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How to Make Decisions

Five steps to overcome inertia and doubt.

Key points

  • Do your research beforehand.
  • Think about possible outcomes.
  • Tolerate the anxiety associated with knowing you can make a mistake.
Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash

When you know how to make a decision -- decisively, without hesitatIon--there's a good chance your partners, family members or work team will be grateful and throw in behind you. Knowing you can make decisions —just for yourself— makes life easier. The ability to make decisions is a matter of mindset, attitude, doing your homework well, and learning how to tolerate the fear of making mistakes. Once you learn to make decisions with confidence, your whole life changes.

Annette and I had been working on this for several months, and something was dragging her down, preventing her from grabbing ideas and running with them. At some point, she remembered that, as a child, her mother often told her: "You're too smart for your own good." She was made to feel ashamed of herself when she stood out and took initiative.

She was told: "Girls shouldn't be so bossy."

It took quite a while before Annette began to tell me the stories behind her difficulty making decisions, taking initiative, and leading others. As early memories came into our conversations, things began to change.

As a child, Annette believed her mother must be "right." This is what children do. Children believe their parents’ point of view is the right, moral perspective. Annette learned to believe if she failed to hide her clear thinking and her ability to make decisions she would be considered rude. Or overbearing. Or “inappropriate.” So, often she remained silent when she knew exactly what would be most helpful in moving forward on almost any project.

In fact, when facing a problem Annette was particularly skilled at collecting relevant information, thinking clearly about what she knew, and finally, she could look at a range of options and then make a decision as to what would be the most effective course of action. Being able to make a decision always involves tolerating the fact that it might not be right. This is the secret skill behind becoming a decisive leader that people are relieved to follow.

Yes. People will be relieved —even happy— to follow you when you’ve learned to be willing to make a decision. Fear of being “wrong” stops most from being a decision-maker. Many of you may have grown up hearing your parents warn you against being courageous, outspoken, and confident. Your parents meant no harm; they believed they were teaching you to protect yourself.

Whatever words they used, they all came down to: “Do not trust yourself.” and “Do not risk being wrong.”

Being courageous, outspoken and confident are the personal attributes you can learn —even as an adult— if you’re willing to articulate the warnings you heard in the past, so you can throw them out. Those parental warnings were false, incorrect, and misleading, So what are the steps you take, how do you learn to be the decision-maker people want to follow? There are five easily attained steps to follow, beginning to end.

Gather knowledge

The first skill to acquire and pursue is gathering information relevant to the problem you’re facing. Begin with a brain dump —in your favorite app—or on a piece of paper or a notebook. Jot down all the facts you already know. Read through your list and think about gaps in the information you already have. Do the research and capture whatever seems important in your reading or watching, filling in the gaps in your knowledge. Capture what you’re learning from others in informal —or formal— conversations or interviews.

Use a timer whenever you’re engaged in gathering information. Get used to using a timer as you’re working on a problem. Track the time you’ve spent on research. For some reason, using a timer cuts down on inefficiency, time simply wasted.

Write a running note summarizing what you’ve learned

Get in the habit of writing running notes about whatever knowledge you’re consuming. You may have already acquired this habit, but if not —start now. A running note summarizing information from different sources will end up going into your decisions. It may seem like an extraneous waste of time —but it makes you an expert and knowing you’ve done the background work promotes confidence. Keep your notes, and keep lists of your sources. Again, using a timer and tracking time spent on writing and summarizing materials is a way to codify your process. Writing is thinking, and writing time is thinking time.

Make mind-maps, draw charts, and other graphics illustrating possible solutions to problems.

This is the material that becomes decisions.

Working with ideas —first in some concrete, visible, form— derived from your prior education, your current knowledge consumption, and your life and work experiences all contribute to your ability to tap into a vast storehouse of knowledge. As you consider possible solutions concretely, at the same time, usually beneath the level of conscious awareness—you’re thinking, you’re putting things together, making cognitive links, that ultimately allow you to make decisions.

List possibilities. Ask yourself: “What is the best thing to do right now?

Listen to your thinking. You actually know the answer. Pay attention to what you already really know.

List the options, list the “pros” and “cons” of each option, and visualize yourself countering the arguments you’re expecting

By the time you’re ready to list the options with the pros and cons for each, you usually will know the right option. This is the quiet moment you need, preparing to shoot down the opposition. Visualize your decision, imagine those who will try to stop you. Most often, you’ll know beforehand, exactly who will try to shroud your decision with doubt. You know who will jump in to muddy the water, spread dire warnings, insisting your clear decision is wrong. Visualize the whole situation, the context in which you’ll confidently announce and stand by a decision. The process of visualizing yourself as confident, courageous, and outspoken beforehand prepares you.

Announce your decision.

Explain it. Tolerate the fear of making a mistake, and convey confidence while countering the arguments you face.

What most people can’t tolerate is the anxiety inherent in making a decision, knowing it may be wrong. This is true of any decision. Explain why you think doing X has a better chance of a successful outcome than doing Y. Include the possible downside of your decision, and why you’ve made the decision you’ve made, despite the problems it might involve. Explain the downside of an alternate decision, and why the problems it presents are likely to be even more formidable. The practice you’ve done beforehand, visualizing yourself explaining your decision with courage and confidence, will make it easy to do in real-time.

Tolerate the fear of failure. Tolerating the fear of making a mistake underlies the ability to make decisions. It is not possible to make any decision without the risk of being wrong. Once you’ve made a decision, allow yourself to feel confident even though you know it may be wrong. The ability to cope with the anxiety associated with the possibility of making a mistake lives within any decision. Practice mindfulness in the face of fear. You’ve done your homework, you’ve done your research —it may have involved years of professional training or just a more recent review of available research. Trust yourself. Being able to make decisions is a skill that’s well-worth learning.

More from Lynn E. O'Connor Ph.D.
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