Why "Sleeping on it" Will Help You Make a Better Decision

Last Updated May 23, 2011 4:03 PM EDT

Ever told your boss you needed to "sleep on it" before making a big decision? Saying that is harder than it sounds because it implies that, magically, you'll be able to think better tomorrow than you can today. And chances are that your boss is more enthralled with the idea of burning the midnight oil than he or she is with the power nap.

But recent research from Radboud University Nijmegen, suggests that more focus or a clear head can be just the problem. What you really need is to get the subconscious involved-and sleep is a great way to do that.

Maarten Bos, of Radboud University, and co-author Amy Cuddy, of Harvard Business School, write in the Harvard Business Review that sometimes, 'clear' thinking is exactly the problem. Clearheaded, logical, conscious thought leads us to have greater certainty in our decisions, even when they're wrong. When it comes to big decisions that involve many variables and need more processing power than your conscious brain can muster, it's time to enlist your subconscious. For that, nothing beats sleep.

Enlisting the Subconscious
Bos, along with Ap Dijksterhuis, Rick B. van Baaren, and Andries van der Leij, of Radboud University Nijmegen, demonstrated this in a study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The researchers asked participants to choose between different cars. Some of the cars had lots of bells and whistles, but they weren't that important: cup holders, a badge on the front of the grille, a sunroof. Others had more important attributes, such as excellent safety ratings and gas mileage. Some people were asked to choose a car immediately, while others were literally given time to sleep on it. The results:

  • Most people chose the "quality cars" (those with good safety records, etc) over the others. Of those people who had to choose immediately, 75 percent chose a quality car.
  • Sleep improved the decision process. Some 90 percent of those who slept before making a choice ended up with a quality car.
Getting Smarter
Bos and Cuddy suggest a three-step process to approaching big decisions:
  1. Take in all the information. You need to enlist both your conscious and your subconscious to make good choices, especially when it comes to complex decisions. So first make sure you've got all the facts. This should help eliminate at least some of the options.
  2. Sleep on it. That's the best way to get your subconscious involved. Decisions reached subconsciously don't always give you the lovely sense of clarity that can be achieved by the conscious brain, writes Bos and his co-authors. That's because the conscious side of the brain is better at using language to justify its actions. Bos uses this example: If someone asked you why you married your spouse, you'd probably be able to come up with a rational explanation, or to provide a list of your spouse's good qualities. But will that explanation or list come anywhere close to really explaining why you're (hopefully) a good match, or in love with someone? Not likely. That's largely the work of the subconscious. We generally don't have the proper verbal skills to explain what the subconscious does, but we still need its contribution.
  3. Check the facts again. The subconscious is not as precise as the conscious. No amount of sleep is going to help you with an arithmetic problem (although mathematicians are just as prone to subconscious inspiration as anyone else).
Bos and Cuddy realize that it's not always possible to grab a solid eight hours before making a complicated decision, or even to take a nap. But there are other ways to get your conscious mind out of the way so your subconscious can get to work, such as going running or listening to music.

Do you feel you make better decisions after sleeping on them? What other techniques lead to better decision-making?

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Image courtesy of flickr user Aaron Jacobs
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.