How to Make an Important Decision

Getting past analysis paralysis and making carefully reasoned decisions

Posted Mar 09, 2020

In our increasingly complicated world, we have so much information that we must wade through to make a decision. Today, we wouldn’t think of making a major purchase such as a car without looking online to see the price ranges in our area, and how much the various options cost. In fact, salespeople have had to learn to sell a new way because their customers have so much information before they ever meet that their job is no longer educating the customer, but rather helping them understand all the nuances.

However, we don’t always get all the information as a complete set—we get fragments here and other pieces there, and they often look at things from different angles. Using the car example, we may have information on safety features, horsepower, options, etc. but they don’t all equate—in other words, we rarely have the same piece of data for each and every characteristic. At the core of this evaluation process is the ability to identify a rule or rules that dictate a decision or an action.

To function in such an increasingly uncertain atmosphere, we must be able to quickly search for and prioritize information as well as swiftly identify relationships among sometimes disparate ideas. If we can’t, we are stuck in analysis paralysis—unable to do anything but stare at all the data or throw up our hands in surrender.

Content-free progression exercises contain so many complex variables that the brain cannot discern (much less apply or habituate) a pattern without carefully analyzing and documenting these relationships first. These progression puzzles habitually force us to identify the explicit change and to reframe how we characterize the change. For example, perhaps something moves up, but we don’t necessarily need something to move up, we need to reframe it as a place change. The process slows us down—providing a unique opportunity to fully exercise the comparative and analytical skills that are so vital to the decision-making process. And because the exercises are content-free, there may be frustration, but there are no negative emotions—fear of making the wrong buying decision, shame at being unable to make a decision, etc.

The following exercise requires you to analyze information and abstract ideas, which is exactly what is required of us when we face a mountain of information:

@2006 Donalee Markus, PhD & Associates. All rights reserved worldwide.
Figure 1
Source: @2006 Donalee Markus, PhD & Associates. All rights reserved worldwide.

In this exercise, we need to identify the changes from image to image on the left and apply those changes to a new scenario, deciding which of the choices on the right mirror those changes. Unlike some of the exercises we’ve looked at in my blogs, the changes go beyond simple color or placement and require more abstract thinking.

To start we need to look at what changes from A1 to A2 on the left. We can see that something has been removed or disappeared—the gray petal toward the bottom—and something has changed place—the yellow arc connecting the petals in A1, moves to the bottom of the image. Now, we need to analyze the choices on the right to see which one belongs in B2. It’s relatively easy to see that the curlicue at the lower lobe of the butterfly has been removed, so that means that the two possibilities are B1 and B6.

What we need to decide between the two is to understand what the movement of the yellow arc means. If we look at B6, nothing has moved, but the top funnel has flipped upside down. In B1, the movement of the lower star is up not down—and that’s what makes these exercises and life decisions harder. If the star had moved down like the yellow arc—it would have been immediately clear that B1 was the answer, but because the movement is up and not down—we have to stop and think. Being able to abstract the idea of movement rather than a specific direction of movement give you an additional variable to consider.

If we look at A3, we see that the gray petal has returned, the yellow arc remains at the bottom, but the central yellow petal has turned upside down. If we focus just on the pictures where something has turned upside down, we’re looking at three possibilities, B2, B4, and B8 (B6 is missing the curlicues, so it doesn’t fit the criteria). We can eliminate B4 because the upper lobes have become bigger and we don’t see that kind of size change on the left. In B2, the star has returned to its original spot but the yellow arc remains below, which makes B8 the correct choice. So B8 becomes the new frame of reference because the flip in the triangle is retained.

Looking at A4, the yellow arc has moved up to its original position, but there’s been a change to the petals—the red petals have become larger. Here’s the tricky part, we have a number of options with size changes but not that meet the other criteria. Some people will continue working as we have been and some will try reverse engineering—going to the bottom pictures and working their way back—both are perfectly valid and you may actually need to do it both ways to confirm your choices. Just as in life—decisions are rarely a linear process. Option 2 is the only one that has the size change and the position change.

Finally, A5 has the center yellow petal flipping to its original position and keeps the larger red petals but changes the outer shape from oval to rectangular. Here’s where some of the reverse engineering comes in—we need to look at both A6 and B6 to see where we need to get to. B6 has the larger upper butterfly lobes, so our final option needs to account for a size change. A6 has the smaller red petals again and the white petals are spread wider than in the pictures above. So, if we focus on these details, Option 7 gives us the size and position change (the orange marking in upper lobes are smaller and in a different position).

This is a hard exercise and at the beginning, my clients do a lot of head-scratching and swearing over this one and others like it. Some just throw up their hands in analysis paralysis. However, with practice, these become less frustrating and more approachable, just as interpreting all the information in the car buying decision. You just have to figure out the rules and how they apply in each situation.