Dreading Decisions and Making a Change

This guest post is from Abigail Gulya, Metadata Librarian at University of Pittsburgh.

I make a lot of choices throughout the day. Some of them are pretty simple. Will I have coffee today? (Yes. Many times.) Some of them are a little more complex. I have three projects, and all of them are due immediately. Which do I start first? I make a lot of decisions with a lot of choices and a lot of impacts, but one thing remains the same.

I’m so tired.

Decision: I’m tired of being tired. I wanted to find a way to experience life without my brain feeling like a moldy sponge. I needed a change. In my case I was good at my job, but decision fatigue was using up all my focus. Decision fatigue is what happens when you are forced to make decisions for a long period of time. The basic idea is that each of those decisions takes up energy and focus and as humans we have a finite supply of that without rest. So, in theory, if I could remove all the excess decisions around my tasks throughout the day, I would end the workday with energy to spare.

Next Decision: Decide how to fix the cycle of exhaustion. I love organizing. I adore productivity tips and tricks. My YouTube feed is full of people extolling the virtues of the newest thing guaranteed to help put every aspect of life into nicely organized boxes. Unfortunately, I love it a little too much. Sometimes I get trapped in a cycle of trying the fancy new app or method thinking “Yes! This will solve all of my problems! I’ll just redo everything and it’ll be pretty and the prettiness will inspire me to be Superwoman!” Spoiler: pretty color-coding does not magically fix your library’s catalog issues.

Next Decision: Ignore the shiny baubles and focus on getting a system that works. First things first, I had to gather all the tasks/plans/half-developed thoughts I had. After digging through partial bullet journals, online trackers, note-taking apps and not-quite-sticky-anymore notes, I had a metaphorical mountain of stuff to do. Gross. Now what?

Next Decision: Determine how I work best. Instead of forcing myself into someone else’s method, respect my own personality and embrace that. Next, notice where it’s lacking. For me it was priorities and dates. I hate them. They stress me out. My tasks tended to only get a priority when it was super urgent (which was all the time) so it was like having no priority at all.

Next Decision: Actually apply priorities, and add start AND due dates to tasks. It was tedious and applying them to my task tower was a lot of effort. But it was worth it. Something wonderful happened. I’d start my day by opening my project management tool of choice (ClickUp™) and my “to do” list was nicely lined up for me in order of most to least importance. Tasks that took more than one day showed up on their start day and I knew exactly how long I had to finish them. I didn’t have to think and didn’t have to decide which was more important. That work had already been done, I just had to execute the task. When I had to create new tasks, I would quickly put in its priority level and dates, and then go on my way knowing it would show up on my list when needed.

Because I’m not spending all my time deciding what I should do next and weighing the pros and cons, I’m able to devote my energy on the tasks themselves. Which means they actually get completed. That gives me a sense of accomplishment, which makes me happy and therefore safely removed from moldy-sponge-brain status.

Taking care to reduce unnecessary decisions from my daily routines has become a form of emotional and mental self-care for me. I hope that anyone out there who may be experiencing decision fatigue without realizing it can find some help and encouragement from my story. Amelia Earhart once said, “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” I believe that most librarians are tenacious by nature of the job, so the Next Decision: is up to you.

Good Reasons For Those Bad Decisions

One of the most important responsibilities of any library leader is to make the right decisions. When our decisions have minor consequences the long-term impact of deciding poorly will likely be minor or non-existent. But decisions involving people’s positions, large-scale automation or significant resource allocations can have long-term and profound implications for our libraries and institutions. A leader able to make good judgment calls is an asset to his or her academic library. But according to the speaker we heard at ACRL’s President’s Program at the ALA Conference, most of us are going to make plenty of bad decisions. Why? Because not only are we irrational, but we are so irrational that our bad decisions can practically be predicted.

Our speaker, Dr. Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” gave an insightful and entertaining talk about the forces of irrationality behind our decision making. Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics, MIT’s Sloan School of Management and Media Laboratory. He provided many good examples and colorful stories to prove his points, and most of them are based on experiments that support his premise that people are easily influenced and fail to know their own preferences. There are more ideas from Ariely’s talk than I can share here so if it sounds interesting to you, read the book. But I’ll share what I consider the two most important take away thoughts from the talk.

First, pay attention to how decision questions are framed. Ariely demonstrated that simply changing a question from a positive (accepting something) to a negative (rejecting something) could make a significant difference in how people responded to a decision – even if the outcome of the decision was the same in each situation. Ariely told us that humans are susceptible to visual illusions, decoys and being overwhelmed by more than a few options, and that our intuitions can be dangerous to follow. Just being aware of these basic failings should cause us carefully assess the decision situation so we truly understand the potential consequences of the decision outcome. Second, as organizations that have services and products to market it may benefit academic librarians to better understand how our users are predictably irrational so that we can better frame the decisions we give them to make. Google or a library database? Properly framed, a student may judge that the right decision involves consulting a library research guide or getting personalized help from a librarian. Telling students the library has 400 or 500 databases may sound impressive but it may actually cause them seek out web sites with far few choices – like one resource option and a single search box.

