Have you ever left a phone charger behind in a hotel room even though you carefully looked before checking out? Returned from grocery shopping only to remember you forgot the milk? Operated on someone, sewed them up, and then realized you left a sponge inside? (Oops, wrong profession.) Given a closing argument without having introduced a key piece of evidence?
When this kind of thing happens in the context of an important decision, you may pay a stiff penalty. And forgetfulness is just one of many glitches that get in the way of good choices.
Decisions Are Projects to Be Managed
My previous post, “Are You a Good Chooser?,” encouraged you to be mindful about choices and to regard them as projects that deserve careful management. Here are three more recommended practices.
1. Acknowledge your fallibility. If you think you’re a good decision-maker, you’re probably overconfident. Like forgetfulness, human overconfidence is widespread. (And being “decisive” doesn’t mean you’re making good choices.) We make mistakes all the time.
Psychologists have identified dozens of decisional fallacies that beguile us. For example, there is the “diagnostic bias”: once we label something, we resist contradicting evidence. We give disproportionate weight to aspects of a situation that spring easily to mind (“availability”). We latch onto mentioned quantities, even if irrelevant (“anchoring”). We react differently when the exact same choice is presented in terms of avoiding a loss rather than realizing a gain (“framing”).
So a first step is to recognize how easy the world makes it to choose poorly. Acknowledge your fallibility. Be on guard. Adopt a humble interior even if you feel the need to project a confident exterior. As Richard Feynman said, “the most important thing is to not fool yourself. And you’re the easiest person to fool.”
2. Know what you’re dealing with. Different kinds of decisions require different approaches. So to choose well you need to cultivate situational awareness. Identify and characterize the choice at issue. What are its basic parameters?
A significant choice can be a complex phenomenon. Multiple people and interests are typically in play. What’s the cast of characters? There will be one or more deciders, and often helpers and other would-be influencers. What role are you playing? Chooser? Counselor? Advocate?
Then there are the main moving parts — the options among which someone is choosing, the factors that differentiate them, and the evaluative perspectives people bring to the table.
Varieties of decisional experience abound. Make a habit of characterizing your choices.
3. Get out of your head. Evolution did not equip us with a particularly robust mental apparatus for balancing more than a couple of factors at a time. Making reason-based choices in nontrivial cases is an unnatural act. Civilization fortunately supplies some artificial aids.
Simply standing back and reflecting on a decision can improve it. But expressing it in an external medium like a yellow pad or white board can surface unspoken considerations and trigger insights. Some find Microsoft Word tables and Excel spreadsheets helpful for keeping track of the contending factors and trade-offs.
I’ve developed the crazy idea of representing choices as intangible devices that can be shared online for collaborative deliberation, using interactive visualization. See “‘Boxing’ Choices for Better Dispute Resolution” for an overview of this approach in one context (conflict management), in the “International Journal of Online Dispute Resolution.”
Another way to get out of your head is to enlist an outsider. Consider engaging a choice facilitator who’s not directly involved in the substance of your decision.
You have choices about how to make choices. Choose wisely.
Marc Lauritsen, author of “The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools,” is president of Capstone Practice Systems and of Legal Systematics. He’s a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and co-chairs the American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force. Follow him on Twitter @MarcLauritsen.
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