The big D word.
Sometimes they’re big and other times they’re small.
They can either make you feel like a legend or transform you into a sweaty mess.
Ahhh decisions. Like Marmite, you either love ‘em or hate ‘em.
After all, they can be quite the conundrum, the slippery old eels.
The fact is, decisions constitute a huge part of our lives, so learning some of their dark secrets makes sense.
Still with me? Ok, let’s dive in.
The “Right” Decision Fallacy
The fact is, we decision-phobes (yes, I reluctantly include myself in this category) are often little perfectionists, thinking we must make a decision that yields the “best” outcome.
Outcomes, however, are arbitrary and subjective, not to mention frequently beyond our control.
As Shakespeare (possibly) once said,
“Nothing is either good or bad, only thinking makes it so”.
The clever old sausage.
In other words, outcomes should be regarded with caution. What may be perceived good by one person may be interpreted as terrible by another.
You must have experienced this in your own life. When you’re at a group meal and suddenly, your normally mild-mannered friend acts like a deranged lunatic, a hanger-beast emerging from their dark soul.
While everyone else, despite facing the same situation, is completely fine.
This very subjectivity of outcomes should act as reassurance that there’s never a “right” decision or “best” outcome. They’re simply actions and situations, to be reframed however you like. You can choose.
So if outcomes are somewhat unreliable as decision benchmarks, the most important factor for someone struggling to make decisions is just to reach them.
Because until you’ve reached a definitive outcome, you’re simply in limbo, treading water.
We could go even further and argue that a subjectively “bad” outcome is better than no outcome.
Only when you’ve reached a destination can you get feedback, arming you with more information to alter your actions moving forward.
And the worst case scenario? Even if you have made a terrible decision, at least you’re improving your decision-making skill.
So happy days.
The Way to Make Better Decisions
Life’s a numbers game.
Only with repetition can we ever hope to learn and improve. Much like when you’re starting to learn the piano you’re not expecting to be a little Beethoven, a shoddy decision-maker shouldn’t expect to nail every one.
That only comes with practice.
An interesting anecdotal study emphasising this point was performed by a pottery teacher who graded his class using two distinct methods.
Half the class were assessed on the weight of clay used to make their pots while the other half were judged solely on their final piece of pottery submitted for review.
Interestingly, when evaluating the best pots of both groups, the students graded on their weight of clay had created significantly better pots, demonstrating the necessity of sheer repetition and consistency to yield improvement.
And you needn’t be a budding potter to see this principle in action elsewhere. Mistakes can be made in every area of our lives, which is simply how we learn.
By face-planting every now and again, we create a feedback loop to influence our future behaviour.
So if anything, making decisions that don’t quite go to plan should be your plan, a sign you’re moving in the right direction.
For some reason, when making art or playing music, we’re comfortable with this notion of graded improvement through failure, whereas in contrast, we expect to have an inherited aptitude for decision-making.
The fact is, decision-making is a skill like any other.
And while refinement is important for a skilled practitioner, beginners should aim solely for practised repetition.
The Types of Decisions to Practice
So as a beginner decision-maker, what’s the first step?
To differentiate between the big, scary, spider-like decisions and the smaller ones.
If you’re anything like me when confronted with an eight-legged arachnid, this should be an easy step. We all know the big hairy decisions that can dictate the course of our lives, bringing us out in a cold sweat…
Moving to a new city, changing careers or settling with a partner; seismic shifts in our lives that naturally require due consideration.
For that very reason, they’re a decision-phobes worst nightmare.
So, what’s the solution?
Mini decisions…ones that won’t irrevocably alter your life.
Start small, and not only can you practice decision-making as a skill, but also gain confidence and momentum, helping you adopt the decision-making mindset.
Much like using fake money to learn the intricacies of stock market investment, starting with inconsequential decisions allows you to strengthen your decision-making muscle in a safe environment.
Firstly then, identify the mini-decisions you struggle with…
- Do you have trouble deciding what to have for lunch?
- Issues choosing a film to watch?
- Problems knowing what pair of shoes to buy?
Such options, although laughable on the surface, can be a big deal for the unsure among us.
And precipitate decision-avoiders most damaging addiction; online research.
While it may sometimes be sensible to perform some due diligence before your mighty shoe purchase, it’s important to realise that it can easily morph into a three-day marathon of research, ratings, reviews.
This is commonly a delaying tactic; fear disguised as pragmatism.
When we’re unsure what to do, we delay our eventual choice-making discomfort.
However, as one of my old chums enjoys pointing out when I’m having a mental breakdown over a food menu…
“Not making a decision is a decision itself.”
And the worst thing? By deciding not to make a choice, a pressure cooker of emotional energy builds.
Not to mention the self-castigation…an inner knowledge that you’re not simply biding your time, but fearful of making the “wrong” choice.
A nagging itch at the back of your mind that you’re procrastinating on deciding in the hope that new, valuable information magically falls from the sky.
Ah…our self-defeating little brains.
But that’s the great thing about practising with mini-decisions. There really are no consequences. Bought a pair of shoes that don’t quite fit? Return them. Chosen a bad film? Turn it off.
Pretty much all decisions, once they’ve been made, can be manipulated, even the big ones.
Once you have the feedback from the decision, the next decision can be corrective.
So, concern yourself not with the outcome. Rather, judge yourself by a different metric…
The Main Metric to Improve Decision-Making
Having identified minor decisions, shift your focus from the outcome to speed.
The quicker you can reach a decision, the more decisions you can make in a specified time period, resulting in greater practice.
It’s the numbers game of decision-making.
Like we said earlier, you can only really improve through repeated practice, the core of which involves abolishing decision delaying tactics and procrastination…
Leading to exponential improvements in your decision-making abilities.
Sure, speed can be erratic, but you’ll improve through becoming the type of person who’s confident to make a quick decision.
You’re unconcerned with the outcome, knowing that:
- They’re only mini-decisions
- Outcomes are subjective and can be reframed
The Next Step
Once you’ve practised on smaller decisions, you can slowly put some skin in the game and upgrade to more meaty problems.
And with those larger problems, while speed remains an important metric, so too does its relationship with information gathering.
With bigger decisions, such as whether to take one job over another, more variables come into play.
Again, it may be pre-emptive to obsess over the outcome. In this phase of progress, your main metric is your method for assimilating available information.
There are many tools for this, which will vary according to the type of problem you face.
- Write a list of questions to consider
- Identify all the pros and cons of one option over another
- Ask for feedback from friends and family
- Visualise a fictional future to reveal your hidden feelings
As you become faster at processing available information and making decisions, you can pay more attention to the (subjective) outcome of your decisions…
By conducting some self-reflection.
Were you inwardly happy with your decision, and if not, why not?
If you were unhappy with the choice, are there any corrective measures you can take? If not, how can you use cognitive behavioural therapy to reframe the outcome and extract the positives from the experience?
As you slowly advance to making bigger decisions, it can also help to keep a decision diary as part of a daily journal.
This will allow you to reflect on your decision-making progress and over time, tweak your approach with any effective techniques you uncover.
How to Make the Right Decision
If all else fails, remember one little shiny nugget from this article.
There’s never a “right” decision or the “best” outcome. There are just an array of options that lead to different outcomes, none superior to another.
The only way you lose is by standing still and refusing to choose.
So now, it’s your turn to decide.