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Time Management Bulletin

 How to Decide

Mark McCormack, in his book, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School (Bantam, 1984), gives some good advice on decision-making.  He claims that many times we actually make a decision without realizing it, even as we are still trying to come to grips with it.

His advice: instead of laboring over the pros and cons, flip a coin.  Heads you do; tails you don’t.  Now how do you feel about the result?  He claims you may be surprised to discover that your emotional reaction settles the issue for you – confirms what you consciously know.

Life Balance

Life balance involves making wise choices, and remembering that people are more important than things.


  • Stress is added when sleep is subtracted.
  • It’s difficult to cram new information into a sleepy brain.
  • If you bury your mistakes, they will teach you nothing.
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Procrastination or intentional delay?

In a regular chess game you would be foolish to make it lightning fast move when you have the time to think over the possible repercussions of such a move. But in hockey, deliberating for any length of time over whether you should pass or shoot could mean a lost opportunity to score. There are situations that call for quick action and ones that call for delay.

In hockey, you wouldn’t call the lost opportunity to score due to passing instead of shooting, procrastination. It might be better described as an error in judgment or even a wrong guess. But in either case, the player’s action was a result of an earnest intent to get a goal for his or her team, not the result of inertia, disinterest, a lack of motivation or fear of making the wrong decision. Perhaps an older, more experienced player would make the correct decision; but then again, a younger more experienced goalie might stop the park regardless.

Similarly in business, there is a time for action and a time for delay. But if you delay in responding immediately to a derogatory or sarcastic email rather than snap back with an equally unflattering response, you wouldn’t call that procrastination. You would call it intentional delay. There is a time for quick action and a time for delay, depending on the situation. Launching a new product before first doing adequate market research is not procrastination. Neither is editing a manuscript before submitting it to a publisher or rehearsing a sales presentation before visiting a prospect. Delay is sometimes essential to success.

Probably more problems are caused by making decisions too quickly than by waiting too long. This is especially true in this digital age of speed, when we are being urged to think fast, act fast and make split-second decisions.

This “act now or else” mentality puts one under undue stress – the consequences of which could far exceed that of a lost sale or other missed opportunity.

Frank Portnoy, author of the book, “Wait: the art & science of delay,” not only believes that technology is speeding up all our decisions in an unhealthy way, but also has researched the impact of delay and has found that people are often happier and more effective in their decisions when they do delay – and even when they procrastinate.

I’m not in favour of procrastination if you define it as putting off something that requires immediate attention. But there’s nothing wrong with intentionally delaying something if you feel it would be to your advantage to do so.

It’s important for us to think before we react so that we are at least aware of the possible consequences of our actions. It also gives us time to “cool down” (such as the case of replying to an infuriating email message) and to have peace about our decision. In other words, be effective, not reactive.

Being impulsive and cause problems – especially in this hyper-connected world where people can become addicted to speed.  Practising self-discipline, on the other hand, can improve over time.

Continually putting off an important decision, even though you already have sufficient facts to make an informed decision, is procrastination. Even if there are no dire consequences of doing so, it produces a certain degree of anxiety, and delays any benefits derived from the decision. And delays in this case are likely motivated by an unwarranted fear of making the wrong decision or being overwhelmed by busyness or simply not wanting to do what the decision would require one to do as a result.

But there is nothing wrong with leaving something until a more convenient time if it’s not imperative to do it now. That’s simply intentional delay for a good reason. Don’t put yourself on a guilt trip every time you do this.

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Is there no such thing as an objective decision?

The amygdala area of the brain is known to generate feelings. It is the emotional part of the brain, generating such responses as fear and desire.

The prefrontal cortex, sometimes referred to as a manager, houses the executive functions and is considered the thinking part of the brain. You might expect it to be the decision-maker.

And it is. But it works in conjunction with the more intuitive amygdala, which draws on past experiences and feelings to influence the decision. After receiving input from the amygdala and other brain areas, the resulting decision may not appear so logical if you consider only the facts relevant to the situation in question.

According to John Lehrer, in his book, How we decide, the prefrontal cortex is linked to just about every brain area, and considers all feedback before making a decision. But no decision can be completely objective – at least not as far as other people are concerned – since we all have our own realities, values, beliefs and past experiences.

Probably more areas of the brain are involved in the decision-making process than even the neuroscientists are aware of. And perhaps without mirror neurons, which reside in many parts of the brain and help us to emphasize with one another, we would never agree on anything.

As Jonah Lehrer, author of How we decide, says, “Intuition isn’t a miraculous cure all. Sometimes the feelings can lead us astray and causes us to make all sorts of predictable mistakes.” He goes on to say that the “reptilian brain” is fighting the frontal lobes.

