Do you think it is better to think long and hard before making an important decision? Isn’t that what we have all been taught? Well this conventional wisdom might not be the best thing to do.

According to researchers Ap Dijksterhuis and Zeger van Olden, “conscious thought has shortcomings that can prevent sound decision making” (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42, pg. 627-631). It has to do with the brain’s capacity to process information. The conscious mind is more limited: it can only consider a few facts at a time. So if a simple and easy decision needs to be made, (such as the color of dish towels) then by all means think about it. The factors that you think about when making a conscious decision are usually the things that you are drawn to at that moment; the negative is that these things are not necessarily the important things that make the most difference later on. Only after we have made a decision do we sometimes say to ourselves, “why didn’t I think about that when I made my decision?” Now you know your brain could not do it.

But if a decision is complex (such as buying a car or changing jobs), the unconscious mind has a much larger capacity and does a better job of integrating many more factors. For instance, when buying a car we may consciously focus on the color or the look of the car to the detriment of the gas mileage or trunk space. But if we learn about all of the features and sleep on it or let it roll around in our brains for a while without thinking about it,  the right decision will come through.

But there is one caveat – you do have to tell yourself that you must make a decision at some point. If you do this, it will kick start your unconscious mind to start working. Then when you are ready to make the decision, your gut will tell you which is the right way to go.

“The implication is that for complex choices, once you have done a certain amount of thinking to gather relevant information, further thinking is counterproductive. Instead, busy yourself with other tasks, and let your unconscious work on the problem.” Gareth Cook, Thought for Thinkers, Boston Globe.  The research has shown that not only did people make the right decision more often by following this model, but they were happier about their decision as well.