If your Mom was like mine when you were a kid and had to make a tough decision, like who to invite to your birthday sleepover, she told you to sleep on it and decide in the morning.
When President Barack Obama was considering what action to take before the capture of Osama bin Laden, he decided to sleep on it.
While these two decisions are quite different in size and impact, and are different from the decisions you need to make as a leader, Mom’s advice and the President’s action is based on science.
Recently published research in The Journal of Consumer Psychology, Maarten Bos and his co-authors found that during periods when the mind is “distracted” or not consciously focused on an issue (times like sleep), there is an active process that accurately weighs the pros and cons of the components of a decision. Without going into the details of the research, the bottom line is that sleeping on a decision helps us determine between the vital and the irrelevant components, therefore leading to higher quality decisions.
This is a way of engaging our ultra powerful subconscious minds which can process huge amounts of information, if given time.
So how can we apply that I idea to help us make complex decisions?
Consider your principles and values. The starting point for all decisions should be our guiding principles and values. While we all know that, don’t let that get lost when grappling with a difficult decision. Often bringing the decision through the filter of your values and principles will make the decision far easier.
Collect all the information. Assemble the relevant and pertinent facts. Gather both data and opinions, and review it before taking the next step.
Sleep on it. Whether a short daytime nap, or letting your thoughts simmer in your sleep overnight, if you review the collected facts before heading to dreamland and ask yourself the pertinent questions, your subconscious will work on the decision as you sleep.
Check the facts. When you awake see what you are thinking and how you feel about the decision. While you aren’t quite done yet, you may be close! Run your decision back through the facts to make sure your subconscious decision didn’t leave anything out, and of course double-check against your values.
When you do these four steps, if you don’t have a clear decision you will at a minimum have more clarity on what your next steps could or should be.
Obviously, literally going to sleep isn’t always an option in the middle of the workday (although I have been known to do it with great success in the past), but you can achieve a similar effect by going running, listening to music, or doing any other task that distracts you from the decision. After a period of distraction, one option usually feels better than the other(s). After you’ve gone through the three steps above, that’s the option you should choose.
So sleeping on it while perhaps not your first thought, is a great strategy. Once more proving than Mother often knows best.
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