How many times have you faced a decision, either large or small, and said to yourself, I don’t know what to do? I venture to say the number is too large to count. This is true for most of us, but for some, decision making is their strongest skill. Are they born with a skill that grows over time or is it entirely learned?

I’ve come to believe that successful decision-making is learned. With that in mind, let’s explore what I’ve discovered about the decision-making process. Life is all about making decisions, some easy and some hard, some critical and others that don’t matter. While some decisions are temporary and can be rescinded without much impact, others last forever with lifelong consequences.

We make thousands of decisions every day. Most of these decisions occur in our subconscious. Think of all the decisions made just to get out of bed, get dressed, eat breakfast and go to work or school. How many of those are thoroughly thought out? Not many, since those actions are mostly on autopilot.

Very few of those decisions have a impact on our life or the lives of others. On the other hand, there are those decisions that are critical. What if you chose not to wear your prescription glasses while driving? The result might be an accident that hurt or killed those involved. This would be a critical decision with lasting consequences. Was forgetting your glasses a conscious decision? No, but once you realized your mistake not going back to get them was a critical decision poorly made. Part of making the right decision is understanding the possible impact if the decision is wrong.

The Filter

Let’s examine one decision-making process I call the filter.  Think of it like pouring water through a coffee filter. The structure of the filter let’s the water pass through the coffee grounds while keeping the particles away from the liquid below. The filter removes debris just like our decision- making process removes doubt.

So what would this filter look like and how is it formed? I often talk about the importance of having a mission statement that spells out who you are and what you believe. It defines your ethics and morals in simple and direct terms. For example in my mission statement, do no harm is part of my filter. Another part of my filter is be honest in all things. When I make a decision, I pass it through my filter to see if it passes the test. If it does, then it’s aligned with what I hold true, and the decision is made. Does that mean the decision is always right? Unfortunately not, but it does agree with who I am or what I believe.

The Elephant

When I was young and had to make what I considered big decisions, my father would always say, “Remember the elephant.” Was he referring to the proverbial elephant in the room? I don’t think so. Instead, his elephant theory answered what to do when a decision with multiple parts seems too big to make. Break the problem down into small decisions. The combination of making those decisions individually help make the big decision more obvious. Handle it just like you would eat an elephant, one bite at a time.

The Pros and Cons

I like using the Benjamin Franklin Close, comparing pros vs. cons, to aid in decision making. Let’s suppose I want to buy a new computer, and I need to choose between two brands. First I’d make a list of features I want in a computer. I would then give a point to the features that met my needs or wants. To modify the technique a little, I could give two points to the most critical features so they are more heavily weighted. The brand with the most points wins my purchase. Although this an effective way to make complex decisions, not all decisions are complicated.

The Blink

Malcolm Gladwell authored the book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. I agree with Mr. Gladwell’s premise that we tend to overthink a decision and talk ourselves out of the right choice. We may even talk ourselves into the wrong choice. Likewise, we can think about the decision so long that it’s either made for us or the opportunity passes us by. Many times our first choice would have been the right one.

Have you heard the saying, paralysis by analysis? This is when we are paralyzed by our need to over analyze, when our intuition was right all along. Is intuition just a guess? I don’t think so. I believe it’s the instantaneous culmination of knowledge and experience that expresses itself as a feeling. You may be surprised at how quickly that feeling comes to you. But don’t misunderstand; it’s not a guess. Believe that feeling. Trust your stomach, not your head. Your head can lie to you, but your stomach never will. Your gut feeling can show you the right decision in the blink of an eye.

The Spock/Sherlock Approach

Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame and fictional detective Sherlock Holmes both expressed the adage, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” When faced with a decision that has many possibilities, eliminate the impossible ones. What is left may lead you to the right decision.

Our life is controlled by the decisions we make and the ones that are made for us. Learn to trust your decision making process and your filter, but mostly trust your stomach.

Good luck and choose well.

Steve Haberly

Why don’t I know what to do?

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