I received a frantic message from my friend Nick on Monday night. Apparently, he had been contacted by an old friend about an international business opportunity and he wanted my advice. In the message, he said he would send me a few files to review and call me in the morning.
On Tuesday morning, I check my email and opened the attachment from Nick. There were twenty files about this opportunity. It was an overwhelming amount of information and I had no clue where to begin. There was an overview document hiding in the middle of the pack. I scanned it for the finer points of the business idea.
Nick called later that morning with an excited and chaotic cadence to his speech. He tried to describe the opportunity, but he was all over the board. Nick was under pressure to give his friend an answer quickly. Was he in or not?
Nick had a bad case of hyponatremia.
Hyponatremia is basically overdosing on water. It often happens when we “drink from a firehose.” Some of the symptoms include: nausea, vomiting, headache, short-term memory loss, confusion, irritability and decreased consciousness. This sounded like Nick when he called me.
The expression drinking from a firehose refers to being overwhelmed. Nick had scrambled through those twenty documents trying to determine the pros and cons of the opportunity. As a result, he had factored in too many variables to make a sound decision. Having too much information leads to what I call a momentary lapse of reason. This triggers our irrational autopilot (System 1) thinking and it can lead to a poor decision.
The remedy to mental hyponatremia is focus. So, I asked Nick this question: “What does your friend want you to do?” Nick replied, “I don’t know. He didn’t tell me.”
“Let’s start there,” I said. Focusing on one variable “switched on” Nick’s rational thinking (System 2) and he began to calm down. I helped him identify the three things he needed to know before he wasted any more time investigating the opportunity: What is the business objective; What is Nick’s role in the organization; and how would Nick be compensated? If he didn’t like the answer to any of these questions, there would be no need to move forward. The rest of the information was useless. If he liked the answer to all three of these questions, then he could move on to other pressing questions like, is this concept viable? Now he had a plan… or at least a few next steps.
When you feel overwhelmed, pick one thing on which to focus your attention. Understandably, when you are in a momentary lapse of reason, it is difficult to determine which factor is the most important. So, pick one that you feel is important to you. For Nick it was “What do you want me to do?” but any single major factor in a decision will typically lead you to the other factors.
If you are thinking, “This is common sense.” You are absolutely right. Unfortunately, as Voltaire taught us, “Common sense is not so common.” And it is even more rare when we find ourselves in a momentary lapse of reason. So, when you begin to feel the symptoms of mental hyponatremia, stop drinking from the firehose! Grab a straw instead.
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