down all the questions that she used to ask herself and wrote the answers.  She make going to the gym become one simple decision, with a written template of pre-decided answers (shower=yes, trainers=blue, eat=there…)

In Vistage one of the first processes of change that we see in a new CEO member, is a greater awareness of which decisions they should be taking and which decisions they should not be taking.

Are you taking €10,000 decisions, €100 decisions or €1 decisions?  

If you are taking the €1 decisions, your brain’s decision willpower will be depleted before lunchtime.

If you are taking the €1 decisions, your €10,000 decisions will not be receiving the analysis and impact that they deserve.

Jack Welch spoke about the size of decisions that he allowed himself to be taking.  GE is a multi-billion business.  As leader Jack allowed himself to only be taking decisions that could affect at least $50M of the market capitalisation.  

Steve Jobs is famous for having a wardrobe full of identical blue jeans and black t-shirts.  It was not a fashion decision, it was a conservation of decision willpower for the important decisions of Apple.  Barrack Obama speaks about a similar challenge as President of the USA.  He set up a structure around him that ensured that he would take no more than 5 important leadership decisions in a day.

The Structure of Leadership Decision Making

The Vistage Decision Model captures 60 years of experience of working with CEOs as they take operational and strategic decisions to lead their companies and their lives.  There are 3 levels of Decision “skill” – Instinct, Judgement and Perspectives.  There are 5 areas of leadership decision: Talent, Operations, Financials, Customers and Leadership Style.

The Vistage Decision Model

Learn More about the Vistage Decision Model

Over on the Inc blog there is an article titled 20 Executives Share Lessons They Wish They Could Have Told Their Younger Selves.  I share my top 4 from the full list, in the order that I think they are important.

The most relevant for me was number 9, not for the “decide issues quickly” but for “figure out what typically slows down your decision making and find ways to work around it”.  I took some time to reflect…

What slows down my own (business) decision making?

…this is a brain dump of thoughts that come to me now…

  1. Fear of being wrong
  2. Fear of a better idea coming up tomorrow when we have already committed to this course
  3. Feeling like I have to figure out all the implementation details now rather than allow them to be decided when they become necessary.
  4. Feeling like I need to have a really good explanation of my decision that will impress others and have them see me as a “decisive visionary leader”
  5. Feeling like I have to be 100% sure
  6. Feeling like I should speak to a few more people and get their inputs first
  7. Worrying that I have messed up similar decisions in the past (particularly people decisions)
  8. Not seeing the costs of delaying the decision (both financial, and that it then hangs on my mind while I wait to actually commit to a decision)
  9. Not being systematic about the approach to taking decisions
  10. Not distinguishing between small decisions and big decisions and having a clearly different process for each
  11. Not trusting myself to figure out how to make it work down the road
  12. Not stopping to clarify exactly why the decision is important and how it relates to my vision and purpose

What slows down your decision making?

Here’s the four lessons from the article that I found most valuable and important to me right now.  Numbers are from the Inc Article, Bold text is my own addition…

9. Maximize your time.

“The fastest way to maximize your time is to decide issues quickly. If you need to speed up your decision making, figure out what typically slows down your decision making and find ways to work around it. Pass responsibilities down as far as your people are comfortable. This is another way of speeding up your decision making, by giving others power to decide. You’ll often find that this motivates your employees, building their confidence and enthusiasm, and over time they will gradually accept more responsibility. Clarify your company’s vision, so everyone on the team intuitively understands when projects should be prioritized.”

Jesse Robbins, founder and CEO of Orion Labs, an enterprise voice platform which secured $18.25 million last fall to expand its next-generation of services to the broader speech and voice recognition market, on track to be worth $18.3 billion by 2023

If you want to explore more about taking better decisions quickly, you could continue reading How to Choose in Life Decisions and Agonizing over Decisions.

1. You don’t have to be strong all the time.

“It’s OK to be vulnerable. In high school and college, I spent a lot of time learning to be mentally strong, which can be a good thing, since resilience will wear down mountains given time. However, you don’t have to be strong all the time. Tell people when you don’t know, and when you’re worried. You’d be amazing how much help you’ll get, and how much of a connection that creates.”

Mike Tuchen, CEO of Talend, a provider of cloud and big data integration solutions which saw its stock rise nearly 60 percent over the past year

If you want to explore more about leading as a real human being, you could continue reading Freedom is not Fun and 17 Personal Habits for a Fulfilling Life.

3. You need people who question your beliefs.

“CEOs need people around them who are going to question their fundamental beliefs. These people should test and push, so CEOs are forced to question the decisions that they’re making and plan for the inevitable ups and downs that building a company will bring. If you surround yourself with coaches, prodders, and different thinkers, you will create a feedback loop that will fundamentally change your view of the world and make you a better leader.”

