Get in early for best decisions

Analysis

Get in early for best decisions

Recent research has found that people are best at decision-making early in the day, and then deteriorate as the day goes on. This result suggests it is best to schedule important meetings in the morning.

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Recent research has found that people are best at decision-making early in the day, and then deteriorate as the day goes on. This result suggests it is best to schedule important meetings in the morning.
 
So when people say they are going to ‘sleep on it’ before making an important decision, they are doing the right thing.
 
We can all recount having suffered through meetings of clubs or strata body corporates where people spend hours debating topics such as which side of the building to place the garbage bins. Then, after the meeting has been going for several hours and everyone just wants to go home, they will approve large sums of money for major projects with only a few minutes debate. Some committee members possibly realise the impact of meeting and decision fatigue and plan their agendas so that matters that really should be considered in depth are set to slip through at the end with inadequate scrutiny.
 
A recent article in the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) magazine Management Today examined the issue of decision-making fatigue in detail.
 
Why mornings are better 
 
One wag once said that the human brain is an amazing thing — it starts working as soon as you wake up in the morning and doesn’t stop until you arrive at work. Seriously, most people have made a number of decisions before they start work in the morning — what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, getting children ready for school or day care, how to travel to work, etc. Yet, although the brain is active by the time they reach work, it is not yet cluttered with too many inputs and decisions to make. That process progressively occurs as the work day unfolds.
 
The AIM article quotes an organisational psychologist, Dr Amantha Imber, as claiming that when people have made many decisions in a row (eg 10+) their ability to make good decisions becomes compromised. They tend to look for the easy way out. This usually means either making the safest or ‘least risk’ decision or making an expedient decision for the sake of finishing having to deal with the matter.
 
An example of the latter is that some salespeople will attempt to sell expensive ‘extras’ only near the end of the sales transaction, and present the extras in ascending order of cost. Another example is that a recruitment manager who spends a whole day interviewing job applicants will make poorer and more expedient decisions towards the end of the day. [Editor’s comment: this is debatable, because it could also be argued that as soon as the manager has met several applicants, he/she has a better grasp of the overall standard of applicants and has gained a benchmark for more accurate comparisons. The solution may be to take the advice described below in the next section.]
 
Need to take a break
 
Imber recommends scheduling major decisions to be made before around 11 am, as much as possible. Where decisions must be made at later times, taking a break without making any choices at all is recommended because ‘decision fatigue’ is difficult to fix without giving the brain a proper rest. If you know you are going to be making an important decision at say 4 pm, schedule some rest period immediately before that time.
 
So, using again the recruitment manager example from above, he/she should not make the decision of which applicants to short-list or hire until the morning after all the interviews — better to ‘sleep on it’ first.
 
How to make better decisions
 
Making a decision involves three steps:
  1. researching possible options
  2. making the decision
  3. implementing it.
Of these, step 2 has been found to be the most tiring and stressful. So one approach could be to go through step 1 during an afternoon, then ‘sleep on it’ and actually make the decision the following morning, as per the recruitment manager scenario above.
 
Imber added that activating the unconscious mind can make it easier to make difficult decisions. Conscious decision-making involves logical steps such as drawing up a ‘for and against’ list. However, the conscious mind can only juggle a limited number (maybe 5 or 6) of issues or inputs simultaneously, which limits decision-making capacity. The unconscious mind can process greater amounts of information without becoming fatigued. Because unconscious decision-making involves processing a decision without actually thinking about it, ‘sleeping on it’ is again a recommended strategy.
 
Routine and organisation
 
Other things that tend to help with decision-making include the following:
  • having a set routine each day (eg waking up at same time and eating same things for breakfast)
  • dividing paperwork into four piles — finish (items that must be completed, eg signed); forward (items to go to someone else after processing); file (anything that you need to keep, eg contracts, instruction manuals, employee records); and flick (anything no longer required).
Avoid having ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘pending’ piles, and devote a set amount of time each day to processing each pile.
 
Further reading
 
A Birchall, ‘Split Decisions’, published in Management Today (AIM), February 2012, pp 26–7.
 
Source: Mike Toten, HR writer, prepared this summary.
 
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