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Deciding how to decide

Decision making is a key skill:

In a simple world decision making would be easy.  However, we live in a complex world where decisions making is a critical skill to navigate your way forward, particularly when we get stuck. With overlapping interests, multi dimensional payoffs and unknown options, taking a decision is fraught with uncertainty.

Without the ability to make great decisions, we often get stuck.  This happens through procrastination (the failure to make a decision to act) or simply making a decision poorly. Decision making is often undervalued as a skill that can help you change your life.

Where do you regularly make poor decisions? (Or, to ask this in a different way, where do you often get low quality outcomes?)

By recognising that decision making is a skill built on a series of process steps it is possible to reframe difficult decisions into the steps that can be taken to help you make the best decision that you can.  In essence, understanding HOW you make the decision can allow you to get a better outcome. 

Who makes the decision?

We can either allow our unconscious processes to ‘take’ the decision, or we can use effort and energy to use critical thinking to make a high quality decision.  ‘HOW’ you to decide can be more important to understand than WHAT you decide. It is easy to simply go on instinct or gut feel when deciding.  However, doing so opens the way for errors, heuristics and biases to all negatively impact your choices.  It all depends how important the decision is.

The stakes:

If you have $5.00 in your hand, it is a hot day and you want an ice cream.  You are standing in front of an ice cream truck and you have a choice between chocolate and vanilla.  Which do you choose?  Honestly, who cares!  Just choose whichever you feel will suit you and you can get on and enjoy your ice cream. In this case, using a complex decision algorithm is really a waste of effort.  Procrastination is a waste of time.  Just choose and move on.

Sometimes the stakes are higher.  Do you quit your job?  Do you ask her to marry you?  Do you jump?  How do you stop being anxious? In each of these cases, the stakes are much larger and the consequences more significant.

By understanding the stakes, we can decide how much effort should go into deciding.  Low stakes should be low effort.  High stakes might require a more critical thinking approach.

Decision process:

When something doesn’t give you a good outcome, do not ask ‘why did I make that decision?’ instead, ask HOW did I make that decision?  If you do not know how you made that decision, there is every possibility you left it to your ‘intuition’ or unconscious processes to make it.

How you decided is often a hard question to answer.  For the ice cream, maybe it was choosing your favourite, or choosing what everyone else chose (both legitimate reasons).  For more complex decisions, or ones with big consequences, this is often not enough.

Elements of critical decision making

For any decision, you can unlock the process by defining:

  • What is the outcome that you want? Why do you want that?
  • What options do you have? Are there any options you are not considering?
  • What assumptions are you making about each option?
  • What are the consequences of each option (risk and reward)?
  • What does not deciding look like?

When all choices are bad:

Sometimes, the decision is made more difficult because there is no good option or no outcome looks acceptable.  Sometimes we have to choose the best of the bad options.  This is often where we procrastinate because it feels like any decision is a bad one.  However, choosing the best of a bad lot can help you move forward rather than fall victim to the often worse scenario of delaying deciding (with the costs involved) and still having to make a choice.

Building critical decision making skills:

Making decisions in complex environments is a learnable skill.  It takes practice and effort to develop.  As a coach and clinician, I often help people manage themselves across this gap, and building this critical skill which will help them get unstuck now, and throughout the rest of the their careers/lives.

Ask yourself:

  • Where are you stuck in your life?
  • What decision sits behind where you are stuck?
  • What decisions do you find are difficult or complex?
  • What would happen if you made a better decision?

Contact me now if you want to explore your decision making and you want to get unstuck.