When it comes to decisions, sometimes the emotional part of the brain can take charge. It has been shown, for instance, that we can react to the presence of an unseen snake fractions of a second before we are even conscious of its presence. The brain’s priority seems to be to minimize danger and to maximize reward.

Since few, if any of us, have had similar past experiences, it is unlikely that we would all agree on a decision made by a group. As Charles Jacobs says in his book, Management rewired, “if we use logic to influence people unconsciously driven by emotion, we probably aren’t going to be very successful in getting them to embrace our point of view.”

According to a Canadian press article appearing in the March 23, 2017 issue of, emotion colors the meaning we give to things. This supports the opinion of Princeton political scientist Larry Bartel, who was quoted in Jonah Lehrer’s book as saying that voters invent facts or ignore facts so they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made.

If I am reading the brain research correctly it would appear as though we should try to avoid snap decisions on important issues, allowing the executive center of our brain to moderate emotional impulses. It would also appear that we should involve other people with different experiences in our decision-making process to compensate for our own biases. And we should go so far as to seek out different points of view. But when instant decisions are critical, such in the case of a wall about to collapse, trust your instincts. After all, that part of the brain is programmed for survival, and you have to survive if you want to make more decisions in the future.

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How to make good decisions


Slow decision-making wastes time, as do spur-of-the moment decisions, which frequently result in costly and time-consuming mistakes. But the worst thing you can do is to procrastinate on decision-making. Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, once conducted a survey of successful people and found all of them were decisive. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. We learn from our mistakes; but if we do nothing, we neither accomplish anything nor learn anything.

Delay until you have enough information; but don’t wait until you have all the information. If you have all the information, the course of action becomes a foregone conclusion: no real decision is necessary. Have the courage to make decisions with only 70% to 80% of the facts. When you have mulled over the facts and considered, the alternatives, sleep on it if an immediate decision isn’t required. Spend time in proportion to the importance of the decision. For instance, don’t waste a lot of time discussing the menu for the staff Christmas party. The decision to close down an operation or expand the product line warrants a greater expenditure of that costly commodity call time. Make minor decisions quickly. If the consequence of the decision is not important, it is not worth much of your valuable time. Spend time in proportion to the importance of the decision.

If the decision is yours alone to make, and you seem to get bogged down in the process, and get frustrated by your lack of progress, it’s frequently faster in the long run to leave the problem for a short period of time. Work on some unrelated jobs for a few hours or even a few days and then tackle the problem anew. The change in pace will revitalize your thinking. But delay it only once or you will be tempted to procrastinate.

In some cases it might be better to leave the problem until the next day. Your brain never stops working, and it has been shown that people make better decisions in the morning.

Always make short-term decisions with long-term objectives in mind. Don’t make a band aid decision that solves the immediate problem, but results in time-consuming problems further down the road.

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Important decisions are best made off-line.

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According to Gayatri Devi, author of A Calm Brain (Plume, 2012), your core brain has the ability to quickly and accurately read and respond to the emotions of others. Your rational frontal lobes may be fooled by polite laughter or phony tears or any false display of emotions; but your core brain is much harder to deceive.

True emotions are picked up by the core brain from the other person’s cluster of cells that Harvard neuroscientist Clifford Saper calls “pattern generators.” If someone’s laughs are genuine, for instance, there is a pattern of telltale signs, including crinkling of muscles around the eyes, certain throat sounds and widening of the mouth, which reveal the laughter is genuine.

That’s why face-to-face interactions are much better than online relationships in order for the core brain to do its job. So if you are negotiating an important deal, meeting with a prospective client or engaging in an online romance, it’s wise to go back to the basics. Good old-fashioned face to face encounters, whether business or personal, should never be completely abandoned.

The prefrontal cortex, with its executive function and its skills in logic and planning has been getting a lot of press in the scientific journals these days. But the core brain, frequently referred to as the reptilian or primitive brain, not only controls the bodily functions that keep you alive and healthy, it also senses danger before your highly developed frontal lobes are even aware of it.

For instance, Mark Bowden in his book, Tame the primitive brain, explains that the primitive or core brain can pick up the heat of a hotplate before you actually touch it. In fact, before the core brain even gets the message, a reflex action is prompted by the spinal cord that causes your hand to jerk away. So thinking part of your brain isn’t the first one to get the message. That’s the core brain insuring your survival.

However, the core brain uses the senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch – and responds accordingly – a knee jerk reaction that sends a message of caution to the thinking part of your brain.

When interacting with other people, information is gathered from such things as body language, tone and voice reflection as well as the words spoken. Corresponding via email or social media or chat rooms is fine when things of little consequence are discussed. But it will never replace personal one-on-one interaction when decisions of importance are to be made.