Decision-Making: 5 Things You Should Know Before You Choose
Updated: May 20, 2022
The Burden of Choice
We live in an age of choice overload. Which is great…and terrible. ”Terrible” because the variety of options can be a burden for some of us entrepreneurs.
Decision-making is a must if you’re working for yourself. I mean, decision-making is a must for everyone. But in business, it’s a conspicuous must.
So if this is an issue for you - if you find yourself laboring over menus as your friends roll their eyes, if you pack for your trip three or four times before you can manage to zip it up - you probably struggle with bigger decisions.
There are a lot of exercises recommended for decision-making. And that’s all good.
But there are some basic ideas at work in decision-making. Things that operate in the dark and short circuit you. I want to address those.
I think if people just knew about them the whole thing would get easier. Maybe not easy, but way easier.
These 5 ideas won’t make your decision for you, but they might give you a better idea of how decision-making really happens. They might loosen up your process and make you a more efficient thinker.
1. Decision-Making: Choose What to Lose
You know that magic moment? Before you make a decision? You stand and look at two possible futures.
Let's say you’re trying to decide how you should spend a big bonus you got. In one future, you’re spending the money on a trip. In another, you’re putting it toward a car.
At this moment - both versions of the future feel true, possible. Before decision-making takes place…you have a vacation and you have the car.
But once the decision’s made - poof! - one of those imagined futures is gone. You feel like your choice cost you something.
The point is that decision-making, at first, is a kind of loss. If you’re having problems with making a choice, this is probably what’s at the bottom of it.
But that's good news. Once you know that loss is what decision-making hangs on, it becomes way easier to navigate.
“Accept the fact that with [a] choice, you’re going to lose something you want,” advised Best Selling Author and Advice Columnist Cheryl Strayed on the podcast WorkLife, “Because, of course, real dilemmas involve loss and they ask us to really practice acceptance.”
When you’re in the process of decision-making it's better to grasp this head-on.
Ask yourself, “Which outcome am I willing to lose?”
I know this might seem like a weird way of looking at it, but it’s liberating. Decision-making gets much clearer cut when you approach it like this.
You'll focus on pairing down options - not preserving them.
And getting intentional about what you can manage to lose frees your brain from playing too much in the fictional future.
So when you're decision-making - just choose what to lose. You’ll feel empowered by the clarity.
2. Time and Information: Find Your Sweet Spot
Enough time and enough quality information are two key ingredients in decision-making. And there’s a sweet spot to both.
Some people - you know who you are - think you have to have eeeeevery scrap of information and infinite time to choose. Others like to brag, “I go with my gut!” They sign on the dotted line without a second thought.
Both ways are…I’m going to call them “problematic.”
Critical thinking is what’s needed for informed decision-making. It helps you work around biases and blind spots. It reveals true priorities and nudges you to that sweet spot of just enough information.
Wait - just enough? Can you really have too much information?
Oh my god - yes.
When you’re gathering your info for decision-making, figure out what you need to know to feel good about your choice. What’s essential to the decision? Go, get that info. Then…stop. No, really…stop. Back away from Google!
Too much information can be a curse in decision-making. It can bog you down over things that are just features of the question, not load-bearing facts.
Look only for holes in the essential information. Plug those holes. That’s it. Enough.
As for the sweet spot on timing, set a decision-making deadline. Make it binding.
Not a day later…and not a day earlier.
Whatever your sub-optimal habit is - too slow or too fast - a scheduled “Decision Day” can course correct. Lean in the opposite way of a bad habit and you’ll find your sweet spot.
3. Decision-Making and Distance
Have you ever noticed that you’re great at giving advice, but kind of suck at taking it? Yeah, me too.
We all know what our friends should be doing, don’t we? They need to dump that guy. They need to quit that job. They need to stop with the comb-over. But when it’s your relationship, job, or head - it’s annoyingly unclear.
This is known as Solomon’s Paradox - our knack for excellent judgment with other people’s issues. Meanwhile, we can barely tie our own shoes.
The solution is likely “self-distancing.”
Self-distancing is the practice of removing yourself from your own decision-making story and making it a story about someone else. Suddenly your judgment gets a lot clearer.
Try it. Take a decision you have to make and pretend it’s a friend’s problem.
How would you advise them in their situation?
How would you help them in their decision-making?
A famous version of self-distancing comes from basketball legend LeBron James. When he had to make the difficult decision - should he stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers or go to Miami- James took himself completely out of the decision-making process.
Instead, he told himself a story about someone else - some guy he knew named LeBron James. "I didn't want to make an emotional decision. I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James and what would make him happy…”
LeBron is self-distancing here. So he can make a difficult decision without having to weigh every pain and fear associated with it.
When he speaks in the 3rd person he’s helping his friend, LeBron, see what’s best for him. He can only do it from a distance.
4. Flip A Coin? Seriously?
Sometimes I sooooo don’t want to face decision-making like a grown-up. I think, “Can’t I just flip a coin?” Here’s a surprise - yeah, you can.
If you’ve done the research and self-distancing, and the decision-making process is still kicking you in the butt - the coin flip is actually a useful way to reveal the truth.
Let's say you’re trying to decide if you should quit your job. You've run through all the pros and cons. Still, you can't decide. It’s torture. Try this:
Get out a quarter.
Heads you keep your job. Tails you quit.
Flip the coin.
Now…notice your immediate emotional response!
If it flips heads and your first thought is, “Crap!”
Well, now you now know something pretty important.
The point isn’t the toss itself, it’s seeing what your heart does when the decision is “made” by an outside force. Suddenly, a lot of the other arguments that cloud the decision-making disappear.
Your real priority becomes crystal clear.
5. The “Right Decision” Folly
This brings me to “The Right Decision.” The brass ring. We’re all struggling to find it. The Right Choice.
Allow me to blow your freaking mind.
Most of the time - not all the time - but most, there is no right answer. In most of your decision-making there’s usually just...a preference.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this. Moral decisions, potentially life-ending decisions, or life-starting ones - there definitely can be a right or wrong track. But the overwhelming majority of things you’ll decide won’t be as dire as they feel.
Maybe your decision will end well. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll hate it, and you’ll have to backtrack (which most of the time you can do).
Maybe you’ll end up discovering a lot of things you couldn’t know without starting down that “wrong” road.
Most decision-making isn’t about getting on the right path. It’s just about moving.
My point is if you keep trying to make the “right decision” it can really trip you up. It can stall and terrify you. So, don’t make yourself nuts over something that isn’t really a thing.
Just decide, experiment - try something. Do it by your deadline and move on.
If you don’t like the result, you can salvage that result for wisdom. That’s called experience.
But the search for some holy grail of “correct” decision-making will make you frustrated and crazy. It'll slow down your progress, not speed up your success.
So. Let it go. Do your best then...if you have to…get out a coin.
Need help choosing your mentor? Let's chat and see if we're right for each other.
WorkLife with Adam Grant, Wild Work Advice from Cheryl Strayed
Association for Psychological Science, The (Paradoxical) Wisdom of Solomon, Wray Herbert
From A DIstance: Implications of Spontaneous Self-Distancing for Adaptive Self-Reflection, Ayduk, Ö., & Kross, E.
Los Angeles Times, Peyton Manning Shows LeBron James How It’s Done, By Houston Mitchell