Make Fewer Decisions

WARNING: The following is real security camera footage and it is truly horrible.

In August of 2010, while visiting a shopping center in Daejon, South Korea, a 40 year-old wheelchair-bound man identified only as Mr. Lee just missed an elevator when the doors closed on him a moment too soon (as shown above). Angered at his misfortune, Lee backed up his motorized chair and rammed into the elevator doors. Unsatisfied at merely denting the object of his rage, Lee backed up and acted as human battering ram again. He “succeeded” this time, crashing through the doors and plunging to his death. Not surprisingly, shopping center officials vowed to strengthen the doors of their elevators in order to protect future morons.

If you’re like most people, you probably aren’t sure whether it’s appropriate to laugh at Lee’s stupidity or simply to despair at the loss of life (as well as the depth and extent of human stupidity). While most are not as flagrant as this one, it isn’t hard to find myriad examples of poor decision-making among the ranks of humankind. We make many such mistakes ourselves, even though we may not remove ourselves from the gene pool for having done so.

Our tendency towards poor decisions is a subject I write about often, even if and as our ability to overcome the behavioral and cognitive foibles and biases that so readily beset us is more than a little limited. Proposed remedies (or at least ameliorators) include implementing better choice architecture (such as slowing down and avoiding distractions), building better processes (checklists, for example), and cultivating a support system willing, able and eager to point out one’s errors. But even when we recognize our inherent weaknesses as a species, we tend to think that we’re somehow immune individually and readily discount the advice of those who suggest that we might be wrong.

One powerful and often overlooked corrective to poor decision-making should be obvious – make fewer decisions. This isn’t some paean to procrastination, however. It’s simple math. Fewer decisions means fewer bad decisions (which is particularly significant in that eliminating mistakes is demonstrably more important to good investment outcomes than making good choices).

At the individual level, making fewer decisions means changing one’s habits. During a commencement speech last May at his alma mater, the University of Texas, the commander of the forces that organized and executed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden made a striking comment. “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed,” advised U.S. Navy Adm. William H. McCraven. McCraven’s point was that regular accomplishment and little things matter a lot. But it’s also significant that such little accomplishments become routine and happen simply as a matter of course – without having consciously to be “decided.”

When and where possible, when good decisions are not cultivated into habit, our inclinations to poor decisions and just plain laziness will often get the better of us. And we don’t multi-task very well (our proud protestations to the contrary notwithstanding). Therefore, the more we can make good decisions routine and something we don’t need to think about, the better off we’ll be.

At the institutional level, making fewer decisions can mean building an investment process that, in effect, makes the decisions for us. If we carefully and collaboratively build, monitor and continue to evaluate a process that gets us to the decision we need without having to make (potentially a lot of) active preliminary decisions at every step we can improve outcomes, often by a great deal.

So if you want to make better decisions, start by working out how you can make fewer of them.

9 thoughts on “Make Fewer Decisions

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