April 15, 2016

How to Overcome Your Decision-Making Hurdles: Part Three (The Finale)


By Vega Subramaniam

In Part One of ‘How to Overcome Your Decision-Making Hurdles,’ we reflected on the stories we each have about our own decision-making glitches. We observed that for some of us, even thinking about good decision-making is “this-makes-me-feel-terrible-about-myself” hard. We noted that the first step toward moving into confident, values-based decision-making is to acknowledge your story.

In Part Two, we described the context for our stories: the messages we grew up with and are surrounded by. Our social systems relentlessly send us messages about what we should be doing, what is moral, what counts as ‘success,’ what we should prioritize. The static that those systems creates in our brains hinders our ability to make sound, values-based decisions.

So what’s the antidote?

Part Three: Shine a light on our own process

The antidote is to pay attention to your own best decision-making process.


Think of a decision you’ve made that you feel really good about.

A lot of people have a hard time coming up with an example. It can provoke anxiety to try to dredge up a good decision, especially because the reason you’re reading this is that you worry that you tend to be bad at it. And other people might have you focus on all the ways that you make bad decisions, what you didn’t do, what you did wrong. Truth is, we all sometimes make bad decisions, we all forget important steps, get results that are less than we hoped for.

But focusing on only those is a distraction, just negative self-talk blocking your path forward. There’s no time for that now! Move around that perspective, and take another look from another angle. You can think of at least one decision that you feel good about, or that was right at the time, even if you’ve changed since then.

Got one?

Review in your mind what steps you took. No judgment. No, “Well, I forgot to…” “I should have…” “I didn’t need to…” Just picture what you did, thought, or said to yourself. Did you take time to reflect at first, and then go with your gut? Did you make a list of pros and cons, and then let it percolate? Did you seek the advice of your friends, family, or mentors? Read up on the web? Flip a coin? All of the above? You might even take a moment to get this down on paper. What we’re going for here is to etch into yourself what went well.

Decision-Making Process

Decision-Making Process


If you Google it, you’ll find dozens of decision-making processes, all of which are some variation of this.

That’s fine as a starting point, but that’s all it is: a starting point. When actual people actually make decisions, it’s more complex than this model. It’s not linear. We circle back, make detours, and revisit previous steps. On purpose.

So these models are less about how you should make decisions if you were a decent human being who deserved not to feel guilty and worthless all the time, and more a diagnostic tool. They’re helpful in identifying where you get stuck.

Some of us act before our emotions have a chance to settle down, and, well, perhaps regret what we said or did.

Decision-Making Model With Additions

Process, with Iterations

Some of can’t isolate what we’re trying to decide. A million things get tangled up in our brains: “should I change jobs? But then will I have to move? And can I afford to lose my current benefits? And what if I want to start a family? And when should I go back to school?” Some of us never have enough information: “if I stop now, guaranteed I’ll miss that critical piece of information that will make all the difference.” Some of us are constantly brainstorming our options: “what if I could do this AND this AND this AND…” Some of us come up with reasonable alternatives, but can’t see that one alternative is not equal to the other. And for a lot of us, we know what we need to do, but accepting and acting on that decision is just too hard.

Now, even when we make a decision, we might jump to doing before we create some plan or mental map of where we’re going. Or we might keep planning, and never do. Or we do without considering if the result could have been better if we made a different choice.

So, notice, again, without judgment, what happens at any given point in the process for you.

Decision-Making Model With Additions & Iterations


The beauty of diagnosing is that now you have the data you need for problem-solving. Here’s your chance to try something new: “just this once, as an experiment, when I find myself spinning in gathering information, I will make a point to move into identifying alternatives.” Or “this time, when I’m tempted to jump right to acting, I’ll take a moment to step back and evaluate my alternatives.” Or better still, “this time, I will intentionally notice and defer to my intuition at certain points along the way.”

Practice in low-stakes situations, where you can more easily remember that the consequence of your decision is not a reflection of your worth as a human being, but rather useful information for your brain and body to learn from.

