This is an article I almost did not write. The day I planned to do it I had two slightly more technical pieces, one for a business magazine I write for and one for a social media website. This article was third in line and the moment I started writing it, it became almost impossible to put together. Having written almost 3,000 words prior to it you’d think it was late in the day and I was tired. Not true.
This was a rare occasion when I had slept plenty the night before. I had started the day feeling fully focused and with all three articles mapped out. Then, three hours into the day, here I was. Struggling with something which to me should be as easy as breathing. I doodled, I wrote about two hundred words, then erased them. I played around with email and answered two. I made a few notes, I thought about the research this piece had been triggered by. I checked Twitter and responded to a couple of requests for information. I read the research again and then I knew. I knew why I could not write this and the research that had triggered it was key to it.
Much of my blog is about finding ways to use theory and hypotheses to create practical tips which work. I believe the web is about making practical gains so now I will apologise in advance because the post, in execution, became much longer and a little different to what I had anticipated, though the reasons for it are useful and will probably help you more than the quick-fire advice I had planned to begin with.
The research is from a book by New York Times science columnist, John Tierney, called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. You can read a little about it here and here and I urge you to spend the time reading each piece as there is a slightly different focus in each.
Tierney cites original research which shows that the brain has a finite capacity for making decisions which can be depleted without us ever being aware of it. The net result of that depletion, often called by neuropsychologists ‘Decision Fatigue’, is that the quality of your decisions suffers after a while, like when you have to make three or more complicated ones in a row, or you procrastinate without reason and avoid making any.
What the research has demonstrated is that the moment the available energy is depleted the brain becomes incapable of operating well and its decision-making process suffers. I am oversimplifying here for the sake of clarity, the discovery however has incredibly important ramifications when it comes to running your business better, running your life better and even, creating processes which help online and offline visitors to your business convert into customers.
Routine Is Important for Making Important Business Decisions
We tend to laugh, sometimes, at those who fall into a kind of comfortable routine, like starting the day with a coffee and the business news and then going on to deal with email, but the research suggests that by having a structured day where the true surprises are true emergencies, we become better at actually dealing with the unexpected. By conserving our mental energy for those emergencies when we truly need it we ensure that it is available to us, when it counts.
In the electronic age it is important to remember that you are in the driver’s seat all the time. From deciding when to update your website to laying out a content creation strategy or a general direction for its development and forging online alliances with bloggers and other online companies, you are constantly being called upon to make decisions and whether you know it or not, an unstructured approach to this will reduce your effectiveness, leave you feeling mentally exhausted and will increase the risks you are willing to take (which online can be quite large and potentially catastrophic if you get it wrong) or lock you up in decision paralysis where the task facing you will loom larger and larger and you will simply be unable to decide.
I have been present in business meetings which overran by a couple of hours because the issues which they needed to cover were so important and I can honestly say that the decisions made in those meetings were much poorer than what they would have been had we stuck to the original timetable and simply decided then. Because I was part of them I can report that as the time wore on and the options were bandied back and forth and examined from any angle, rather than actually refine the process and find the best one available to us, I (and I suspect many of the others who took part) felt that we just had to decide now and almost any option would do as long as the decision was made.
Considering that the meetings were held to decide the fate of employees and the course of companies whose turnover was in the millions it now seems incredible that we actually went about it in such ill-prepared ad-hoc way. But that is exactly the point the research makes. Once you are caught up in Decision Fatigue you are actually incapable of realising it. Unlike any other muscle your brain does not give signals of fatigue. It simply keeps on working though its processes are impaired.
Forewarned means forearmed however. I have, mostly through experience, developed a set of tips which help make better business decisions in almost any situation.
How to Make Better Business Decisions in Meetings
- Make sure you have an agenda.
- Have a chair for the meeting and respect their guidance.
- Stay within the agenda.
- Anything outside the agenda for the meeting, shelve for later.
- Never have a meeting which is more than 90 minutes long.
