How to make better decisions, faster: Follow Obama's example and make certain choices routine

President Obama Speaks At National Italian American Foundation Gala
Obama has said that his wife makes fun of how routinised he has become (Source: Getty)

"Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities,” Barack Obama told Vanity Fair in 2012. “Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 per cent chance that it isn’t going to work.”

Yet decision paralysis affects politics and business alike. Here are some tips for making choices more effectively and efficiently.


Management often conflates issues which are time-sensitive and those which are important. The problem is that, if short-term operational priorities and strategy are treated equally, the latter often will inevitably be put on the back-burner.

Decoupling operations and strategy might help this problem. “Operational matters require detailed discussion and analysis. Strategy requires a big-picture, forward-looking view,” say Bain’s Michael Mankins and Jenny Davis-Peccoud. Leaders, they maintain, should hold separate meetings for each. “The executive board of a major European bank, for instance, once spent its twice-weekly meetings reviewing loans and discussing daily operations.... A new chairman eliminated one of the weekly operations meetings and added a monthly day-long session on strategy, where the board could make significant resource-allocation choices. The result: better, faster decisions, and less wasted time.”


Habit is remarkably effective at conquering indecision. In the same interview, Obama revealed that he “routinises” certain daily choices to minimise the time he spends deliberating. So devising a road-map for how to proceed when certain decisions present themselves will save you time over a long period.

Leadership expert Peter Bregman suggests creating an “if-then” architecture. “Let’s say someone constantly interrupts me and I’m not sure how to respond. My if-then rule might be: if the person interrupts me two times in a conversation, then I will say something,” he told the Harvard Business Review.


Snap decisions may save time, but when should you take the time to explore your options more fully?

In 2000, developmental psychologists Keith Stanovich and Richard West argued that fast and slow decision-making processes involve two different modes of cognition, and both are effective in different scenarios. “System 1” is characterised by rapid, unconscious reasoning which requires little effort, while “System 2” is conscious, high effort and more controlled.

We rely on System 1 more often. And it is largely effective, given that “most of our judgements and actions are appropriate most of the time,” argues Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. System 2 is more useful when we know decision biases are likely to affect our thinking, like “when evaluating diverse job candidates, estimating our per cent contribution to a group project, and choosing between spending and saving,” according to one research paper.

You can force yourself into conscious reasoning, the paper’s authors say, by replacing intuition with formal analytic processes, such as constructing linear models based on the inputs and outcomes of similar scenarios in the past, or by extricating oneself mentally and adopting an outsider’s perspective on the problem.


But too much thought can make a decision harder to reach. If you have evaluated all the options, and the outcomes seem equally attractive, “admit that there is no clearly identifiable way to go and just decide,” said Bregman. “The time you save by not deliberating pointlessly will pay massive dividends in productivity.”

Perhaps allow a period between reviewing the evidence and making a choice for it to permeate properly. A 2006 experiment by the University of Amsterdam’s Ap Dijksterhuis and Loran Nordgren found that people who had been presented with data about desirable and undesirable apartments were more likely to make better choices if they were distracted between reviewing the evidence and making a choice, than their peers who were forced to choose immediately or given time to pore over the findings.

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