At a glance
By Abigail Murison
Tea or coffee? Toast or cereal? Bring an umbrella or chance it? According to American psychiatrist Lisa MacLean, the typical person makes about 35,000 decisions a day. No wonder when your partner asks what’s for dinner, it can feel like the last straw.
Making good decisions is an important skill – and it’s a skill you can practise and improve.
Know your values
At the heart of good decision-making is a level of self-knowledge: making the right decision for you. Any decision can have a bad outcome, but you will most regret the choices that go against your personal values.
Kimberly Singh FCPA, CFO and chief wellness officer at growth and leadership training company Populis, says the first step is to write down your personal values and beliefs. “If it’s difficult, think back on past decisions you have made and how you felt after you made those decisions and lived with the results,” she advises.
Examples of personal values include dependability, generosity, integrity, family open‑mindedness and sustainability. If you find yourself coming back to money or belongings as a driver of your decisions, look deeper: the underlying personal value might really be something like security or self-reliance.
Once you have a list of your values, rank them in order of importance. When you have a decision to make, consider how the choices align with this list of what’s most important to you.
“Your personal and professional lives should follow the same personal values,” Singh says. “If there’s a mismatch, this could be causing unrest in your life and self-doubt could take over.”
Apart from leading to regret, self-doubt can also lead to inertia – where you do not make a decision at all, or you make a decision but do not implement it.
The perfectionist trap
Another trait that can impact your decision-making style is whether you are a person who is happy with “good enough” or are someone who needs to hold out for the best possible outcome – a maximiser.
Professor Laurence Alison, co-author of Decision Time, says a maximiser is someone who will drive past a perfectly good parking space, hoping to find one right outside the door.
“If a maximiser is faced with a decision where both of the choices are ‘bad’, they can seek to deny reality and imagine there’s a third, better choice. They can be more vulnerable to prevaricating or analysis paralysis,” says Alison.
If you’re a natural maximiser, having a strong need for closure and certainty can exacerbate bad decision-making.
“One of the things we investigated with military and law enforcement are people who were high on this construct called ‘need for closure’: people who are very intolerant of ambiguous situations ,” Alison says.
“When they’re making difficult decisions, they find the ambiguity of how it all might play out a very unpleasant experience, and they want to close it down quickly.”
As a result, they might fail to investigate their options fully. They’ll make a snap decision to either not do anything or choose a path and act immediately, and resist reassessing their decisions when new information emerges.
The star model
Once you have identified your values and the traits that could influence your decisions, Alison points to the STAR model to guide your decision-making process.
- Stories and scenarios: what is the situation, and what are your options? You should have at least three options: a best outcome, a worst outcome, and something in-between.
- Time mastery: do you need to decide now? If not, how much time do you have? Use it to get more information.
- Adaptation and assumptions: use additional information and discussion to test your hypotheses and consider alternatives.
- Revision and resilience: know when to stick with a plan and when to reconsider, especially if new information becomes available.
Singh has one last piece of advice: do not waste your energy on decisions that will clearly take you in a different direction from your true north.
“Distractions can often be disguised as opportunities. For us to not be distracted, we need to truly understand our personal path and how we intend to get there.”
Seven top tips for decision making
1. Use only the time you have.
Work out how much time that is and use it to get more information. If there’s no time limit, then impose one and commit to a deadline.
2. Get multiple views.
Ask for people’s opinions, but do not limit yourself to just asking friends or family. People who sometimes disagree with you may offer a perspective that is worth considering.
3. Use a decision tree.
Plot out the possible outcomes of different choices and see how they compare. Making lists of the pros and cons can also help you to determine the best choice.
4. Make big decisions in the morning.
Try to make big decisions when you feel well rested and energised.
5. Replace some decisions with routines.
Work out every weekday morning, and pack an umbrella in your bag each evening.
6. Let someone else decide.
Do you have to make this decision? For example, let your partner decide what’s for dinner, and your child can choose between long pants or shorts for school.
7. Decide, then move on.
Once you make a decision and act on it, resist the urge to second-guess it. You made the best decision you could, based on the information you had.
Resilience in decision making
According to Professor Laurence Alison, University of Liverpool, elite decision-makers are resilient. They are in the best possible position to both make decisions and handle the outcomes – good or bad. There are four pillars of resilience:
Health: Try for at least a small amount of semi-regular exercise, and eat well.
Purpose: Know that what you do makes a difference, at work and at home.
Feedback: Reflect on, share and discuss your successes and your failures.
Joy: Do things you enjoy: spend time with friends, dance, laugh and recharge.
“Think of these four pillars of resilience as the legs of a table,” says Alison.
“You might be able to neglect one pillar for a while, but it makes your table wobbly. Neglect two of these pillars for too long, and your table will become really unstable.
“You’ll be more prone to making the errors that can lead to bad decisions.”