In every situation that requires a complex decision to be made, there is no universal right and universal wrong. There is only the decision that is right for yourself and for those affected by you directly. We want to make good decisions, but what does it mean to make a good decision – good according to what exactly? The following article dismantles the decision making process in order to reveal crucial details that are rarely considered – those details in the cracks between each consecutive step in the process.
Before we can delve into the topic of decision making, it is of first importance to explain what I mean when I say success. As stated in a previous article “Irrationality: A Killer of your Chances for Success
”, I feel that the best way to define success is as the atainment of the ultimate rewarding outcome as a result of your own actions.
Each and every step in your average daily routine involves a decision. It is not obvious, because we associate decision making with anxious circumstances, and deciding to change into clean underwear in the morning is hardly a situation of panic and uncertainty. The majority of the decisions we are faced with are easy, either because the right choice is blatantly obvious, or it is a decision that we have made previously. This class of decision making is a waltz in the park. Decision making becomes complex when you are faced with a problem that demands a solution, and the solution is camouflaged between numerous shades of grey. For the purpose of the article, we will view decision making in this context; as the contemplative process from problem to solution.
Discomfort, pressure and general unhappiness are the common feelings associated with decision making. Stress strikes because any massive decision with uncertain outcomes contains risk. We are so desperate and determined to leave this uncomfortable space that we decide too quickly or procrastinate compulsively - anything to avoid the moment of anxiety where doubt and uncertainty takes over.
To get out of this space, you need to make the choice that will prevent shifting you into just another uncomfortable place – so when you leave, leave for good! Don’t rush it. Contrary to popular belief, things don’t disappear when we avoid them. They are more likely to grow bigger and more solid. I emphasize this point of anxiety, because it is normal and common among decision makers. It is normal to panic when having to make a big decision; the good news is that you can manage this process despite of it. When something is all encompassing, pushing from all sides, you need to pull it apart and focus on each component individually. Stop freaking out and manage the process by first of all, making it manageable.
To get a clear perspective on all the various factors involved in managing your personal decision making process, start by considering the following factors separately. Hammond et al, authors of Smart Choices : A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions (1999) delivers the following consecutive sections innate to the process:
1. The Problem,
4. Consequences and uncertainty,
5. Trade-offs and
6. risk tolerance.
Psychologists have shown, for example, that the first ideas that come into our head when we start out to make a decision can have an undue impact on the ultimate choice we make – Hammond et al, 1999.
How you choose to define the problem can make all the difference to the process. Know that language is powerful, and that the way you choose to organize your knowledge into language will have a direct effect on the organization of thought that succeeds it. There are a number of ways to construct the same claim, for example:
Problem: I can no longer afford my family home and need to move.
Problem: Family relocation for financial relief.
Each statement leaves a unique emotional residue. The first points all emphasis onto itself, namely, the daunting problem. The second states the problem while it points towards positive outcomes within reach.
A decision is a means to an end - Hammond et al, 1999.
Objectives and Alternatives
Established your objectives or goals; these are the desirable outcomes that your decision ought to produce. Proceed with the alternatives, or options, in direct support of these. This means that certain alternatives will be in support of certain objectives.
Bold, Brave and Creative Alternatives
We might be resistant to formulating a good number of alternatives. The decision making process being uncomfortable to be in, three or four alternatives seem bearable. No! You need to consider all the possible roads to take. What you do not want is to choose option three, to discover later that the sixth option, that you didn’t even list, would have been the best choice. You need self-discipline here. Be bold, brave and creative when determining your options.
Remember: your decision can be no better than your best alternative - Hammond et al, 1999.
We are easily ready to disregard alternatives in light of assumptions, biases and prejudices. Your thoughts and opinions aren’t all neutral, coming from objectively informed foundations. Question your own assumptions and scrutinize your own prejudices. There is no space for them when they have the power to camouflage the best possible choice at the end of the day.
Playing Psychic – Predicting Consequences
Having to determine the results and consequences that would succeed your individual alternatives is tricky as they need to be predicted. As most of us struggle with balance, we are prone to predicting over-optimistic or over pessimistic outcomes. Therefore, before you even think about results and consequences, do research; browse, read, call, ask! No prediction should be uninformed. Calculating unrealistic consequences might make the decision making process more comfortable, but it will render it unreliable at the same time, like a dummy link in the chain. However, your predictions remain predictions. We should be aware of the fact that no matter how much we research and ponder, the true consequence will only be revealed once the decision has been made.
Trade-Offs: To Prioritise or to Sacrifice?
Chances are that you won’t be able to accommodate every desirable objective, especially when you have a huge number of objectives that your decision should fulfil. In this process, you will start determining which of your objectives to prioritise and which of them to sacrifice, and hereby start eliminating those supporting alternatives accordingly. It is here that we should remember to ask “Good…Good according to what?” Pro’s and con’s lists cannot be of proper use to us if they aren’t structured to answer specific questions. Categories of comparison need to be constructed.
You're not just trading off apples and oranges; you're trading off apples and oranges
and elephants - Hammond et al, 1999.
Your objections can be compared and traded-off against one another only when both are viewed in the same light of a specific question. Apples can only be compared to oranges when we ask, “How do apples compare to oranges in juiciness?” When more than two objectives are being compared according to a specific question, rate them appropriately or place them in order of desirability or relevance.
Risks, Rewards and Your Nerves
When it comes to risk, we are willing to tolerate a certain level of it as long as we know that there is a chance of it producing rewards. The reward should be worth the risk. For each one of your options that remain after eliminating some in the trade-off, you would set up a risk profile, clearly stipulating the risks involved for each alternative. The important thing though, is to be aware of your personal abilities to tolerate risk. How have you managed risk in the past? Question your own feelings on the subject of risk. Risk profiles are of little use when you undermine the role of your own degree of willingness.
Make the Choice and Stick With It
At this stage, you would have all the information in front of you in order to make the decision that is best for you. Chances are that the best decision has already become clear as you proceeded with the consecutive steps. Now, make your decision and stick with it. Following the decision making model should have provided you with enough information to make the decision that is right for you, and there should be no open spaces for self-doubt and tedious “what if” thinking to follow. Follow the process, keep your anxieties in check, and consider the details hiding in the cracks. With practise and experience, successful decision making becomes a skill, and possibly the most valuable skill that you would use on your journey to success.
The following article was inspired by the book Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions by Hammond et al (1999).