Gordon Ritter, founder and general partner of Emergence Capital, an enterprise cloud venture firm which was recently named Venture Capital Firm of the Year by the National Venture Capital Association

If you want to explore more about getting good feedback for your growth, you could continue reading Accepting Feedback and Managing Oneself.  

You should also check out Entrepreneurs Organisation, Young Presidents Organisation or Vistage as these organisations will help you find a group of peers who can challenge your beliefs and inspire you to be the best that you can.

18. Speak up.

“The one thing I wish my younger self knew was how to find a balance between acting smart and expressing achievements without hesitation. Stereotypes of women’s behavior can dominate perceptions, and as a woman in a male-dominated, STEM-related field, I’ve learned how to take a seat at the table and deliver my message so that it’s heard and respected.”

Chris Mackey, CEO of MackeyRMS, a research management platform for investment professionals that has taken no outside capital/funding, with clients on its platform managing over $1 trillion in assets

If you want to explore more about speaking up, you could continue begin my free 10 week program Speaking as a Leader and Five and a half reasons why you should start a blog today.

The human condition: to be aware that we are free to take decisions and that these decisions can turn out to be poor choices.

It is normal to suffer and regret decisions.

Nobody has an anxiety-free life: not even in the movies, not even in romantic songs.  Alain de Botton shares a wise insight into existential crises in this School of Life video.

Learning to Accept Myself as I am

Wisdom is to accept that we do what we do and that is enough.  Even if I don’t do my best, it is the best that I could deliver at that time and that moment.  We can learn from poor decisions, but we get nothing from the emotion of regretting past decisions and we get nothing from the emotion of anxiety over current decisions.

My father takes decisions very quickly.  He has the attitude that he will change direction tomorrow if he is wrong, but he will not wait to take a decision.

Maybe I only see the outside of my father – maybe inside he does face anxiety and frustration at himself for not doing better to get prepared for something.  He does a good job of hiding it.

I feel like I spent far too long in agonising worry over decisions.  I should take a direction more quickly, but also be open to reversing the decision tomorrow.  (As some that know me well will attest: I am poor at accepting that I am wrong).

To be wrong is to have learnt something new.  If I take a decision now, and tomorrow I realise it was wrong for me – this new wisdom could only come because I had taken the decision.

What about you?

Are you good at taking decisions?  Are you good at dealing with anxiety?  I’d love to hear how you approach decisions and deal with yourself.

 

I was watching a few Charlie Munger speeches recently – Warren Buffett’s partner in leading Berkshire Hathaway.

Charlie talks a lot about “Inverse Thinking”…

The Inverse Thinking Process

charlesmunger-e1414163720430-1940x1091What is Inverse Thinking?  Charlie says it is helpful to turn a question on its head.  If you want to know what would improve the situation of India, ask what would make India worse?  You can apply this to most situations:  If you want to know what would improve your life, ask what would make your life worse?  If you want to know what would improve schools, ask what would make schools worse?

Charlie does provide his answer to how to make life worse.

Charlie’s Recipe for a Miserable Life

His answer:  The perfect path to a miserable failure of a life is combining:

  1. Sloth and
  2. Unreliability

Another of Charlie’s particular questions he asks himself is how to keep from fanatical ideology?  He sees that human beings are so open to self-deception that we must (yes even you) all be on the lookout for our own beliefs that have become fanatical.

Charlie’s Recipe to Keep From Fanaticism

Can you state the arguments against your position as well as your opposition?  If you can state the arguments against your position as effectively as the opposing camp, then you can allow yourself to feel that you are not being fanatical.

Charlie on the Danger of Perverse Incentives

Be careful about being in situations that motivate unhappy behaviour.  Are the incentives in the systems in which you operate motivating behaviours that make you a better person, or a worse person.  Be careful if you think your answer is “neutral”…

Charlie on the Danger of Perverse People

Don’t work for those who you do not admire.

Never.

It will damage you.

Charlie Munger speaking at USC Graduation

There is one random quote that stuck with me from Charlie:

“Hope is not necessary to persevere” Frederick the Great

There… those are my thoughts for this Sunday afternoon 😉  It is now time to head to the Camp Nou for FC Barcelona’s game against Espanyol…  key for the league, and the Barcelona derby!

I remember a question that was asked to Warren Buffett.  “What tips would you give to someone who wished to make money?”

He suggested that there were no simple tips, but then finished by saying “the best way to make money is to stop losing money.”

When you begin in improving your decision making, rather than focussing on becoming brilliant…  it is better to avoid really dumb decisions.

To be richer, first start by stopping making yourself poor.

Are there still areas where you are trying to be brilliant, but haven’t removed your stupid old habits?

I’m in London tomorrow and Friday.  Hope you have a good rest of the week.