Ariely is not the first to bring to our attention that we lack the ability to make good decisions. Kahneman and Tversky were two behavioral scientists who researched human bias and risk handling. Their research showed that most people would make decisions based on loss aversion, avoiding a loss rather than making a gain. They did this by using the same technique that Ariely uses in his experiments – reframing the same situation to offer both a loss and gain proposition. In their experiments Kahneman and Tversky found people were far more likely to make decisions based on avoiding a loss, even when it was irrational. Like Ariely, Kahneman and Tversky found that our decisions could be manipulated depending on how the decision question was framed. It also reminds us that we can make bad decisions simply in trying to avoid taking a risk.

And the latest cognitive decision-making research shows that we may have even less control over our own decision making then previously thought. The Wall Street Journal reported just recently that the human brain has the capacity to make up its mind for us ten seconds before we even become conscious of a decision. A series of interesting experiments suggests that the brain uses our perceptions and experiences to plan ahead for us and to act on incomplete information to help predetermine our choices. If this is true then it may be best to base decisions on gut reactions and avoid overthinking things. But given the research of Ariely and others, our perceptive and intuitive abilities have so many flaws that it is no surprise the brain would lead us to bad decisions in any number of situations, especially those whose circumstances are so new or unpredictable that good judgment calls are difficult. So if you readers still think you have all the makings of a totally rational decision maker, better think again.

Just prior to Ariely’s presentation ACRL handed out four of its major awards. These included the winners of the doctoral reseach award and the Excellence in Academic Libraries awards. ACRL saved the presentation of its most prestigous award, ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year for last. This year’s winner is Peter Hernon, professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. Hernon is shown below with the award certificate. Oh yeah, the award winner also gets $5,000. Congratulations to Peter Hernon on being named ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year.

Peter Hernon with his ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year Award

Why Students Want Simplicity And Why It Fails Them When It Comes To Research

The research process, by its very nature, can be both complicated and complex. For students it presents a gap between the known and unknown. They get a research assignment, usually broadly defined by the instructor, and then need to identify a topic without necessarily knowing much of anything about the subject. Then to further complicate matters the student must navigate unfamiliar resources, perhaps encountering new and unusal concepts along the way. A defining quality of a complex problem is that right answers are not easily obtainable. Excepting those students who are passionate about the study matter and research project, most students would prefer to simplify their research as much as possible. The problem, as a new article points out, is that applying simple problem solving approaches to complex problems is a contextual error that will lead to failure. I think this theory may better inform us about why students take the path of least resistance for their academic research, than our usual beliefs that they are just lazy, have adapted to their instructors acceptance of “good enough” research or that the blame lies with us for serving up too complex search systems.

The Cynefin (pronounced Ku-Nev-In) Framework can help us understand why students apply simple approaches to complex problems, and how that is a formula for poor research results. Cynefin is a Welsh word that signifies the many factors in our environment and experience that influence us in ways we can never understand. A recent Harvard Business Review piece by David Snowden and Mary Boone explains how the Cynefin Framework can help us to better match our process for problem solving to the actual context of any particular problem. In other words, as a decision maker – and being an effective researcher requires the making of any number of decisions (what database to use, what search terms to use, which results to explore, etc.) – one must understand the very context of the situation in order to think clearly about developing the appropriate decision. In their November 2007 HBR article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” Snowden and Boone help us to understand how to make better decisions in multiple contexts. Some might call this situational leadership.

The four main contexts are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic, but here I’ll deal with just simplicity and complexity. Simple decisions have their place. It depends on the context of the problem situation. We resolve them by using patterns and processes that have delivered past success. In other words we approach simple problems by using personal best practices. The right answer is clear, evident and without dispute. There is no uncertainty. The danger lies in what the authors call “entrained thinking”. When managers and leaders approach a problem the natural reaction is to use familiar strategies and methods to seek the one right solution – the ones we have trained ourselves to use because they typically succeed. While those entrained methods may work well in simple contexts they may lead to disatrous results when the context is complex. The point of the article is that managers and leaders must first analyze the situation at hand to determine its true context, and then use decision-making strategies that effectively fit that context. In some situations that are extremely complex, the authors say that no leader may be able to devise an effective solution and that those involved in the situation must allow a solution to emerge. Great leaders recognize these dilemmas, and are able to construct the environment that generates discussion that leads to the generation of ideas.

Students come to our academic institutions after 15 or so years of research methods that may have always worked in their previous simple contexts. I need to know the names of Britanny Spears’ children…I use Google to find the answer. I need to know what year the War of 1812 started…I use Ask.com to find the answer. I need to know the reasons the American Revolution began…I use Wikipedia to find the answer. In these simple contexts there is always a right answer that can be easily obtained. If these strategies have served our students well, what do we think they’ll do when they get their first challenging research assignments? Right! They’ll apply their decision-making process that has previously led to great success. So what can we do about this? How can we help our students to understand that when it comes to college-level research they must first examine and understand the context of the decisions they will need to make before taking any action?

I propose that we add “identify and understand the context of the research problem and choose a decision-making style that matches that context” to that long list of information literacy skills that many of us list in some planning document. And it should be near the top of the list. There are times when a research question has but one correct answer and the simple context demands a simple research method. Go ahead and search Google. But when the research challenge is vague, involves uncertainty and requires navigating some complex issues, then students need to recognize it and overcome their temptation to seek out simple solutions. I’d like to think that if we can get students to think in terms of context it might help them to increase the effectiveness of their research skills. This skill could prove to be valuable for achieving academic success, but also for the many decisions our students will need to make in their post-college careers.