How to make hard decisions quickly

Painful, drawn-out decision-making has plagued me for years. In college, I was known for filling my course schedule with the maximum credit hours so I could test out as many classes as possible, only to cancel many of them at 11:59 on the last night of the Drop/Add period.

As a business owner, this same tendency holds me back, resulting in missed opportunities and intense decision fatigue. I’ve often joked about hiring someone to outsource my decision-making to—except I can’t seem to decide whom to hire.

Lately, I’ve been forcing myself to practice arriving at decisions faster by recognizing that even if I make a less-than-optimal decision, the net result is still better than dragging out the process until my mental resources are drained.

With all the uncertainty in the world right now, making decisions quickly is a skill we need to develop.

So how can we make faster decisions in business (and in life)?

I’m going to break down a few decision-making strategies I’ve found useful. But first, I want to answer the big question: What’s the advantage of speedy decision-making anyway?

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Four reasons to make fast decisions

When we have a choice to make, it can feel advantageous to take as much time as we possibly can. After all, the more time we have, the more information we can gather, right? Maybe.

There’s a point at which having more information doesn’t make for a better decision. And even worse, there are serious downsides to taking your time:

1. Delayed decision-making costs money

A McKinsey & Company survey found that less than half of managers felt their companies were making decisions in a timely manner. And that delay cost them:

“About 530,000 days of managers’ time are potentially squandered each year for a typical Fortune 500 company, equivalent to some $250 million in wages annually.”

2. Slow decision-making leaves you vulnerable to competitors 

There’s a saying in sales: “Time kills all deals”. In business, you have to move swiftly, before someone else steals your idea or customers.

In one Stanford study, faster decision-making was linked to better performance, while slow decision-making was linked to poor performance. In one case, a firm’s delay in coming to a decision caused it to eventually go bankrupt.

3. Successful people make decisions quickly; unsuccessful ones make them slowly 

After studying 500 millionaires, journalist Napoleon Hill identified one common trait: they all make decisions quickly. In his 1937 bestseller, Think and Grow Rich, Hill explains: 

“People who fail to accumulate money, without exception, have the habit of reaching decisions, if at all, very slowly, and of changing these decisions quickly and often.”

4. Slow decision-making leads to burnout 

Most people think that decision fatigue is caused by making lots of decisions, but that’s not always the case. This drain of mental resources can also occur if you remain indecisive about just one decision.

Dragging out a decision is the equivalent of mental multitasking. Your brain is constantly switching back and forth between choices, weighing its options, which leads to burnout and decreased focus.

How to make the best decision in the least amount of time

Making quicker decisions isn’t about being rash or ignorant. Instead, it comes down to having a system in place for handling decisions and rigorously following it. 

Here are a few quick decision-making strategies you can try:

1. Ignore your emotions and use a formula instead

Decision-making becomes easier when you know your values and don’t let your emotions get in the way of sticking to them. 

For example, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman recommends that if you’re hiring for a sales position before you interview anyone, create a list of six traits that are important to the role. As you interview candidates, give each a score on a scale of one to five on each trait.

In the end, tally up the scores and commit to choosing the person with the highest score, even if you feel like someone else might be a better fit.

2. Know when to stop researching and commit to a decision

Analysis paralysis can set in when you spend too much time researching options versus committing to one. But how do you know how much time is too much time spent on research?

There are a few methods out there, but my favorite is the 37% Rule or Optimal Stopping. 

According to the book Algorithms to Live By, if you stop at 37% of your search, you have a 37% chance of picking the best option. If a less-than-half chance seems dismal, keep in mind it’s still mathematically the highest chance you’ll get.

As the authors write: 

“If we were hiring at random, for instance, then in a pool of a hundred applicants we’d have a 1% chance of success. And in a pool of a million applicants, we’d have a 0.0001% chance.” 

But, if you stop optimally, you always have a 37% chance of success—whether you’ve got 10, 100, or 1 million choices!

You can also view this as a Look-Then-Leap Rule.

Spend 37% of your time looking at your options (but not committing to any). And then ‘leap’ by picking the first option that is better than any you’ve seen before.

Optimal stopping guarantees you won’t drag out a decision unnecessarily, and it ensures you’ll have the highest chance of making the best one.

3. Delegate decisions to the appropriate party 

One reason you might be having a hard time making a decision is that it’s not a choice you should be making at all.

For instance, if you’re the CEO, you don’t need to be making decisions about your company blog’s editorial calendar. The ones working closest to it (the marketing team) will have better insight to make the fastest decision.

4. Use the 5-Second Rule to activate the part of your brain that makes intuitive decisions

Created by motivational speaker Mel Robbins, the 5-Second Rule is deceptively simple. Whenever you get an instinct to move toward a goal that’s important to you, count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then take action immediately.

Now, this doesn’t work for every decision. Robbins says that “it’s not just about acting on any instinct, it’s an instinct that’s tied to a goal.”

5. Use the 2-Minute Rule to be more decisive and finish quick tasks

This decision-making strategy, proposed by David Allen in his book Getting Things Done, works for minor decisions such as making a call to a client, writing an email, or scheduling an appointment.

While it may seem overly simple, it works because it frees your brain from wasting time and energy thinking and re-thinking about trivial decisions. As Allen explained:

“When you don’t give appropriate attention to what has your attention, it’ll take more of your attention than it deserves. So, that ‘not-so-important thing,’ if you have to look at it twice, think about it twice, or five times, you just wasted your energy.”

With small decisions, sometimes, it’s best just to get it off your plate now.

A caveat about snap decisions

The fastest decisions of all, of course, are snap decisions. These are ones you make based on your intuition or a ‘gut feeling’.

But how often can you rely on such a thing?

According to Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, you can trust your intuition in remarkably few situations. Only use intuition if the decision you are about to make meets the following criteria:

  • You are given a predictable environment. The environment must be relatively stable with lots of repetition.
  • You are an expert. This means you must have logged hundreds or thousands of hours in this type of environment.
  • You will get instant feedback on your decision. The decision must grant you immediate feedback. For example, in chess or tennis, your next move will instantly let you know whether it helped. In business, however, this is rarely the case. You cannot, for instance, receive quick feedback on whether a new hire was the right choice as it takes weeks to train them before you see how they actually perform.

Many experts will talk about how they ‘just know’ a decision is the right one. Yet, self-confidence is a poor measure of the validity of intuition. Only in situations that meet the above criteria should you pay any attention to an expert with a hunch.

Three unavoidable truths about decision-making

Lastly, before you start making faster decisions, I want to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind. Here are three things you need to accept before you dive into any decision:

  1. Every decision involves a tradeoff. No matter how much you try to maximize, choosing one thing will always require that you give up something else (this is known as opportunity cost). Often, indecision is the result of us trying to have everything, which is impossible.
  2. You will sometimes be wrong. Despite our best efforts, we sometimes end up making the wrong choice. If you think you will never make a subpar decision, you think you are perfect, and perfectionism is one of the top reasons people struggle with indecision.
  3. Bad results don’t necessarily denote bad decisions. You make decisions based on the information available. Later, if that decision doesn’t play out the way you wanted it to, it doesn’t mean the decision was a bad one, it just means you can’t control everything. 

Boost your business success (and your happiness) by being more decisive

When you give in to indecision, you open up yourself (and your business) to all sorts of issues. Instead of drowning in deliberation, you need to learn how to make good decisions quickly. 

Sometimes practicing being fast with small decisions can help you build your decision-making muscle so you can do the heavy-lifting on the big ones. And remember, you’ll never be a perfect decision-maker. But as long as you approach decision-making knowing your values and with a solid strategy, you’ve done the best you can.

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