By Vega Subramaniam
Decision making is hard
Mala and I had the pleasure of spending a couple hours recently with some Intentional Life Planning participants during our follow-up session on decision-making.
We came to talk about what helps us make good decisions and dissect our bottlenecks. Ultimately, we hoped that each participant would identify their own process for intentional, values-based decision-making leading to choices they could be confident about. We asked participants to think about successful decisions they’ve made…and we discovered that even thinking about good decision-making is hard. Not the “should I eat in or go out for dinner tonight?” hard but the agonizing, I-feel-terrible-about-myself hard. And frankly, even the dinner question gets wrapped up in questions about our worth as human beings.
How can you possibly shine a light on your process when even thinking about it makes you feel terrible about yourself?
We think there’s a way forward. And we think there are three parts.
First, there’s acknowledging your story. Next, there’s understanding where that story came from: the larger context of the messages we grew up with and are surrounded by. And finally, there’s coming full circle to shining a light on your own best process.
Part one: Acknowledge your story
You probably have a go-to story about how horrible you are at making decisions. I’m guessing that at least one of these will resonate with you:
I have my own story. My story is that I am very decisive. Mind you, the decisions I make might not be the best ones — but I’m not wishy-washy. There’s nothing worse than being wishy-washy.
I’m a person who likes order and efficiency. If something can be done, and done quickly, I would like it to be done. Quickly. The anxiety I feel when something is in limbo used to be so unbearable that I’d jump into a decision, any decision, just to end the interminable processing. Thus my last…[counting…] three jobs. There’s a way that having a decision, even one I know is wrong, is easier for me than waiting for the right decision to reveal itself – or facing the reality that the decision I am about to make is wrong. In this way, I used to be a master at drowning out my own intuitive knowledge.
For Mala, it’s, “I spend a lot of time regretting the decisions I’ve made and the paths not chosen.” So staying in the world of ‘options’ is reassuring because paths are still possibilities. Making a decision, on the other hand, closes all the other doors. It’s not so much that it might be the ‘wrong’ decision. It’s the grief of losing all those other options. And so when Mala plays chess, for example, she just can’t find it in her to end the game with check-mate. As she gets close to winning, she starts retracing steps and evaluating alternative moves with her opponent: what was the pivotal point when the game shifted? what if we played this instead?
Or, take the act of buying a white board for our office. Me, I’d have walked into the nearest office supply store and bought the first one I saw that was on sale. Mala took hours, I don’t know, maybe days, and visited dozens of sites to compare features, pricing, and quality ratings. As our friend Griffin has been known to say, “Microsoft Excel was involved.” For a white board. But to Mala’s credit, we now have the most kickass portable white board-cum-flip chart holder that I have ever, ever seen, and that I can’t imagine our office without. So there’s that.
So what happens when ‘Decisiveness’ meets ‘Options’?
I’ll tell you what happens: a discussion about whether to go out for dinner turns into a fight over right and wrong, emotional maturity, and honesty, complete with tears, obstinacy, and shutting down.
One night, I asked Mala if she felt like going out for dinner that night. To me, this was a simple yes/no question. And yet, Mala gazed at me with deer-in-headlights eyes, incapable of responding. I could make neither heads nor tails of Mala’s apparent unwillingness to give me a simple yes or no answer to this simple yes-or-no question.
Of course, for Mala, this was not a yes-or-no question. What was going on in her brain was a multivariable calculus equation. To repeat, “Microsoft Excel was involved.” Once the emotions had subsided, we unraveled the mystery, and I got a glimpse into Mala’s thought process:
(On a scale of 1 to 10) I am at a 9 about going out if you are at a 10 about going out. I am at a 3 about going out if you are at anything less than a 9 about going out. I’m at a 9 if we can keep the bill under $20, and a 4 if we spend more. I am at a 9 about going out if we go to XX restaurant; I am at a 1 about going out if we go to YY restaurants. I am at a 4 about going out if we go out again on Thursday and Friday; I am at an 8 about going out if we agree to eat in on Thursday and Friday.
And thus, a path forward. We were able to come up with a system that works for us to this day: a 1-to-10 ratings process that takes into account the variables that we need to negotiate and resolve. Now when I ask what I think is a yes/no question and get a blank stare in return, I step immediately into ranked multivariate analysis mode.
As each of us unpacks our decision-making process, we can become aware of the places where we get stuck, feel discomfort, berate ourselves, and rush — or linger. And we can use that knowledge to build a new process that works well for us.
So, let’s get started!
The bigger reality
But first: remember those go-to negative stories about how bad you are at making decisions? Those stories don’t come out of nowhere. They come from our larger societal system. And they need to be understood and attended to before we can hope to move on to shining a light on our own best decision-making process.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our Decision Making series, where we tackle the questions of our larger societal systems and their impacts on our decision-making process.