Every so often someone says something that makes me go “Hmmm…” I mull it over, I digest it, I internally debate it, I ask others about it; Eventually, it changes my behaviour. This time it was part of a conversation about making decisions in business, and the key phrase, itself passed on from someone else, went something like this: “You can always make a decision, even if you don’t have all of the data yet.”
Decision making is a tricky thing. It is one of the easiest things to procrastinate over, with the standard fallback excuse:- I need to think on it some more, I don’t have enough information yet. It is a fact of life that we rarely have all the information that we might want before we have to make a decision. The Internet age means that there is always one more page that we could check out, just one more avenue of research to pursue. I’ve listened to many business discussions where the difference between two options was less than the margin of error in the figures presented. There may be millions of dollars difference between them, but if the figures (and assumptions) are only accurate to tens of millions, then you are in the business of straining out gnats while swallowing camels. At that point you may as well decide it on the toss of a coin. Even in personal decisions, it can be that way. Many times there is an unknowable thing that completely shifts the balance, so you may as well go with your gut and get on with it.
Making decisions early delivers a myriad of advantages:
- You discover your mistakes sooner. That provides more time to correct them.
- Less time lost in bouncing the decision all the time.
- You, and others, can get used to any changes, and get on with it.
- Making the decision surfaces hidden issues that you need to know about.
The hard decisions wait the longest to be made, but are usually the ones that need making the fastest. If you start down the wrong path sooner, you can correct sooner and be back on the right track sooner. If you don’t make the decision, that time is lost and an unexpected dead-line may remove any chance of rectifying a wrong decision. As new information surfaces, there is usually the option to correct as you go. Decide early to correct early.
Unmade decisions can start to flock. Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-free Productivity talks about open loops. The thought keeps flashing back in our heads, unresolved. Gradually other decisions pile up, and eventually we become paralysed by the hundreds of decisions that have to be made. Unable to think clearly, we make more mistakes. Making decisions early stops them piling up, leaving a clearer, freer mind. Decide early to decide well.
If the decision creates change, acting early gives others and yourself more time to adjust to the change. It also buys time over which to make the change more gradual, if that is needed. Decide early to have more time.
In Po Bronson’s excellent book “What Should I Do with My Life?” He tells the story of person who wanted to be a doctor. They did all of their research and found that the job was a great match for their skills. It wasn’t until started doing the doctoring that they discovered they didn’t like hanging around sick people all day. Making a decision and acting on it surfaces the hidden assumptions. Many things can only be seen where you get there, you can’t predict or second guess them. Discovering these things sooner, rather than later, gives time to overcome these hidden obstacles. Decide early to discover more.
The important comparison is not “good decision” versus “bad decision”, but more often “decision” versus “no decision”. “No decision” can have serious negative consequences in terms of time lost, stress and constant mental re-processing. Even deciding not to decide until point A is a decision. Sometimes that is all it takes to free things up, but there are many benefits to starting sooner rather than later. What has your experience been with early versus late decisions?
In short, decide earlier. You might make more mistakes, but you’ll make them more quickly with more chance to learn and more chance to correct. It isn’t foolproof, but an early decision is the right decision more often than you might expect and it is a great way to knock procrastination on the head.