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Your small business brain and decision fatigue

Last week I read an article in The New York Times Magazine titled: Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? My immediate reaction was, “Doesn’t everyone?” I don’t know of one small business owner who is not burdened with a multitude of choices – hourly.

In fact you could argue small business owners suffer the brunt of this situation more than their corporate compatriots, given that the majority of small business choices fall to the owner as ‘chief cook and bottle washer’.

Based in part on the work of Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo, decision fatigue is a depletion of the brain’s mental stamina as a result of making too many decisions. When this happens, we end up making poor choices or rash decisions, or forgo deciding at all.

“Every decision we make implies a possible loss, and we are essentially loss-averse animals,” says Margaret J. King, Ph.D., Director of The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis. “‘Decide’ means ‘to cut,’ and we focus on what we are losing, not gaining. This is the brain issue behind most decisions,” she says.

But faced with the daily task of deciding everything from what social media buttons should be above the fold on our home web page to who we should invite to the Friday meeting, there are some ways we can maximize our power to choose – while protecting our brain’s much-needed mojo.

Layne Kertamus, president of NegotiGator.com,  says that top performers understand the nature of decision-making and respect it, including:

  1. Not making decisions that are beyond your competence.
  2. Recognizing that a decision to take a punt is in fact a decision and may have costs.
  3. Understanding that most decisions are neither good nor bad but carry with them trade-offs.

Nihar Chhaya, founder of MBA Balance, goes one step further and says that small business owners need to learn to delegate decisions to prevent brain burnout.

“Small business owners must layout all the decisions they need to make on a consistent basis in the marketing, finance, operations and personnel areas and be honest with themselves about where their expertise lies,” says Chhaya. “Then they need to delegate those decisions to people that have both the skill and the motivation to make the best choices in those areas.”

Chhaya says that, rather than using all their brainpower on making the decisions themselves, small business owners should instead spend time coaching trusted team members (virtual or onsite) and outside contractors in taking a chance on choices and monitoring their progress.

By employing the above strategies, the small business owner’s brain will be a little less weary and more able to focus on building the business.

Thoughts to Think About

“We have access to more information than ever before, but the irony is that we feel less informed and more overwhelmed,” says Paul Magnone, co-author of Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information. “It’s no wonder we have decision fatigue. It’s impossible to effectively deal with everything that comes our way — especially for small business owners dealing with limited resources, funds and staff.”

To ease the burden, Magnone suggests considering the following when making decisions:

    • What is the essential business question? Determine how this decision will impact the overall strategy.
    • Where is your customer’s North Star? Keep in mind that above all else, the customer (and their wants, needs, etc.) comes first.
    • Should you believe the Squiggly Line? Ensure you’re not acting too quickly or making any harsh decisions based on short-term data.
    • What surprised you? Make sure you don’t ignore certain aspects of the situation or data in front of you that might be out of the ordinary.
    • What does the Lighthouse reveal? Consider the consequences of your decision and any danger that might lie ahead.
    • Who are your Swing Voters? Be mindful of your “swing voters” throughout the process — the group that’s neutral about your product, but can be swayed.
    • Now What? Put everything into context
    • If you know of ways to avoid brain overload running a small business we’d love to hear about them.

      Karen Leland is a freelance journalist, best-selling author and president of Sterling Marketing Group, where she helps businesses negotiate the wired world of today’s media landscape — social and otherwise.

       

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10 comments

Ian McCall
9 September 2011 #

Typical twaddle written by somebody (“artist/writer”) who appears never to have run an SME and has absolutely no idea of the pressures an OMB faces, but makes a living out of constructing articles from quoting from the work of others.

I’ve come across many of this type, mainly trying to flog revelatory PDF downloads on the web, but surprised to find one on the Xero blog.

In the words of Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers) she has a degree in the “bleeding obvious”

Jacob McIntyre
13 September 2011 #

I disagree, Ian. Great tips! So useful, thanks for sharing!

Bruce Hardie
13 September 2011 #

I would highly recommend there be a division of tasks, especially the financial one. It is difficult for one to make good choices about programs, customer satisfaction if they are also having to keep the finances in mind.

Karen Leland
13 September 2011 #

Bruce,

I think you point about division of tasks is a good one. Sometimes a small biz owner tends to hold all of the major decisions in his or her hands and their perspective can be overly colored by financial matters etc. While these are of course important factors, having additional perspectives and empowering others to make some choices is necessary to grow the company.

Arnold Godfrey
13 September 2011 #

I must disagree-some decisions are definitely good, and others bad. Sure we can make the best of even bad ones, but to not admit our bad decisions doesn’t allow for growth.

Tracy Willis
13 September 2011 #

My tactics have always been the same-list out the issues you have to deal with, prioritize them, and then focus on them ONE AT A TIME! This allows my brain to focus on what is at hand, knowing the time will come to address the others.

Karen Leland
14 September 2011 #

Arnold;

I take your point about some decisions being bad – I’ve certainly had my share! But I think the context in which Layne made that comment was this. If we are overly worried about making the wrong decision, we just won’t make one. I have a client now who is struggling with this. Every decision carries with it a learning, even the good ones.

Sam Tinskel
14 September 2011 #

You are absolutely right Karen, small businesses have it most difficult as there are less people doing more of the tasks. Being organized is a must.

Benji Milanowski
14 September 2011 #

This is more of a tip from a general perspective: utilize meditation and other relaxation techniques to clear your mind. I find that after meditating my mind is open to new thoughts and ideas, and I often make even better choices. (think of it as a body being refreshed after a beach vacation!)

Mike “Super-Fry” Moletta
16 September 2011 #

Our decisions should always refer back to our business motto, our philosophy, our goal… for running the business we run. Then we will less likely make poor decisions.

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