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How Much Information?

Decision making works better if you have good information. That holds true as much in personal life as professionally.  But how do you know when you have enough good information to get on with deciding?

Whether it’s buying a new car, choosing a new town to live in, or figuring out what you’re going to do about health care insurance, important decisions are typically not knee-jerk.  We look at the alternatives.  We try out different scenarios.  We compare options.  At least if we are intent on doing it well.

But how much is enough?  I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately.  I’m buying a house.  I’ve been pretty thorough about assessing what locations would work the best, what kind of house would be the wisest, what level of upkeep I want to have to maintain, how much yard I am willing to take on, etc.  I looked at 43 houses before I was comfortable making an offer.  That was a big decision.  I needed a lot of information.

But now I am dealing with smaller decisions–what color to paint the kitchen walls, what materials to use in replacing the current flooring, even what to put where once I  move in.

Those decisions don’t warrant anywhere near as much precision in the information I gather to support my decision-making process.  It’s important I recognize it’s time to switch gears. Yes, I may not like the carpet I choose, but that’s not on the same order of magnitude as buying a house with a major structural flaw would have been.

So how much is enough on the current spate of decision-making?  I’m not sure it’s cut and dried, but it seems the following are going to be part of doing the research part well:

  • What’s going to happen if I don’t get this right?  If someone is going to die or your are going to be homeless, you need to do all the research you can.  If it’s just going to mean I spend a weekend repainting that room once I’ve moved in, go ahead and decide, will you?!
  • What are my options?  All too often, we choose the first possibility that comes to mind because we didn’t bother to take the time to think of the rest.  This is not good in any guise.  (You could have had pan-seared shrimp and fresh broccoli, but the first thing you noticed were the mashed potatoes that have been hiding in plain sight in the refrigerator for almost a week.)  Even if it’s just deciding whether you want to go out your driveway to the left or right, notice consciously that you are at a decision point–and that there’s more than one option.  There’s always more than one option–or else there would be no decision to make.
  • Know when to stop. Right now, I am researching flooring options.  I’ve spoken with four different vendors as well as a friend who is in the business (far far away).  Is that enough?  For the first pass, yes.  I have learned the jargon and recognize what the issues are going to be for me.  I will need to get some of them out to do bids, but I can’t make that call yet.  (I won’t own the house until next week…)  For now, I have enough information on that.  When I move to the next step, maybe not, but I need to assess that then.

There are a lot of reasons to keep gathering information after you’ve obtained enough to get on with deciding.  Most of those reasons are forms of “analysis paralysis.”  After a certain point, “enough information becomes “too much information.”  If you are well enough informed that you can make a solid decision, then you need to decide.  The exception to this is if you are waiting for someone else to provide more current information–but be careful with that.  Once you understand the issues and can compare the relevant dimensions for each option using solid information, it’s usually time to decide and get on with your life.

It’s easy to get hung up on amassing information  Be aware of what you really need to know before you decide and of how much of that you already have in the pipeline.  Ask yourself if you’ve already reached the best point in the overall process for making this decision.  If so, decide.

Good decision making relies on a variety of skills.  One of them is gathering the right amount of good information.  If you find yourself saying “I knew that” again and again as you speak with yet another resource, it’s time to get on with it.

And once you do, for heaven’s sake, don’t go back and make the same decision again and again.  Get informed, make the decision, and keep going.  Getting stuck remaking your decisions is even worse than getting stuck amassing more information than you need to make them at all.

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Mary Lloyd is a speaker and consultant and author of Supercharged Retirement:  Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love.    For more, see her website.

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