Becoming a Better Decision Maker

Woman deciding

Much of life requires us to make decisions. For many, this is an uncomfortable process. There is no magic formula that guarantees the “right” decision every time. In a way, it is comforting to know that everyone makes a poor choice once in a while. The goal, therefore, is not perfection. Instead, when we make decisions, we want to simultaneously maximize two factors:

  1. the speed with which we decide
  2. the percentage of positive outcomes

It has been my observation that people who self-identify as poor decision makers often struggle with a few common challenges:

  • Overwhelm, when the complexity of the situation seems too big to handle
  • Anxiety, characterized by a paralyzing fear of making the wrong decision
  • Disinterest, which prevents a wise analysis of the relevant factors
  • Self-doubt, where a feeling of inadequacy clouds judgment
  • Uncertainty, typified by a lack of knowledge on how to proceed

When faced with one or more of these stressors, people tend to either make impulsive decisions or procrastinate the process altogether. Both approaches tend to result in regret and/or negative outcomes.

To become a better decision maker, it is helpful to identify which of the above factors are at play and use strategies to combat them.

If you feel overwhelmed...• Clarify the question(s)
• Outline your possible choices
• Break the decision down into smaller pieces and tackle them one by one
• Seek the support of someone who has competency in this area
If you are anxious...• Map out the worrisome outcomes
• Develop a strategy for how you would proceed if each scenario were to occur
• Avoid “catastrophizing,” or giving too much weight to highly unlikely situations
If you are disinterested...• Consider if someone else might be better positioned to handle this decision
• If you must decide, lay out a few steps to ensure that you make a good decision (e.g. research alternatives, speak to relevant parties, etc.)
• Avoid impulsive or ill-informed decisions
If you doubt yourself...• Remember that no one always makes perfect choices
• Allow sufficient time to consider all the options
• Keep a running list of wise choices you have made in the past, no matter how insignificant
• Identify someone who will affirm your efforts to make progress
If you are uncertain...• Compile a list of resources from which you can obtain information, wisdom, and advice (e.g. professionals, friends, colleagues, family members)
• Don’t pressure yourself to make a hasty decision, but also set a deadline to hold yourself accountable

As some will obviously point out, not all decisions are of equal importance…some are big (e.g. Should I marry this man?) while others seem small (e.g. Should I put ham or turkey on my sandwich?) Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that sometimes it is the smallest choices that can end up having the largest impact. For instance,

  • We choose to turn right instead of left and end up avoiding a head-on collision with a drunk driver.
  • We choose to sit at a certain table where we pick up the flu from a previous patron.
  • We decide to binge watch a TV series that just happens to be the favorite of the potential employer with whom we have an interview the following day.

The point is, since we have no way of knowing which decisions will end up having the most impact, the best we can do is make thoughtful, intentional choices based on the information and resources that are available. Lingering indecision, while tempting in the moment, is likely to result in a series of unnecessary future headaches.

What if you make a decision and things go badly? While hindsight can provide useful learning, it is never helpful to berate yourself or be paralyzed by self-recrimination when you feel you’ve erred. Reflect on what might have been done differently, humbly make amends where appropriate, and then move forward.

Being confident in your ability to make a good decision is beneficial in most aspects of life. How are you at making decisions? What strategies would you add for strengthening the decision-making muscle?

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