Decide How to Decide: 7 Tips to Ease Your Decision-Fatigued Brain

The first LUMAscape diagram developed by investment bank Luma Partners went viral in 2010, the year Umbel was born. Like many, I was amazed and horrified by the overcrowded, confusing and embarrassingly inefficient ecosystem that sprung up practically overnight around digital media and advertising. I hung the LUMAscape Digital Display poster on my wall at the office and stared at it like it was a train wreck, wondering why it had to be so complicated. 

Why couldn’t there be a more elegant way of connecting the advertisers on one side to their audience on the other? Why so many choices? How could marketers and publishers ever be confident that they were making great decisions about who to work with on that map? 

Umbel had just released its patented Digital Genome technology, and while we could highlight several areas where our platform would make an impact, we didn’t clearly fit into any one box on that map. That’s when we made the unofficial goal of not ever being able to “fit” on the digital display LUMAscape chart.

Then one day it hit me. It isn’t just the digital display ad industry that has so many choices and ridiculously complex paths. There could be a LUMAscape-rivaling poster for beer, toothpaste or even the typefaces I can choose from to display this word. Since Crest hit the market in 1955, there are now 353 distinct types of toothpaste our weary brains must choose from. Everywhere we turn, we are faced with a mind-boggling array of choices from which we must select and ultimately determine our destinies in both our personal and professional lives. 

“Crest hit the market in 1955. There are now 353 distinct types of toothpaste our weary brains must choose from.”

The problem with this is that our brains are simply not suited for this kind of information-packed decisionmaking on such a brutally frequent basis. We have so many options that we regularly suffer from decision paralysis, bad judgement and lack of self-control, sometimes without even realizing it.

The more complex the decisions we must make, the more brainpower they require – and the less we have left over for the next decision. As a decisionmaker in business, when you are faced with important topics, such as how you should handle the massive amount of data your customers produce, you need to be at your best. There is a great deal at stake if you make the wrong decision. Employing the wrong technology or vendor can waste a lot of money and resources, or much worse, compromise the brand relationship you’ve worked so hard to build with your loyal customers.

At Umbel, when we work with customers to make important decisions about ethically leveraging the data their customers have trusted them to use responsibly, we emphasize working with the best vendors every step of the way. Here are some science-based decision-making tips that will help you make better decisions both in your business and personal life.

1. Clearly define measurable goals

What can’t be measured, can’t be improved. Sometimes articulating the desired outcome is the hardest part of decisionmaking. Do yourself a favor and clearly document what it is you need to achieve short and/or long-term before you go through your decision-making process.

2. Recognize that your brain has tendencies and biases

As Dan Gilbert explains in this fascinating TED Talk, knowing which decision to make is simply the product of 1) the odds that this action will allow you to gain something, and 2) the value of that gain. Unfortunately, he goes on to explain that our brains are terrible at estimating both 1 and 2 because our brains have evolved for a world in which people lived in very small groups, rarely met anybody who was terribly different from themselves, and the highest priority was to eat and mate. Watch his talk for specific examples of our natural tendencies and biases that prevent good decisionmaking. If you can focus on accurately estimating odds and value, you will be equipped to make any decision better.

“If you can focus on accurately estimating odds and value, you will be equipped to make any decision better.”

3. Set a date or time to make your final decision

Sometimes not making a decision is more harmful than making an imperfect decision. With the number of variables you will likely encounter, you will never know 100% how your decision will play out. You could easily spend months or even years researching solutions to big decisions. Just keep in mind that while you’re doing all that research, your competitors may have gained an edge or you may have missed out on some lucrative, serendipitous opportunities. Nobody wins a game by sitting on the sidelines. Give yourself a deadline so that you don’t fall into a decision-coma.

4. Seek expert advice; find out what others are doing to achieve similar goals

It is unlikely that you are the first one who has ever encountered the decision you are facing. Reach out to peers and ask them how they solved similar problems. Who do they recommend? What pitfalls did they run into so that you may be able to avoid them? If you don’t have peers, ask the vendor or salesperson you are working with to connect you with referrals. This is definitely a time to leverage collective intelligence. Websites like Go2Crowd are a great resource for comparing the more mainstream business software based on customer reviews and social data. 

5. Identify alternative methods of achieving your goal

This may be obvious, but it is worth spending some creative brainstorming on non-obvious ways you can solve your problem. Perhaps it isn’t a traditional apples-to-apples comparison. For example, you might be comparing three different online survey providers to find out what your audience prefers when an alternative product could collect preferences passively from social media and behavioral tags without the need to interrupt your customer’s experience with a survey. In the early days, Mint.com’s biggest competition wasn’t Intuit or Wesabe, it was Microsoft Excel.

6. Check your gut

Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your gut. The “little brain in your stomach” has a network of over 100 million neurons that communicate with your bigger brain. Some scientists even believe they should be considered as a singular system. So, when you just feel like something is right, there is a chance that your feeling is more strategic than you believe. Between your gut and your subconscious mind, you are often making intelligent decisions without knowing it. Take time to stop and listen.

“Between your gut and your subconscious mind, you are often making intelligent decisions without knowing it.”

7. Satisfice yourself

“Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met,” wrote Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. “That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high; but as soon as they find the car, the hotel, or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. So even if they see a bicycle or a photographer that would seem to meet their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they know they’re making the best possible choice.” Satisficers have proven to be happier with their outcomes than Maximizers.

At the end of the day, you can’t expect difficult decisions to instantly become easy. However, you can follow the above guidelines to prevent decision paralysis. Know that you aren’t alone if you feel fatigued from making so many decisions day in and day out. As evidence of our prolific decision-making challenges, the website MindTools.com offers over 40 different decision-making models including “The Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision Model” that actually tells you how to decide how to decide.

Now go make a great decision!