The average adult makes approximately 35,000 decisions every day. You read that right, thirty-five thousand decisions per day. How can our brains possibly process all those decisions in 24 hours? Well, the short answer is - it doesn't. 95% of the decisions we make are made subconsciously. They are rapid, and we function in an auto-pilot like state to decide tings like when to put toothpaste on our toothbrush, and whether to put our seatbelt on first, or turn the car on. But the remaining 5%, that is where it gets tricky. As modern adults, many of those decisions we make are in relation to our work. So how do we ensure that we are making good decisions for the 5% that require our active thinking and selection? Luckily, our brain has different tools and shortcuts to help us make better decisions, such as mental models.
What are mental models?
Mental models are frameworks that help us understand and interpret the world around us. They shape how we see and approach problems, help us simplify them, and make better decisions. According to Farnam Street (our favorite resource for decision-making), “The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models in our head and their usefulness in the situation at hand. The more models you have—the bigger your toolbox—the more likely you are to have the right models to see reality.”
In this article, we will explore three examples of mental models, how they work, and how you can apply them to making better decisions at work.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The first mental model we will look at is the Eisenhower Matrix. Also known as the Urgent-Important Matrix, this is a simple but effective tool for prioritizing tasks and managing time more effectively. It supports the elimination of noise and prioritizing time.
It was popularized by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II, an academic, and the 34th President of the United States. He was known for his ability to stay calm and focused despite the many demands of his diverse leadership roles that required urgent action. This matrix is named after him based on his approach to prioritization and time management, which is rooted in his belief that what is important is rarely urgent and what is urgent is rarely important.
The matrix works by dividing tasks into four categories based on their level of urgency and importance. This allows individuals to quickly determine which tasks to tackle first, which to schedule for later, and which to delegate. By using the matrix to prioritize their workload, leaders can make more informed decisions about how to allocate their time and resources.
At work this matrix has a very simple application; it allows you to make a decision about what tasks to prioritize. Whether you are looking to make the most out of your day, or to determine which initiatives to take on ahead of a major product launch, the Eisenhower Matrix is a popular and effective mental model in time and task management.
The Bezos Matrix
The Bezos Matrix helps you understand the type of decision being made and the best tools and speed to use in making it. In a 2016 letter to shareholders, Bezos stated that irreversible and consequential decisions require time, care, and research, while reversible decisions can be approached differently. Bezos believes that understanding the type of decision being made can increase the speed with which it can be made and improve the quality of the outcome. Bezos uses this matrix as part of Amazon's effort to balance the advantages of a large organization with the speed, nimbleness, and risk-acceptance mentality of a start-up to become an "invention machine."
The framework uses a 2x2 matrix with the Y-axis representing how reversible the decision is and the X-axis representing how consequential or important it is. This understanding allows decision-makers to apply the appropriate level of time, care, and research needed to make a good decision.
This mental model is helpful, particularly when you are making high impact decisions. Examples include investment or policy decisions, during crisis management scenarios, or during an organizational restructuring.
First Principles Thinking
First principles thinking is a powerful mental model that involves breaking down complex problems or situations into their fundamental components and then reassembling them from the ground up. It’s an ancient philosophy, and the idea behind this approach is to strip away assumptions and preconceptions, and instead focus on the underlying facts and principles that govern a given situation.
This helps leaders gain a deeper understanding of the problem at hand, and potentially identify new and innovative solutions that may not have been apparent through more traditional modes of thinking. According to James Clear, multiple great thinkers and leaders used this mental model such as Gutenberg and Aristotle.
Elon Musk, specifically, used first principle thinking before launching SpaceX. Elon Musk used first principles thinking for decision-making by breaking down the cost of purchasing a rocket, analyzing the fundamental parts of the rocket materials, and realizing that the materials cost was only a small percentage of the typical price. Instead of buying a finished rocket for millions of dollars, he decided to create his own company, purchase raw materials for cheap, and build the rockets himself. By using first principles thinking, Musk was able to bypass the high prices of the aerospace industry and create a more effective solution for launching rockets with his company SpaceX.
Leaders can apply first principles thinking when breaking down complex issues into fundamental components. Other use cases include innovation and product development (such as Musk), organizational culture management, or new market entry or expansion.
These are just a few of the many mental models available to help aid decision-making. If you're interested in learning more about how to improve your decision-making, or if you are interested in leveling-up your leadership team, book a 1-on-1 consultation with one of our consultants today to learn more about our trainings and workshops.