- Stay within the agreed time limits for the meeting.
- Do not give the limelight to anyone at the meeting.
- Respect other people’s time at the meeting.
- Ask only on-topic questions.
- Minute everything at the meeting.
- Finish the meeting with a summary.
- Agree what goes on the agenda for any follow-up meetings necessary.
How to Make Better Business Decisions Online
- Assess the important issues early in the day.
- Allocate yourself no more than an hour to deal with everything.
- Do not load your To-Do list with back-to-back decisions to get through.
- Take a break and let your mind relax every three-four hours.
- If something is really troubling you deal with it first or put it off until you ready to deal with it. Your mind works on it in the background even if you are not fully aware of it.
- Put things in your To-Do list but do not make the list a sword hanging over your head, use it instead like a guide to your day.
- Structure your day so that there is some routine in it. Online each day can be truly different. That’s great if you are surfing the web looking for new and exciting things, but it works against you in your online business decision making.
- Have a safety valve. Mental work can be taxing without you realising it. If you do not have some kind of outlet the law of diminishing returns where you put in more and more effort for fewer and fewer results, will set it and become the norm.
- Connect with like-minded people. Online work is often lonely and sometimes isolated. Have a hangout (Skype, email or online chat) where you can just chew the fat.
- Take time to assess your decision. In the offline world there are, usually, more than one set of eyes involved in the scrutiny of your decisions and they act as a natural safeguard. Online you are often the only boss which makes it imperative to assess your decisions a lot more closely.
- Use chocolate, or sugar or carbohydrates or anything which will work. Online work has enabled us to burn the midnight oil and work across timezones and deep into the night. If there is something you have to do and there is no way you can put off the decision making process, at least be aware that your brain will need fuel to actually help you use it better. Braving it through is not really a solution as more effort will go into making you take a decision than the quality of the decision itself.
- Do not be obstinate. If you have made a decision which is not delivering the results you expect (and online the metrics and feedback can be pretty fast), recant, re-examine and try again.
How Not to Use the Research Data to Affect the Decision Making Process
Having data which determines how the brain make’s decisions is not always as great as it may at first sound. For a start it can lead to temptations which will backfire. While shops and department stores can use this kind of data to present those who visit them with choices designed to break down their willpower to resist, the same thing online can lead to disastrous results.
Here’s what to avoid and why:
- Do not overload your website. I know we place tremendous store by conversion forms and sign-up lists and interactive banners but these tend to overload the eye which in turn excites the brain. Visual stimuli which produce too much excitement in the brain are translated as a sense of unease, confusion and anxiety with a website, which in turn translates to a click away from it.
- Do not harass your visitors. The department store experience where every level is loaded with offers and every high-visibility corner translates into a purchase choice you have to make in order to look better/thinner/richer does not translate at all well online. Constant pop-up forms which ask online visitors to make a decision so that they do not miss out on the XYZ opportunity only serve to piss them off in which case they will click away.
- Do not make them jump through hoops. Online visitors come to your website out of a billion others because they are looking for something specific. You need to try and make this as easy to find as possible. Very recently I came across a website whose white paper available to download looked pertinent to something I was researching. Unfortunately they asked me to subscribe to two email lists and then fill out a full profile before they could send me a link to download it. The fact that I had to go through all that and still wait before I could get the download I needed convinced me to simply click away. I found another way to get the data I needed and though it took longer I was OK with it because I did not have to do the online equivalent of a performing seal in order to be ‘rewarded’ with some data.
Bottom line: Knowing how business decision are made by the brain is only as good as the use you put the knowledge to. Be aware of the pressures which you face on a daily basis and develop ways to help you improve. Put the knowledge to use in ways which help your online visitors to make better use of their time and then you’ll be on a winner.
Since this article was written I've written two in-depth books which help you exercise better judgement and making better decisions:
For better business strategy and choices consider: The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions
For a better understanding on what guides your personal behavior, choices and decisions check out: Intentional: How To Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully