We all make hundreds (maybe even thousands) of decisions every day. So, you’d think we’d be expert decision-makers by now! But far from it.
In fact, I'd argue that decision-making is becoming harder (or at least more complex) as a result of modern life – partly because the world is now so fast-paced, requiring us to think and act faster than ever, and partly because we have more information than ever before, making us prone to information overload. These factors complicate our ability to make good decisions, very often leading us to oversimplify things and take mental shortcuts.
Because the more we’re presented with overwhelming amounts of information – or even ambiguous information – the more we revert to decision-making simplifications. We might, for example, boil a complex issue down into a simple “this is right, that’s wrong” decision (binary thinking). Or allow biases to influence our thinking. And we can do this even when we’re trying hard to be rational.
Therefore, it’s really important to recognize how the brain is processing information – i.e., whether we’re thinking fast (relying on intuition) or thinking slow (carefully weighing up our options). The two systems of thinking are perfectly described by renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow. For little decisions, like what sweater to wear or what kind of coffee to buy, quick thinking is ideal, but for more complex decisions, we need to deploy the more considered approach. If that’s something you struggle with, these 13 steps will help.
- Start by defining the situation. Making a decision always starts with understanding the situation, dilemma, or problem. By doing this, you can identify gaps in your knowledge and whether you need to gather extra information before making your decision.
- Define your goal. What are you hoping will happen here? What’s the best possible outcome? Sometimes we can get so bogged down in the various options that we forget what we’re actually trying to accomplish.
- Outline and then weigh up your options. Making a list of options and then defining the pros and cons of each is a great way to make an informed, objective decision. If you have too many options, try limiting your choices by considering just a few options at a time.
- Get help when you need it. Depending on who is affected by the decision, you may need to involve others in the decision-making process. Other times, you may just need a second opinion, in which case talking things through with a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor will help you evaluate options, validate your decision, and grow in confidence.
- Set a deadline for decisions. If you're prone to procrastination, try setting a limit for how long you'll take to decide. Of course, some decisions really do need more time than others, so this isn't a one-size-fits-all approach. This brings me to…
- Keep the decision in perspective. After all, not all decisions require slow thinking, and if you dedicate too much time and focus to the decisions that aren’t really that important, it can sap your energy for making bigger decisions. (I strongly recommend you read Thinking Fast and Slow for more on this.)
- Weigh up the consequences of making a decision versus not making a decision. Because, sometimes, you can well afford to take a wait-and-see approach.
- Remember that good decision-making may involve a combination of head (information, experience), heart (values, beliefs), and gut (instincts). Being analytical is great, but you’re not a machine – there’s value in considering the very human consequences of decisions.
- Be aware of your biases. Of course, gut instinct plays a role in decision-making, but do remember that instincts may come from a place of personal bias. Always be on the lookout for this, and consider how your biases may influence your thinking.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment. More often than not, there is no one right decision – just different consequences. So why not try different approaches or experiments to test certain decisions?
- When all else fails, take a break. Suffering from a case of “decision fatigue?” Step back for a while, even if it’s just taking a half-hour walk in nature. Better yet, sleep on it. The simple act of focusing on something else can really help to clear your head and highlight the best way forward.
- Take action. Having made your decision, communicate it to those who might be affected. And then take action – even if it’s just the first small step in a long line of steps.
- Keep working on it. A good way to improve your decision-making is to keep analyzing decisions you've made and how they played out. Use that information to help you make similar decisions in the future.
Read more about decision-making and other essential skills in my new book, Future Skills: The 20 Skills & Competencies Everyone Needs To Succeed In A Digital World. Written for anyone who wants to surf the wave of digital transformation – rather than be drowned by it – the book explores why these vital future skills matter and how to develop them.