When we're stuck making decisions, we crave more options. In reality, constraints are more likely to get us unstuck. Time constraints force us to identify valued trade-offs. Constraints on how much attention you give competitors can keep you focused on your own challenges. And constraints on your identity (brand) can help you identify key priortiies.
I had an incredibly hard time writing for the blog this week. I may have never in my life felt so blocked.
This past Saturday, I read numerous decision science-related articles and ended up with around 3500 words – but nothing to show for it. I started and abandoned four blog posts, each time thinking, “not good enough.”
I worried I had lost my mojo.
I wondered if I lost focus.
I questioned whether I’d lost confidence.
Then it dawned on me: I was in the middle of a Decision Science problem. I had to complete a task, and to do so, I had to make a series of decisions – but I was failing. I couldn’t decide what to write about (choice overload), I was growing tired (decision fatigue), and I was fearing judgment (spotlight effect).
Not unlike many problems that many people face at work.
So like a detective, I set out to solve the mystery – and I finally identified the problem: I imposed no constraints on myself.
Generally speaking, constraints aren’t great. Constraints feel… well… constraining. We want the world to be our oyster. We want all the possibilities. But self-imposed constraints are often necessary. They keep you focused and efficient; they make optimization possible. Here’s what I was doing wrong as I tried to write for this blog, and what you should avoid as you run a business, a team, a project.
1. I cared too deeply about each idea. I had enough material to write about, enough ideas to share. But I had to choose one, which meant I had to evaluate all the trade-offs. Option 1 was interesting, but not as actionable. Option 2 was actionable, but too complex. Option 1 was less complex, but it was also less compelling. Option 2 seemed more relevant but much less entertaining. Etc. On and on. When you’re this mired in this back and forth, you’re essentially putting off making a decision. Some call this “analysis paralysis,” but it’s less paralysis than an over-active trade-off analysis.
The solution? Impose a time constraint. Research has shown that people stuck in trade-off analysis are much more likely to make a decision if there’s a time constraint. You might think this is because a time limit forces you to choose something – anything – but this isn’t really it. Time constraints force the brain to prioritize trade-offs. Things that don't matter suddenly become apparent. You look for deal-breakers and eliminate options that have them. You think about necessities and eliminate options that don’t have them. With little time available, the brain asks: what matters most? Which makes it much easier to choose. Not to say that rushing to a decision is right: still go through a thorough trade-off analysis; just do it in less time.
2. I paid too much attention to the “competition.” There’s an expression my boxing coach used to say: “Don’t respect your opponent too much.” Overconfidence is a killer, but if you go too far the other way, you can psychologically lose the fight before you even enter the ring.
Whether you’re writing a blog, starting a business, developing a product, or creating a marketing strategy, if you pay too much attention to what others are doing, you may see less opportunity to stand apart. The more you immerse yourself, the more you feel like what's already out there is all there is, and you won’t differentiate.
As I was trying to write, I literally found myself repeating what others had written without realizing I was doing it – all the while feeling I had nothing new to say. Of course I had something new to say. I just had to focus on what I wanted to share, not on what they were sharing.
If you want to be an original (which will set you apart and help you cut through the noise), impose scope constraints on your work. Make a plan for what you’ll do, but just as importantly, set rules for what you won’t do. And on that list of rules should be “don’t pay too much attention to the competition."
3. I forgot who I was. I lost track of my mission, my purpose, my promise. When you forget who you are and what your reason to exist is, you can have a much tougher time making choices. If you have a strong identity, options that don’t fit fall by the wayside, and you aren’t too sad to see them go.
In business, this is all about building a strong brand and sticking to it. Your brand is not just a logo. If you know your brand promise and persona – as a business or as a professional – then you have the gift of constraint, and you won’t meander. Your brand tells you who you are, but it also tells you who you are not. Any options that fall outside your brand aren’t worth considering, which makes decision-making much easier.
If you’re at a Vegas buffet, by all means, don’t exercise constraint. You paid for it. But at work, getting unstuck doesn’t necessarily come with having more options. It’s more likely to come with having more constraints. Use them. #gettingunstuck #leadership #decisionmaking #workplaceculture #writing #decisionscience