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How Your Brain Determines the Difficulty of a Task 

Decisions shape our lives. As leaders, the decisions we make and execute also shape the lives of our team members, colleagues, direct reports, customers, suppliers, and even the communities in which we operate and live.

Fortunately, decision making is a skill. And like all skills, it is something that can be learned, practiced, and enhanced over timeMind Full to Mindful Leadership | Better Decision Making | Better Thinking

Scientists are gaining a grasp on the regions of the brain most responsible for our decision-making processes.

A study published in Cell revealed that the time it takes for the brain to create an answer to a problem correlates with the perceived difficulty of the decision and the decision-making level of cautiousness. This study, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford, was focused on the decision threshold, which is the brain’s ability to determine the level of a task based on the perceived difficulty of the task. Interestingly, our brains infer the difficulty of a task based on the initial information available to it. From this inference, the brain assigns a specified level or degree of difficulty threshold.

Intuitively, this makes sense. One of the first tasks in any decision-making process is to determine the perceived difficulty of making a viable decision. What to order at lunch at a favorite restaurant? A pretty easy decision most of the time. What to order from a restaurant in Lisbon when the menu is printed in Portuguese? That’s a higher level of difficulty, unless you are fluent in Portuguese.

This study revealed one very interesting aspect of the brain’s decision-making process. This is that the brain makes an assessment of the difficulty of a task in one single event, based on the information it initially has. Hence, new information being received does not, according to this study, change the perceived difficulty threshold of the decision.

Thus, based on the information given at the beginning of a task or a problem to be solved, the brain determines and sets out a decision difficulty threshold in that first instant. This directly impacts how quickly or slowly a decision will be made.

It also means, in today’s world of information overload, that insufficient information getting through to the brain at the start of the decision-making process may be turning relatively straight-forward decisions into more difficult ones.

A lack of quality information getting through to the brain raises the perceived difficulty threshold and reduces the ability to make quicker decisions, even when timeliness is a critically important need.


This article is partially excerpted from my recent book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes: How to go from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats.

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