One of the main sources of stress in our life is the perceived ability or inability to make “the right decision”. Psychology defines decision-making as a cognitive process, involving an intricate analysis of options and paths as well as attempting to forecast certain outcomes. Sounds complex, but in reality, we make most of our decisions almost unconsciously, in our mind’s background as we proceed with our day.
To do that, we use a cognitive tool called heuristics, which is essentially a series of mental shortcuts and scripts. By using heuristics and relying on impressions, past experiences, observations stored in our cognitive brain, we effortlessly decide when to turn when driving to work and back; what to say when we know it’s a co-worker’s birthday; how fast to walk when crossing the street vs when strolling along the beach and hundreds more decisions that make up our day.
Given that people report having to make an average of 226 decisions related to food alone, and an overall average of 35,000 decisions as an adult per day, it is no surprise that most of them are made swiftly and some don’t even register with us for longer than seconds.
However, what about those decisions which require conscious thought and deliberate analysis? That is where some of us could become virtually paralyzed with anxiety and need help. Why are we so impacted by the weight of decision-making? The initial answer may be found in the history of the word “decide” itself and may be indicative of why this process intimidates many of us. Sharing a common Latin root with such words as “homicide” and “precise”, it literally means “to cut off “. By “cutting off” all other possible avenues and outcomes, we may feel trapped into committing to one final decision and that feeling may be daunting, to say the least. So how do we help ourselves make great decisions faster and with less emotional turmoil?
To begin with, we need to understand why it’s important to hone our skill of decision-making. What, if any, are the benefits of decisiveness? Turns out, there are many, and being decisive helps make both your personal and your professional or academic lives better and more fulfilling.
Nick Tasler, a speaker, author and blogger, in his book Why Quitters Win, cites research which indicates that 88% of managers who scored highly on both the Boldness (how quickly they made a decision) and Judgment (how beneficial the decision ended up being) scales, were consistently rated as the top echelon in talent and income, as well as were perceived as exceptional leaders by all levels of their respective firms.
In our personal lives and relationships, our being able to decide quickly leads to better connections with others – less time spent doubting, deliberating and debating – as well as increased time to pursue other activities. “Deciders” are viewed as more attractive partners, in part due to being more organized, and more in control of their lives. They are also perceived, and self-report as being happier, or more content, than the folks who struggle with making a decision. Remember how we talked about 35000 decisions per day? Folks who can move through decision-making quickly simply do not let decisions weigh them down or take up a lot of their time or mental space, which in turns leads to a feeling or freedom and well-being.
While there is no algorithm or a perfect formula to decision-making (although several well-defined processes do exist), there are several mindful actions we could take to help become better at moving forward with our decisions and thus improving our quality of life and mental resilience. These work best on decisions that are “big” – long –term and impactful.
- Remember that there are no “bad” outcomes. This is a tough one and that is why it’s first on the list. We become paralyzed with indecisiveness in part because we are afraid that the outcome of our decision will be “bad”. While it is true that consequences of our decisions may be unexpected or unintended and may result in negative experiences, there is really not a way to completely safeguard from that. Sometimes even the ultimate well-thought out decisions may have long-term negative impacts; and sometimes a run of the mill spontaneous choice will lead to a lifetime of positive rewards. This, of course, is not to say you shouldn’t think things through – just try to worry less about securing the perfect outcome and instead use that time to
- Use the information available to you. There is a wealth of knowledge, including prior experiences, feedback from others, research and data on the subject, and more, that you could use as resources when making your decision. One word of caution, however – since the sheer amount of data that is out there can quickly become overwhelming, set a limit on how much of it you will review, and a time limit on how long you will spend reviewing it. Then, go ahead and
- Decide what you don’t want. Sometimes, this is an all-important step in your decision-making process. Once you eliminate all the possibilities that do not work, you are left with your best decision choice.
- Understand what drives you. Understanding your fears, your “hot buttons”, your passions and your overarching goals will help you in both identifying the optimal decision and eliminating the ones that are not consistent with who you are and what you stand for and care about. And since we are discussing long-term, impactful decisions, these considerations are important since they will impact you for the long haul.
- Run your decision by others. Be careful here too – ultimately, you are the decider, and have the final say in this. However, it is helpful to get others to give you some feedback – especially those who do NOT think like you think. Those are the folks that are more likely to point out any fatal flaws in your plan early on and help you make the necessary adjustments to the final choice.
Once you made your decision, celebrate and encourage yourself. Remind yourself that we learn and help others learn continuously from every event in our life and that the more we practice mindful decision-making, the better we are going to become at that critical skill.