7/15/21: What is Your Decision-Making Default?

Sent 7/15/21


This week's Think Better Newsletter is about our default decision-making approaches. 

The Idea

I have enjoyed watching the Suns vs Bucks in the NBA Finals. Every time I think one team is sure to win the series, something happens to turn the tide. Today, Devin Booker got his 5th foul early in the fourth quarter and his coach sat him for 5 minutes or so. During that time the Bucks rallied from 9 points down to get back in the game.

At the time, Booker had 38 points and was the only person on the Suns playing well. Everything that worked was going through him. But what if he fouled out and wasn't available at the end? Then the Bucks would be more likely to come back. So his coach sat him and...the Bucks came back while he was sitting...

The way coaches systematically pull players based on their fouls has always bothered me. It's similar to how hockey coaches should pull the goalie more often than they do. I have no data on NBA fouls but I'm convinced too many coaches follow "the norm" rather than take a risk based on the nature of the game being played in the moment. (If the data contradicts me, I'll happily change my mind.)

The fact that coaches so often follow the same basic framework--2 fouls in 1st quarter = sit; 3rd foul in 2nd quarter = sit; 5th foul before mid-4th quarter = sit--tells me that they aren't making the decision based on the game being played but based on "what you do in this situation."

I recently read a tweet by Horace Dediu (@asymco) that summarized decision-making in a way that sheds some light on this. I've never seen it put in exactly this way, but it makes a lot of sense.

I suspect there are other processes, but let's just work with these ones. If I had to guess, I'd say no more than 10% of our decisions are proactively calculated. But why is that?

The first thing that stands out to me is that this aligns to my law of conservation of mental energy: if we can do something without thinking, we will. Imitating and repeating are much more efficient from a thinking and willpower standpoint.

Second, so many of our decisions are social or habitual. Fitting in, being judged, appearing consistent... We don't make decisions in a vacuum. And when we do make decisions, these factors can be more important than facts, logic, or probabilities.

Finally, if we don't have a clear method for measuring our decision-making, we resort to defaults. Calculating is hard. Most of us stink at it. So we make a guess. Sometimes we act on that guess, and sometimes we just default to imitating and repeating.

So how can we improve this?

The System

The first step to making better decisions is knowing what you're measuring. As the old business adage goes, "You can't manage what you can't measure."

Are you trying to improve your times? Your knowledge? Your enjoyment? Your confidence? Your consistency? Your odds of winning game 4 in the NBA Finals?

It's ok to copy accepted wisdom or repeat what you've always done. Those can be efficient strategies. You just want to do them intentionally.

When you imitate: make sure you're imitating the right person or plan. Don't just follow the crowd. Imitate the best.

When you repeat: consider both how well it worked in the past AND how much those past situations are similar to the current one. If it's good enough, then go for it. If the situation is different or you want to improve, you may need to change.

When you calculate: keep your eye out for new or relevant data and don't be afraid to change your mind or deviate from the norm. If it makes sense, see what you can do.

The Question

What is your decision-making default?


Go Be More,

Bryan Green
Author of Make the Leap: Think Better, Train Better, Run Faster and the companion Think Better Workbook
Co-host of the Go Be More Podcast
Co-host of the Fueling the Pursuit Podcast

"The best math you can learn is how to calculate the future cost of current decisions." — Anonymous



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