It’ll almost definitely be uncomfortable at first. Your little internal naysayer will frantically try to command you back into the familiar zone of spinning, or of hastiness, or of resignation. Be aware of that discomfort, too. But know that you don’t have to act on your annoying little naysayer’s command. You’re the boss here.

The more data you give your brain, the more finely tuned your decision-making intuition will become. And over time, the more at ease and confident — and timely — you’ll be with your decisions.

A Blueprint for Good Decision-Making

You can have the best process in the world, but if you’re worn down, it’ll be eroded. We offer here a blueprint to notice, build, and fine-tune your own wisest decision-making processes. These are the habits that underlie the process we’ve laid out above.

  • Ration your decision-making. Watch for decision fatigue. Decision-making is like a muscle in the brain, and it gets tired. Save that limited brain capacity for the more difficult decisions, and minimize the number of minor decisions you need to make — is there a way to automate your morning clothing-selection process, for example, or what you’ll have for breakfast?
    • Make important decisions earlier in the day, when you’ve got adequate serotonin.
    • Notice when you have energy during the day. Those are the times when your brain is best able to make decisions well. Likewise, if you’re struggling with a decision, notice what time of day it is.
    • Eat as well as you can, which will strengthen your decision-making abilities.
    • Get enough sleep, if you can, so that your brain is functioning at its best.
    • But don’t take our word for it. Watch this video of Dr. Baba Shiv of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, on ‘How to Make Better Decision.’
  • Balance speed and certainty. Decision-making involves speed and certainty. And they’re at opposite ends of a continuum. Some of us prefer making a quick decision, and some of us prefer being as certain of the outcome as possible before making a decision. Somewhere between “make decisions as quickly as possible” and “go on collecting data to be as certain as possible of the outcome” lies optimal decision-making. It’s important to manage the polarity between speed and certainty by honing your intuition and using a decision-making process that works well for you.
    • Also note: The time you spend making a decision should match its risk and impact.
  • Know when to stop doing research. Too much information to digest results in less satisfaction. Studies have shown that when people have too many choices to choose from, they’re less satisfied with the choice they make.
    • And the point is to be at peace with the choices you make.
  • Let the body learn. In The Inner Game, Timothy Gallwey distinguishes between Self 1 (the thinking brain) and Self 2 (the body-brain). Self 1 focuses on thinking and communicates verbally; Self 2 focuses on doing and communicates through images. Self 2, the body-brain, knows what it is doing, and learns through repeated action and images. Self 1, the thinking brain, simply needs to observe non-judgmentally and stay out of the way. Self 1 can support Self 2 to do what it does best by visualizing the outcome you desire, visualizing ways to get there, and feeling it in the body.
  • Remember to breathe. The brain needs oxygen. Are you breathing? Take three breaths. Now take three deep breaths, and exhale slowly. Take another breath all the way through your torso and into your toes.
  • Remember the Six-Second Rule. It takes about six seconds between the time our brain produces chemicals in response to a sensation to the time those chemicals are absorbed back into our bodies.
  • Understand and develop your executive functioning. Executive functioning plays a big role in decision-making. It manages your working memory (including focus, attention, remembering what you’re working on), inhibitory control (your responses to impulses), and mental flexibility (your ability to shift what you’re doing based on new information). For some of us, our decision-making breaks down at this level, and we need to dig this deep to build ourselves back up.

A Final Note

While some of us in the U.S. have access to longstanding, ancestral, cultural sources of wisdom rooted in intuition, many more of us don’t. We’re denied knowledge and trained to doubt our own voices. Meanwhile, the rich and powerful promote the myth that they, and successful people generally, base their decisions on logic, science, and forethought. It’s not true. They’re also using their intuition, and then retroactively justifying their decisions as based in “reason.”

Developing our own intuitive ways of knowing, therefore, is a form of resistance. Trusting our intuition is resistance. I’ll meet you out there on the battlefield. Let’s reclaim our voices.


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