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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.