Two Straightforward Approaches to Improving Decision-Making

09/26/2016 01:31 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2016
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At some point in our lives, we all find ourselves at an intersection, uncertain of which way to turn. We mull over the possibilities that one road would lead us to a particular outcome, and the other road, a different, equally attractive (or in many cases, unattractive) option. Being overwhelmed by having to make a decision, we hesitate and stop in our tracks. We have no go-to plan, besides flipping a coin, or throwing a dart, or pulling pieces of paper containing possible options, from out of a hat. Our pros are just as impactful and numerous as our cons. We are perplexed, uncertain, and overwhelmed by our choices, and paralyzed by indecision.

We may not recognize that indecision is, in and of itself, a choice. There may be a time or availability limit for specific opportunities. There may be someone else deciding for us because our hesitation cannot interfere with their obligations. Not getting to make our own decision hurts when it happens to us, because having agency or control over what happens, is the whole point of making a decision. After this happens, the lightbulb finally goes off.

We finally get to a point where we realize that a decision is always made, even if we don't get to make the determination. We have learned our lesson after a harrowing circumstance, and we hope never to be faced with any of it again. Often, unfortunately, until daunting choices confront us again (because that's how life works), we forget that we don’t have a plan to figure out how to make good, consistent decisions.

When we reach this point of ultimate frustration, two simple approaches can help. First, (1) evaluate decisions you have already made, and (2) examine the dynamic or condition that resulted from a well-made decision. This process is useful because it makes you reflect on decisions you have already made, and helps you make choices more quickly based on what you value in your life. You use past decisions to look for patterns and clues. After studying them, going forward, you design systems and create habits that help you make a greater impact in your life.

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1. Evaluate decisions you have already made.

Taking a personal assessment is critical to making better decisions. This type of evaluation is more robust than examining behaviors that we want to make automatic (habits). An assessment includes both decisions made frequently (like how much water to drink daily), and those made infrequently (like whether to go back to school). When we make this evaluation, we have to assess past decisions that led to a positive result, as well as those decisions that led to a negative result. Tracking this information can help you figure out why you do something and can influence what you do the next time around. At the very least you can focus on looking for patterns which can help you pay attention to how certain aspects of your life affect others.

It is important to examine various decisions made in multiple areas of our lives. We could examine decisions we made about our health, finances, career, family, and spiritual life, to begin with. We would take the data we collected, examine each of its points, compare it against controls, and create alternatives which we wish to implement. These alternatives to implement should not be so drastic as to be unrealistic. For example, if you realize that you make bad food decisions when you are unprepared, it is reasonable to bring your lunch, though it may be drastic to prepare 21 meals in one afternoon (3 per day for seven days), if you are unused to preparing even one beforehand. Taking the data might involve evaluating current habits, taking note of behaviors that we engage in and related results.

Collecting data might mean creating a Google doc, or taking a plain sheet of paper and outlining the past few decisions you made, and their effects. Once you have listed as many as you can think of, you can organize them by category—positive or negative outcomes. Comparing positive results and negative results with the correlated response is helpful. This comparison could be as simple as listing some of the activities engaged in before making a decision, and identifying similar variables.

When we reflect on the decisions we make, we are doing ourselves a service by not just engaging in rote tasks and hoping for the best. Reflecting on our decision-making in itself is a skill. It is an assessment as much as we may feel that it is an indictment. Reflecting can be as simple as asking the core questions of -- why we made a decision? How we arrived at that end? When did we make the decision? What decision did we make? Where were we when we made the decision?

These factors take into account not just the substance of the decision we made, but what triggers were there beforehand--the environment that we were in, and the details surrounding how we made that decision. There are few more important things than knowing why we act. Understanding why we behave can inform us in the future by showing us patterns. Patterns are telling because they reflect the whole of our past actions. If we are unsatisfied with those actions, we must take new measures, by making different choices and ultimately new patterns will reflect the changes in our choices.

Evaluating past decisions can make you an expert in your old habits and patterns. Building an expertise in previous models lays the foundation for creating a plan to establish better patterns. Conducting an assessment means you have the ability to gain insights about yourself, and you have the desire to change something that is not helping you.

After doing a self-evaluation, the next step to making better decisions is forming a bad-decision antidote.

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2. Use past successes to form your own antidote to bad decision-making.

The most helpful insights you can gauge about yourself are the things you've already done, mainly the things you have done well. If you are unsatisfied with a particular area, you can address where you lack those decision-making skills by creating your own antidote. When you know that a particular dynamic helps you achieve more, it is important to replicate and incorporate that into your life as much as possible.

Sometimes it is a matter of shifting activities to a different time oror engaging in entirely new ones. It is important to study the negative results as well. In my case, I notice that each time my two-year-old watches Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers, he wants to practice martial arts. These shows may not be causal to his high kicks, but there is a correlation--it only happens with these two shows. In this respect, because I can use this information to affect my behavior (which television shows, if any, I play for my son), I can attempt to produce outcomes that are helpful to me.

Occasionally, certain factors will be beyond your control. In this case, it is still important to dig deep and ask yourself questions. You want to see which part, if any, of the outcome, would have been affected by even a small action on your part. Once you can isolate which behaviors, habits, interactions, and circumstances generate which results, you can use the information to take different actions.

Examining how variables we control affect outcomes we desire re-affirms our agency and ability to make decisions. If we hope to make better decisions, we must use our knowledge of what works for us, and implement it regularly.

In my case, it has been developing a morning ritual that addresses the most important aspect of what I want to create in my life, first thing in the morning, and ignoring everything else. Doing this is my antidote because I find that I am best able to make good decisions for myself when I can do my most important thing first so that I am not overwhelmed by everything else that "needs" to get done. I engage in my morning routine that includes drinking water, stretching and exercise, meditation, reading scripture, writing, and reviewing my goals and intentions. I do these things because they are the most important in centering me, making me healthy, and building for my future, which ultimately resolves all of the other decisions I need to make.

In this respect, I do not respond to texts, check emails, or answer the phone before 11 am (unless it's an emergency). I make my mornings about me. This is usually without exception, but I do have times when I am waiting for an urgent message or email, and I have to answer to put someone else's diversion before my well-being. I usually think of it this way, so that I do not jump like Pavlov's dog, anytime there is a beep, buzz, or ping. If I think of these as interruptions and distractions, I am less likely to subvert a routine designed for my well-being to respond. Sometimes there are exceptions, but what I found, more often than not, was that my response was not urgent, and the people who care about me most do not mind receiving a reply a couple of hours later.

I also found that if I checked my email for one reason, I jumped down a rabbit hole for another, and if I responded to a text regarding a particular item, it might distract me from engaging elsewhere. I make my mornings about me once I discovered that most of my positive results centered on taking certain actions each morning, before life happens. Your antidote to bad decision-making might not be a morning routine, but something else that you regularly do, that helps you make beneficial decisions. Once you have discovered what that is, you might create a spreadsheet to hold yourself accountable or mark Xs on the calendar for each day that you engage. I do both.

Past successes serve as antidotes to poor decisions (or "non-decisions") because they enforce what is already working for you. Doing what works, generates desired results. Making decisions and overcoming indecision are crucial to gaining favorable outcomes. And favorable outcomes feed back into the system, so we can consider and implement what works.

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