“Pray About It” and “Sleep On It”: Mormon Decision-Making and a Little Insight from the Harvard Business Review

The latest Harvard Business Review provides an insight about decision making that could help explain why a basic Mormon approach to decision making is such a good idea – even if you aren’t LDS and even if you don’t believe in prayer.

Let me first explain that one of the trademarks of Latter-day Saint life is a frequent reliance on prayer in decision making. You will frequently hear Church leaders encouraging people to “pray about it” when struggling with decisions and problems, and when LDS people explain why they made some decision, they will commonly note that they had prayed about the decision and felt that they should do things some particular way. This can be awfully exasperating, especially to outsiders who don’t accept the concept of personal revelation from God. It can even be exasperating to insiders who think that a stupid decision has been made without carefully consider the logical factors that should have been heavily weighted. Frankly, those who want to do something stupid sometimes use “I prayed about it” as a shield to deflect inquiries about the reasons for poor decisions, so I’ve sometimes been in the exasperated camp.

But the most commonly cited LDS scripture on prayer in decision actually requires careful, logical mental effort first, followed by prayer. This approach would reduce some of the abuses I’ve seen when some Mormons want to justify acts of stupidity with “I prayed about it” as an excuse. In Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8, the Lord explains that intellectual effort is essential as a first step:

7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I
will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

Couple this with the frequent scriptural call to “ponder” things in our heart (e.g., Moroni 10:3-5). The approach that many of us take on big issues to gather facts, ponder them, and then turn to the Lord in prayer – prayer that may require much more than a single moment of prayer, but may require occasional prayer over a few days. In fact, a common Mormon approach to decision making combines prayer with the notion of “sleeping on it” to allow the Lord time to work with us, perhaps to guide us in dreams or feelings that come over time as we wait for revelation. Information gathering, pondering, a tentative assessment, then prayer and patient waiting – “sleeping on it” – might be considered to the LDS “best practice” for making important and complex decisions.

Now, in light of an interesting note in the latest Harvard Business Review, this practice would seem to make some sense even for those who don’t believe in prayer or God.

In HBR’s list of “Breakthrough Ideas for 2007” is Breakthrough Idea #9: Sleep on It. Research indicates that decision making can be improved when we give the subconscious mind time to sift through the facts and come up with a decision that might seem like a feeling or impression without a clear understanding of why – the gut feel of intuition, perhaps. So Ap Dijksterhuis, a professor of psychology at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands (a recent winner of a Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology from the American Psychological Association), recommends that good decision making for complex, important issues begins with fact finding, but rather than making an immediate decision, we should take a break and wait for subconscious processing before we come back and make the decision. For the “LDS best practice,” even though there is a tentative early decision, the processing of subsequent prayer and waiting for an answer that we feel seems to be a close parallel to the secular “best practice.”

So even if you don’t believe in God, take a little time after you’ve gathered the facts to wait for intuition and “feelings” from another source – the subconscious mind – to help guide you.

And if you really want to step up the power of your decision making and the quality of your life, get on your knees and experiment with prayer. You might be surprised to find What you encounter.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

7 thoughts on ““Pray About It” and “Sleep On It”: Mormon Decision-Making and a Little Insight from the Harvard Business Review

  1. Well done. I am often concerned at church, work and everywhere about the dangers of impulsive decision making. The more important the decision, the more time and care we should put into it.

  2. “This approach would reduce some of the abuses I’ve seen when some Mormons want to justify acts of stupidity with “I prayed about it” as an excuse.”

    On the other hand, earnest saints, striving to do the right, have been commanded/inspired to do some pretty counter-intuitive things.

  3. I think sometimes when people say, “I’ve prayed about it,” that’s the short way of saying that they’ve done all the studying, pondering, decision-making, etc. that goes with it. I enjoyed the post.

  4. Interesting post, I love a good read from HBR.

    What are your thoughts on missionaries giving very little time to "study things out"?

    Before I studied the issue, I received a no. I knew the "milk", though. A friend of mine's father told me the entire basic message in a three hour conversation. I also prayed multiple times; the missionaries suggested improved formulas for praying rather than pointing out that I should study.

    How much studying should be done? Should Joseph Smith's ways of handling polygamy behind his wife's back be brought up? Should becoming a god be mentioned? The requirements behind temple-worthiness? The Book of Abraham?

    The Moroni method makes no mention of needing to study things out, and only loosely of having to read the Book of Mormon. The missionaries would suggest reading the testimony of the witnesses, Moroni's promise, and then pray. Still, I got a no.

    I don't believe that prayer is a sound method to discern truth, but…what if everyone who got a no is right? I find it just as possible that everyone who got a yes is right, which in other words, means people take a 50/50 shot when they accept the church as true.

    Same goes for every answer they receive through prayer, which really explains the awful exasperation we experience because someone put too much trust in prayer.

    But quite frankly, I see no corroboration for "praying about it" from the idea of "sleeping on it". Those are two very separate methods, on the surface.

  5. I learned a lot about the importance of thinking things through and being mindful while praying for an answer. Thanks for the great insight. I am brand new to my faith and learning to trust in the Lord for the first time. I just wrote about “The Night I Realized God Answers My Prayers” http://www.theseed-kt.blogspot.com

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