Updated: Jun 5
Whether you're the head of a government or a shopper in a supermarket, everybody is a decision-maker. But, the pressure to make the right decision can leave us worrying into the night, “how can I know if I’m doing the right thing?” The simple answer is: you can’t. Sorry. There is no way to reliably know what might have been had you done things differently. Something awful might have become an opportunity, vice versa, or anything in between. So the concept of a right or wrong choice is quite simply abstract, right? But there are a few ways of thinking that can make the process easier, increase your probability of success, and make decision-making bearable; enjoyable even!
What the experts say
There has been a lot of quality research carried out on the subject of decision-making and the number-one finding of these studies is… (are you sitting down?) decision-making is more of an emotional process than a rational one. We have the impression that we’ve weighed up the “pros” and “cons” but in fact, they don’t count for much. We make most of our decisions with the heart and then spend our time justifying our choices with logic after the fact. This Stanford University professor explains it very well.
Scientific surprise number two is that we have a massive tendency to believe that the choices we’ve already made were the best, no matter what. It's like a self-defence mechanism embedded in our brains. We find it more or less impossible to differentiate the objective facts from our perception of being right. Even with the toughest of outcomes in our personal or professional lives, a few months later we believe deeply, almost systematically, that it was for the best. This professor from Harvard University explains it very well.
In big business, leaders are increasingly expected to be able to make bold decisions, having measured the impact not only on profits but the entire ecosystem of the company, all the while remaining flexible in the face of the unpredictable... Doing this successfully involves what social psychologists call “risk tolerance”. Of course, these "perfect" leaders need to take into account all available information and take responsibility for the outcomes, but they have no more or less guarantee than the rest of us that their decisions will be good, it is simply that they have learned to tolerate uncertainty.
The Second Law of Thermo Dynamics explains how the arrow of time flies in only one direction, so there is no way to see the paths of the different choices that were at one point available to us. Even if we can change paths later, we would never know what would have happened to us if we had decided to go this way earlier. :-(
But all this does not mean that decision-making is arbitrary and the processes we go through unnecessary. Our decisions often have real and high impact consequences on our lives and the lives of others. Fortunately, there are small adjustments to our ways of thinking that can improve decision-making and lead to faster, more reliable results. Below are 5 of my favourite useful ideas around making decisions:
Tip # 1 - Sleep on it
Make important decisions in the morning after a good night's sleep. When we sleep, we replenish our supply of serotonin, a hormone that makes us clear-sighted, calm and less risk averse. If you don't have the luxury of choosing when to make your decisions (nor whether you have slept well), you can nonetheless, do a little audit of your stress levels: slow down and deepen your breathing, ensure that your muscles are not tight. Take 5 minutes to walk around and drink a glass of water (no coffee!). All these gestures of calm inform your brain that you’re not in danger and therefore instead of attributing resources for defending yourself, you direct the oxygen to the parts of the brain dedicated to fluid consideration, and creativity allowing you a large and complex field of vision.
Tip # 2 - Be logical
You already know how to make a list of “pros” and “cons”, and some of you with be familiar with SWOT analysis. And if these methods feel like they would help, don’t hesitate to use them and any other tools available; if it seems useful, it probably is. One tool that my clients often find useful is called “fear setting”. The idea is to write down the thing that you’re scared of doing. Then, write a list of the worst possible things that could go wrong if you do that thing? Next, for each worst possible outcome write down what you can do beforehand that could mitigate the undesirable consequences. Lastly, if the worst happened, what could you do to get over it? This man of multiple successes explains it very well.
Tip # 3 - Be illogical
Ok, no need to be completely illogical, but let go for a moment. Think outside the box: what if the difficulty with these decisions was not what you imagined it to be. Or, is it possible that the difficulty is alerting you to something else that you need to change? This way of thinking is called reframing. For example, rather than trying to make a decision about an external problem to do with another person, one possibility is to ask what you could change about yourself. There is no one way to do this, but the more you make a habit of questioning the decisions you’re confronted with, the better you become at it. Try out this little thought experiment a few times without being too critical of your answers: What would be the most disrupting decision you could make (quitting your job, running away, writing a best selling novel inspired by the situation)? Then try out changing the word “disrupting” for say, “saddest” or “smartest”, or “most creative”. Sometimes the most preposterous ideas can bring the simpler ones into perspective. What if the real reason the decision was difficult was that you are sad because nobody loves you and you know very well that it is not true, but you actually need a hug ... Could you give yourself a mental hug, and then move on? Remember that decision making is, in most cases, emotional.
Tip # 4 - Trust, or take control?
If you have someone you trust who is better able to make a decision than you, someone who wants the best for you; then trust them. Or, if in fact the decision is not yours to make, let go and leave it to the person concerned. Studies clearly show that when the weight of a decision is taken away from us, we accept it more easily and we start to function much better. If the idea of letting go of control seems unbearable to you, don't worry; take control; play the role of a great and most empowered version of you, who is fully equipped for making decisions. You know better than anyone what will work for you. But beware that to do this you will need to let go of your paralising uncertainty: it’s what the empowered version of you would do.
Tip # 5 - Stop torturing yourself
Once we’ve assimilated all the available information and we notice a preference for one of the available paths, there is no point in going around in circles. These self-feeding thought processes that are so addictive, leave us stuck, and unable to take action. Any further thinking will not bring better results or alleviate the uncertainty. It’s time to stop torturing yourself. It’s a matter of will, but seeing the future is unavailable to us, uncertainty is part of life, and your emotions already know your choice. Make the decision, move on, and bask in the warm relief shining down on you! Making decisions and taking responsibility for those choices triggers feelings of lightness, joy and when you allow yourself to do so, it can be very pleasant!