7 Ways to Train Your Brain to Make Better Decisions
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
In January 2018, the word “hangry” was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary. The familiar mash-up of hungry and angry is defined as “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.” Most of us know the feeling — and research shows it also leads us to make riskier, more impulsive decisions.
Hanger aside, making sound decisions is an essential skill for entrepreneurs. Every day brings a tidal wave of choices, from hiring to product features to marketing plans. As the founder and CEO of JotForm, I know that decision-making is one of the toughest parts of my job. Technology and markets evolve at lightning speed, and there’s endless data to weigh with every choice.
Why we struggle to choose
You’ve probably heard the term “decision fatigue,” which happens when we exhaust our finite supply of self-control. As you go through your day and make increasingly more choices, each one becomes more difficult. Eventually, your brain goes rogue and seeks one of two shortcuts: It acts impulsively or avoids the decision entirely.
“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car,” John Tierney writes in The New York Times. “No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
As founders, we also need practical skills. Over the past 14 years, I’ve discovered that when I work with my brain, instead of fighting biology and human nature, I make better choices. Here are seven techniques that can help you to make smarter, more effective decisions.
1. Go for good enough.
If you’ve ever spent a Saturday night browsing Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and iTunes just to find a movie to watch with your significant other, you understand why more choices can actually make us unhappy. It’s a phenomenon psychologist Barry Schwartz first outlined in his 2005 book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.
According to Schwartz, you can sidestep this paradox by settling for “good enough.” As Olga Khazan writes in The Atlantic, “People who do this are called ‘satisficers’ and they’re consistently happier [Schwartz has found] than are ‘maximizers,’ people who feel that they must choose the very best possible option.”
Running a business requires a lot of big decisions. Apply your best thinking and your personal values to the essential choices. Then, settle for good enough with all the peripheral stuff.
2. Aim for speed.
In a 2016 letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told shareholders “most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases, you’re probably being slow.”
It’s easy to delay an important decision when there’s a lot on the line. Or to obsessively gather every kernel of data that could sway your choice. I’ve found that in most cases, Bezos is right. Get as much information as you need to choose wisely, and then don’t look back.
3. Imagine the worst-case scenario.
We can thank the ancient Stoics for this approach, which means visualizing major problems before they happen, then working backward to make a strong choice. For example, imagine you’re considering a product release delay. What’s the most disastrous possible outcome? If you still made the same choice, how could you prevent this scenario? Or the exercise might convince you to push ahead and release on schedule.
4. Weigh your options.
We often see choices as binary: chocolate or vanilla, left or right. In business, however, it’s rarely this simple — and most options don’t hold the same weight. As you face a tough choice, make sure both options have equal value; that they’re truly two sides of the same coin. For example, maybe option A could create a massive profit increase, while option B has a 5 percent cap. You’ll often find that one choice has far more potential, even if there are risks involved.
5. Put it on paper.
The classic pros-and-cons list exists for a reason. Getting your swirling thoughts down on paper can provide clarity. As Chris Charyk writes in Harvard Business Review, these lists promote rigorous thinking, which “minimizes the likelihood that critical factors have been missed.” They also provide some emotional distance from the decision at hand. Just watch out for cognitive biases. These common mental errors, such as anchoring, loss aversion and confirmation bias, can lead us into irrational choices.
6. Think small.
Just as entrepreneurs often create an MVP, or minimal viable product, sometimes it pays to make a minimal viable decision. Ask yourself, What’s the smallest possible decision I could make right now? For example, if you’re considering a move to Portland, don’t just pack your bags and go. Read travel blogs and stories. Talk to people who live there. Book a three-day trip and find a great co-working space.
7. Consult with people you trust.
Many of us run big decisions by trusted friends, colleagues or family members. It’s a useful step that might offer a new perspective. You can also use others’ reactions to gauge your own, subconscious instincts. For example, if a colleague agrees that you should move to Portland, and you feel encouraged and supported, you’re probably eager to relocate. If you resist their opinion, you’re likely not ready to go. Just be careful not to let other people — especially those you respect and admire — talk you into a choice that doesn’t feel right.