A Mindful Approach to Decision-Making

Before making consequential decisions, figure out your purpose.

Posted Feb 05, 2019

Do you struggle with decision-making? Are you expected to make consequential decisions on a daily basis? If you are feeling stuck or like you’re headed in the wrong direction, it’s time to rethink your decision-making process. It’s not always as simple as saying, “yes” or “no,” especially when you’re expected to make decisions of great consequence.

The average American makes approximately 35,000 decisions every day–what to eat for breakfast, what time to leave for work, how often to check email, what project to tackle next. As parent, entrepreneur, creator, or leader, you may not realize how important your day-to-day decisions really are until you make the wrong ones. You’re not alone, by the way.

Conventional decision making, unfortunately, only takes you so far. One of the best ways to approach the decision-making process is through the lens of purpose. When you tap into your sense of purpose every day and have the meta-awareness fostered by mindfulness, you can be better prepared to make wise decisions.

Understanding Purpose

We know that a purposeful existence leads to a greater sense of direction, a valued sense of self, and a more meaningful life, but how do you go about uncovering your purpose? In knowing your purpose, you get to decide if saying “yes” or “no” to a decision, to a project, to an opportunity will ultimately serve your purpose. The same can be applied to a mission-driven brand.

Ask the big questions, as you begin your journey to purpose-led decision-making:

  • What drives me? What motivates me?
  • What are my long-term goals?
  • What choices have I made that have bettered my life?
  • In what environment do I best thrive?

Once you’ve established your purpose, remind yourself of that purpose day in and day out. When you make the small and big decisions, make sure they serve your purpose in both your personal and professional life.

Making Informed Decisions

Before Netflix became Netflix, Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy the company (which would have kept Blockbuster thriving in this new technology-driven era), but instead, Blockbuster passed on the opportunity. Did Blockbuster predict the outcome of that decision? Obviously not. Do they regret saying “no?” Does it matter?

The CEO had to make a consequential choice, and at the time Netflix was a DVD delivery service, which didn’t align with Blockbuster’s purpose. On top of that, Netflix was losing money, so he said “no.” He made an informed decision based on the information he had, not based on possibilities or because of emotions. This is what a leader is expected to do.

Dr. Hossein Arsham, The Wright Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Baltimore and Teaching Professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, wrote about the significance of decision theory:

“Business decision making is almost always accompanied by conditions of uncertainty. Clearly, the more information the decision maker has, the better the decision will be. Treating decisions as if they were gambles is the basis of decision theory. This means that we have to trade off the value of a certain outcome against its probability.”

Though this theory contradicts what could have been a Blockbuster success story, it tells us that John Antioco, the CEO at the time, made an informed decision based on decision theory. Often, to make the best decision, you must lead with your purpose–and disregard what happened in the past and what might happen in the future.

Letting Go of What You Think You Know

In his recent New Yorker piece, Joshua Rothman writes about Charles Darwin and how he made the decision on whether to propose to Emma Wedgwood or not. Like many of us have done, Darwin made a basic pros and cons list, which can be both positive and problematic.

Like Antioco, Darwin laid out the facts in an attempt to make the best decision possible, but a pros and cons list is made up of facts, facts that carry varying weights. So this strategy is limiting, especially when you’re expected to make a consequential decision, or an urgent one–like standing up for a pregnant woman on the subway or answering an unexpected question in a meeting or deciding whether to address a controversy.

Often, the most important decisions need to be made using your own personal criteria. What works for you might not work for somebody else. Why? Because your purpose will be uniquely yours and it will be the North Star guiding you to the next decision.

Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, along with Andrew C. Hafenbrack and Zoe Kinias, both with the department of organizational behavior at INSEAD, wrote about the impact of meditation on decision-making in the paper “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias,” published in Psychological Science.

In the study, they found that those who listened to a 15-minute focused-breathing guided meditation recording created specifically for the research were more likely to resist sunk-cost bias (which refers to our tendency to continue investing in something that’s already cost us) than those who had not. Maybe you’ve spent months and months investing time and money into a project that’s yielding the wrong results or failing to live up to the expectations you set. Should you keep pursuing that project, investing more of your time, or should you move on?

Consider the results of the study. Those who meditated focused less on the past and, therefore, experienced less negative emotions, and were, therefore, able to make more in-the-moment decisions with a clearer mind. The takeaway: do your best to remove the emotion from a decision, especially a consequential decision. If you can remove the anger, the past trauma, the anxiety, you will allow yourself the space to make a more informed decision.

As a leader, you are expected to make dozens of important decisions on a daily basis. It is up to you to define the purpose of your company, business, or creative endeavor, and lead each day with that purpose in mind.

In a Harvard Business Review piece, Bill Ford, the executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, admitted that daily meditation helped him get through his most difficult days and also helped him to make more compassionate decisions. Taking fifteen minutes to separate yourself from the office or the Internet allows you the time and space to reconnect with your purpose.

Quick decisions aren’t always easy to make (and sometimes they are, if you’re feeling high emotions), but if you re-shape your daily mindset, you will go into the decision-making process better prepared.