Wellbeing and Mental Health

How 'decision distress' is impacting your performance

Decision distress is the mental exhaustion resulting from the sheer number of decisions a person must make daily.

Decision distress is the mental exhaustion resulting from the sheer number of decisions a person must make daily. Image: Unsplash/Gift Habeshaw

Anna Oakes
Editor, Quartz
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Education, Gender and Work

  • 'Decision dilemmas' are common in the world of work, and 85% of people say these problems are negatively impacting their quality of life.
  • Author, data scientist and economist Seth Stephen-Davidwitz has partnered with Oracle on a new report exploring this area.
  • Here, he looks at ways to help us move past 'data overwhelm' and 'analysis paralysis' in order to make decision-making easier.

In a new report from Oracle, 74% say the number of decisions they make every day increased 10x over the last three years.

Decision dilemmas—not knowing what decision to make—happen often in the world of work. In fact, 85% of people worldwide admit these dilemmas are negatively impacting their quality of life.

To help us understand how to move past data overwhelm and analysis paralysis to mitigate decision fatigue, we turned to NYT best-selling author, data scientist, and economist Seth Stephen-Davidwitz who partnered with Oracle on the new report.

Quartz at Work: What is decision distress, and why is it such an issue for our workforce?

Stephens-Davidowitz: People are facing too many decisions—with too little guidance on how to make them.

According to the Decision Dilemma Global Study that I partnered with Oracle on, 74% of people say the number of decisions they make every day has increased 10x over the last three years.

As a result, decision distress, the mental exhaustion resulting from the sheer number of decisions a person must make daily, is now impacting both personal and professional lives.

What happens when people feel they can’t be sure about their choices? Often, they don’t make any decisions at all. This presents a critical issue for our workforce and can lead to drops in efficiency and creativity. It can impact employee morale and a company’s bottom line.

What are the negative impacts of “data overwhelm?”

People have more information than ever to consult to make decisions. You would think this would be a great thing. Instead, people feel like they are drowning in data. Different sources of data suggest other optimal decisions. People question the quality of the data they are given, or perhaps they weren’t adequately trained to interpret it. Sometimes, the data seems irrelevant to the question at hand.

As a result, many people find themselves throwing out the data and relying on their own gut and intuition.

86% of people say the volume of data is making decisions much more complicated. Furthermore, 85% believe it negatively impacts their quality of life and causes spikes in anxiety and missed opportunities.

Instead of taking advantage of the information explosion of our current era, many employees find themselves making decisions the old-fashioned way: by doing what feels right.

The situation is so challenging that 64% of people—and 70% of business leaders would have a robot make their decisions—how would this use of AI look?

This was surprising to me. We think of business leaders as the ones who love being in charge, not the ones who want to outsource decision-making.

The result suggests that business leaders understand the potential of modern data analysis but do not fully understand how to take advantage of it. Additionally, it proves how difficult many business leaders think decision-making has gotten. Finally, there is a lot of excitement around artificial intelligence and tools like ChatGPT. More and more people imagine such tools doing the hard work for them.

Robots could take the complexity and strain out of the decision-making process, leaving business leaders with more mental bandwidth and less decision fatigue.

Analysis paralysis is real. How can businesses succeed when so many people are sitting still?

It’s critical to note that business leaders want data to help inform decisions. In an ideal world, data can help business leaders reduce risk, increase profit, and be more efficient. Business leaders know that the most successful organizations in various fields—from baseball teams to hedge funds to tech firms—are data-driven.

However, many business leaders feel that data is not working for them. 89% of business leaders believe the growing number of data sources has limited the success of their organizations.

Business leaders are no longer just hungry for data; they are hungry for the correct data.

What business leaders need to move forward is the ability to organize this tidal wave of data and translate insights into action. The good news? Technology can help.

The numbers show that business leaders want data to help and know it is critical to the success of their organizations, but many don’t believe they have the tools to be successful. Where do business leaders go from here?

One of the most significant issues is that the data and information that business leaders are receiving aren’t always relevant. 77% of business leaders say that the dashboards and charts they get do not always relate to the decisions they must make.

Businesses must be presented with data and analytics that are directly relevant to their decisions. Technology now allows leaders to process information as fast as it arrives. These include cloud solutions with built-in automation capabilities and relevant context that can help business executives sort through the torrent of information. This leads to greater efficiency, more innovation, and, most importantly, less decision fatigue.

What are tangible ways both business leaders and employees can mitigate the decision dilemma?

I have six recommendations:

First, when facing a decision, have a direct discussion of what data would help make the decision. Before seeing any data, discuss what numbers you might see that would cause different choices.

Second, be willing to make a counter-intuitive decision based on data. Too many organizations use data to justify what they want to do rather than potentially leading them in different directions.

Next, before collecting a new data source, consider whether data that could help with that decision already exists. Too many organizations collect redundant data.

Fourth, utilize world-class technology that can help simplify complex data into the most relevant takeaways.

Fifth, get more comfortable with probabilistic thinking. Inevitably, different data will point to other decisions. And few decisions are no-brainers. So you should feel comfortable, not overwhelmed, with data suggesting, say, a 60% chance of a decision being a good one. Expecting perfect clarity is a recipe for feeling confused and overwhelmed.

Finally, put more emphasis on hiring employees skilled at data analysis and communication. This rare combination of skills is hugely valuable for allowing an organization to make the best use of data to help find the story that feels hidden in a mountain of data.

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