A Scottish poet once pointed out that people often use data and statistics in the same way drunken men lean on lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.

The image raises lots of questions in my mind about how we use information to make decisions.  There have been instances when, faced with a decision, I’ve spent lots of time gathering a surplus of information. When it was time to finally make a move, I would get stuck on which way to go. The hesitation usually is due to information overload, a phenomenon that leads to more questions than certainty.

When certainty is lacking, analysis paralysis or decision paralysis can set in. This occurs when a clear course of action isn’t apparent but you continue to amass information in hopes of one materializing. An everyday example is the difficulty we sometimes face when ordering a meal at a restaurant. 

If you’ve heard the words, “do you need a few minutes” or “we’re still looking”, then you may have experienced decision paralysis or been in the company of someone who has.

By the way, I like when my girlfriend speaks to me; so I wager we suffer from an acceptable equal rate of decision paralysis when ordering.

Before information overload became commonplace, those in search of information had fewer avenues, making information sharing streamlined and targeted.   In other words, if a menu only has three items, you would probably order more quickly than if you were faced with an array of choices.

But how do you avoid the decision paralysis trap when you have a continuous stream of information at your fingertips?

When appropriate, I use intuition based on experience.  By leveraging similar experiences I can come to a decision much quicker; eliminating the chance of research or analysis slowing my decision making process.  

For example at Xerox, I’m asked to blog on a variety of topics. Although I don’t have specific blogging experience, I do have experience writing columns on behalf of subject matter experts. So I’ve leveraged my experience writing columns to help me with my blogging process.

Although information should illuminate your decision making, it can be thin unless it’s sometimes mixed with experience.