Sleep On It: Using Time to Make Better Decisions

by | June 1, 2021

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here again, continuing with some thoughts on ethical decision-making. Here is a quick recap of the 10-step process I have put together over a period of years to assist you in making decisions on low-frequency events:

  1. Identify and clarify the issue. If it is a preservation-of-life event, act immediately (#8). Short of that, identify what needs to be decided.
  2. Do I have time to think? If so, move on to #3. If not, hopefully you picked this up on your risk assessment and through constant training have learned how to best act in this situation.
  3. Can I handle this event? If so, move to #4. If not, get it to someone who can handle it and follow through to make sure it got done.
  4. What is the policy of our agency re: this event? If policy exists, follow the policy. If there is no policy, refer to the mission statement of your organization and make sure your action is consistent with this statement.
  5. What is our past practice in this type of event? You may not have handled this type of event before, but maybe someone in your organization has. Consistency is critical.
  6. What are the ethical issues involved in this event? We must be concerned not just about doing things right but doing the right thing right.
  7. What are the consequences of my actions? Smart people consider consequences before they occur.
  8. Make and implement your decision. Remember it is not too late to go back to #1 to make sure you are still headed in the right direction.
  9. Document as necessary why you did what you did.
  10. If you learned something new, share it with your peers.

In the last two articles, I focused on step one—identifying “what is going on”—and drilled down just a bit on two issues. First, the primary mission of every person in public safety for that matter is preservation of life. Second, you must be aware of the danger of making up your mind too quickly by letting RPDM (recognition-primed decision-making) get in the way.

Step one is the most important part of the decision-making process. You cannot make the right decision if you are addressing the wrong problem. It is important that you gather all the facts regarding “what is going on and what I am being asked to do.”

There is some value to “sleeping on it.” Just because you are not awake does not mean your brain is not processing information.

Listen to what is being communicated to you. Ask clarifying questions as necessary. Is the information you are receiving from multiple sources (different people, observations you are making through your five—or possibly six—senses) consistent, or is there conflicting information that needs to be considered? While I caution you to not let RPDM get in the way, it is always necessary to rely on your past experiences to identify what needs to be decided. Just be cautious of getting prematurely locked into a line of thinking.

Once you have identified and clarified the issue, the second step of the decision-making process is to ask yourself, “Do I have time to think?” On my recommended reading list are two great books, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Think by Dr. Michael LeGault. I know your time is precious, but these are both great reads.

Gladwell is a fascinating speaker and writer. In Blink he talks about your brain’s unique ability to make split-second decisions. LeGault, on the other hand, cautions that critical decisions cannot be made in the blink of the eye. If you have time to think, please use it. Slow down and think.

Your mother or father may have given you the same advice when you were growing up. Perhaps you had a career question, or a question on which school to choose, or which sport to focus on, or what car to buy, and your thoughtful parent said, “Why don’t you sleep on it?” Oddly enough that is not just telling you to slow down and think—there is some value to “sleeping on it.” Just because you are not awake does not mean your brain is not processing information.

I learned this trick decades ago when I was at St. Ignatius High School (now college preparatory) in San Francisco. The Jesuits were big on memorization. Every day there was some memory exercise, usually a classic poem. The trick I learned was to do this memorization right before going to bed. Somehow my brain processed the words as I slept.

Here I am 50 years later and I use this technique even now as I prepare for any public speaking event. Please do not think I just “get up and talk”—no, there is a lot of preparation involved in making a presentation. That process starts months in advance of the presentation. First, we select a topic that fits the request of the event host. My great staff then gathers current information about the profession I will be addressing and checks for recent tragedies in that profession, changes in the law, recent developments in the news and other relevant data.

You must be aware of the danger of making up your mind too quickly by letting RPDM (recognition-primed decision-making) get in the way.

About a month out from any talk, I prepare the handout material and send it off to my editor for the purpose of cleaning it up and making it readable and then my great staff sends it to the event host for their approval and duplication for the attendees. The night prior to the event, the last thing I do before going to sleep is to review a hard copy (actual paper) of the handouts and make notes as to what I want to focus on during the presentation.

When I wake up in the morning, it is very clear in my mind how I will start the program, get people interested, let them know that I know what I am talking about, and hit the salient points I want them to leave with to improve the quality of operations in their particular organization.

Over the decades I have been making presentations, this formula of “sleeping on it” has served me well and I will do it again tomorrow night when I prepare for my talk in Milwaukee and next month when I prepare for my talk in Pennsylvania, and again when I prepare for my talk in Charlotte.

In his great work Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman indirectly talks about “blink vs. think” decision-making. One of my favorite quotes from his lectures relates to this idea of using time—specifically, sleeping—to make better decisions:

Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier and addicted to this exercise six months from now.

Bottom line: If you have time to think, use it prior to making your decision.

Whoa—I am way, way over my word limit for this writing and do not want to anger Madame Editor. Until next time, please sleep productively!

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Whenever you have a great idea or a thought you want to ponder, write it down. I have stacks of 3X5 cards lying around the house, in every jacket pocket, in my car, in my briefcase and all over the place, including on my nightstand.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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