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Everyday, at work and in our personal lives, we face an extraordinary number of decisions that make us feel both anxious and overwhelmed. We toss and turn, we second guess and delay, due to the underlying assumption that seems to go without saying: we need to make a good decision.
The assumption is wrong. When it comes to many of the decisions we make day in and day out, not only is a good decision unnecessary, it’s highly counterproductive.
Luckily, there’s a better way: flip a coin.
Outsourcing your decision to chance may sound absurd, irresponsible even, but not only will it help you make faster decisions, it will liberate you from the prison that is paralysis analysis, and may leave you feeling more satisfied with your choices.
The key to understanding why a random choice often beats a good one, is a concept that lies at the heart of decision-making — the speed-accuracy trade-off.
Why Decisions are So Difficult: The Speed-Accuracy Tradeoff
Whenever we’re faced with a difficult decision, our most obvious concern is accuracy. We are viscerally aware that making the right decision could yield gains, the wrong decision — some form of loss.
But there’s another concern that we often think less about: speed. Because time slips away from us so silently, so gradually, we don’t always feel the consequences of delaying a decision by a day or a week or a month. But make no mistake, there are consequences.
Just like one stalled vehicle can create a traffic jam on the highway, delaying hundreds of cars, stalled decisions create traffic jams in our lives. Since one decision can set in motion hundreds of other decisions, when one is delayed so then are countless others.
But even if a decision lacks dependents, every second we spend attending to it drains our finite reserves of willpower, leaving us with less energy to deal with other matters. We vastly underestimate the amount of cumulative stress these seemingly minute decisions cause.
So when it comes to making decisions, there is the concern for speed and the concern for accuracy. And here’s the most troublesome part — they are in direct conflict with each other.
Speed wants you to spend less time on your decision. Accuracy, on the other hand, wants you to spend more time. Psychologists call this contradiction the speed-accuracy tradeoff, because having more of one means having less of the other.
Since we can’t expect both speed and accuracy, before making a decision we must ask the critical question: which should we sacrifice? Well it turns out there’s not just one answer.
How to Take Advantage of the Speed-Accuracy Tradeoff
While every decision might feel like a ticking time bomb, the truth is that all decisions are not created equal. Write down every decision you made this past year (a long list that would be) and you will realize that only relatively few were highly consequential. Pareto’s principle estimates 20% of your decisions make 80% of the difference in your life, your career, your business.
Speed is the obvious sacrifice for those few major decisions. Seek more data, weigh the alternatives, consult the experts— we should do everything we can to get these right. But for the many minor decisions, who cares about accuracy? Let’s use these opportunities to move fast.
Choosing a restaurant to host your next family reunion might warrant accuracy, but date night with your significant other? Speed.
Slow down to purchase a new computer, but when it comes to purchasing a new desk lamp on Amazon, go as fast as you can.
Consult others when trying to choose between Harvard and Yale, but don’t think twice before choosing between Stephen King or John Grisham.
Remember that anxiety magnifies the importance of almost every decision. Asking yourself “what’s the worst thing that will happen if I get this decision wrong?” can help you discriminate the major from the minor. In the case of the latter a good enough decision is good enough. In fact, practically any decision is better than no decision. So just pick.
Narrow the decision down to two options. Assign one option heads, the other tails, and then flip a coin. It may sound silly, but a coin toss is an indispensable way to speed up minor decisions for three reasons:
Flipping a Coin Ends Analysis Paralysis
The common wisdom for making a quick decision is to listen to your gut, but if it were easy to discern the message, you would have already made the decision. When you’re caught in state of paralysis you need to get you out of your head (and your gut) and back into the physical world. Flip a coin and in a matter of seconds the decision will be made.
Flipping a Coin Prevents Second Guessing
Choice closure — “the psychological process by which decision makers come to perceive a decision to be complete and settled” — alludes many of us, ultimately slowing the decision down.
Luckily, researcher Yangjie Gu of the London Business School, has found that “specific physical acts that are metaphorically associated with the concept of closure” can help finalize a decision. (1) For many, flipping a coin is precisely that. When heads comes up, tails is pinned to the ground — defeated. Time to move on.
Flipping a Coin Minimizes Regret
We often assume that having more choice makes us happier. But according to Simona Botti, Associate Professor of Marketing at the London Business School, we fail to realize that choice makes us feel responsible for the outcome. The more responsible we feel, the more extreme the resulting emotions. We tend to self-credit when the decision turns out well and self-blame, with all the painful regret and self-loathing that comes with it, when the decision goes awry.(2)
Flipping a coin, because you’re deferring the decision to chance, has the added benefit of making you feel less responsible for the outcome.(3) Sure the highs might not be as high, but the lows won’t be as low. Most human beings, with our notorious aversion to loss, would take this deal in a heartbeat.
Humans naturally want to make good decisions, but freedom comes from realizing that often we fare better making a fast decision. Flipping a coin is the quickest way to beat our paralysis, reduce second guessing, and minimize the regret we feel afterwards.
Ready to make faster decisions? Take the 10-day coin flip challenge. What are you waiting for?
(1) You can read Gu’s full fascinating paper, Turning the Page: The Impact of Choice Closure on Satisfaction, here.
(2) Special thanks to Simon Botti who spent time on the phone explaining the role of perceived responsibility on satisfaction. You can read her full paper, When Choosing is Not Deciding, here.
(3) Simon Botti points out that flipping a coin may not let you completely off the hook. Because it’s you, who in effect, is deciding to flip the coin, you may still perceive yourself somewhat responsible for the outcome. But probably not as responsible as if you had made the choice without the coin.
This essay was originally published at alpitt.com