To what degree do you think our decisions determine our lives?  Should we stay in a city we have known and enjoyed for a decade-plus or move elsewhere to shake things up? Take a high visibility job with additional responsibilities or focus more on enjoying a balanced and relaxed life? Know when it is time to quit our side hustle or persist? To be human is to be jostled by choice.  I have found that to have an edge in decision-making, we want to have a few systems in place to better guide us.

Here are some helpful systems to consider when we are contemplating making big decisions:

1. Expand your time horizons.   Suzy Welch, a former editor at the Harvard Business Review recommends conducting a 10-10-10 analysis.  For every choice we’re considering, ask ourselves: how will I feel about having done this 10 minutes, 10 months, 10 years from now?   This tool helps create psychological distance when you expand the time horizon and imagine how we would feel in the future.  A challenge we have when making a decision is the emphasis we place on immediate emotions so we avoid doing unpleasant things like asking for a promotion or breaking up with our partner because we may be blinded by the short-term fallout.  By considering how we will feel in the future, we can reduce the intensity of our current emotions and make sounder decisions.  You only have to deal with the short-term once, but the long run for the rest of your life.

A similar idea is to think about 2nd and 3rd order consequences or the downstream ramifications of your actions, which are not always obvious at first. You can decide to take up running and endure the initial pain of working out for the medium-term benefits of getting in shape and feeling great. You may also look further ahead to consider the joint pains you might incur from running on the pavement so perhaps you will want to have a plan to switch to a less impactful exercise such as yoga or swimming at some point since it will be lighter on your body but still help you attain your goal of healthy living. It is about being mindful of the long game.

Ask yourself, what advice would I give my friend.  Another way to gain distance from the problem is to imagine that your friend told you the same dilemma, what would you tell them to do?  This approach can help because when you picture yourself not involved, those highly charged emotions reduce their intensity.  You can see the problem more clearly for what it is minus the strong feelings.  Andy Grove, the former Intel CEO had a similar technique he used, which was to ask the question, “If I were replaced tomorrow, what would my successor do”?

2. Run an experiment.  In Stumbling Upon Happiness, Daniel Gilbert asserts that when we are thinking about making a decision and factoring in our happiness, we tend to be pretty lousy at predicting what will make us happy.  We may think to ourselves, “once I move out of the city and to the suburbs, it will be quieter, I will not hear the ambulance sirens, trucks, and unrelenting construction disturbances.”  But when we do it, we realize it is boring, we do not like it, and in fact, those background noises provided the occasional rushes. So, the best thing to do is to conduct small experiments.  Spend weekends or months simulating how we would be living.  If moving also means a job change, testing the assumption while we have a paycheck is most helpful because we will have an exit plan.

3. Do a pre-mortem.  It is human nature to strategize an approach and formulate all the ways we will be successful, but few people talk about what could go wrong.  The pre-mortem considers what failure would look like before even beginning the project.  This approach could have come in handy during the British colonization of India when officials were concerned with the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi.  To solve the problem, the government gave cash for every dead cobra.  While the plan was initially successful, ultimately it was a failure because they did not think about all the entrepreneurs who got into the business of breeding snakes to generate additional income.  When the government scrapped the idea, the cobra breeders let the snakes loose, and the population blossomed.  The solution was worse than the problem, and with a proper pre-mortem, maybe this could have been prevented.  It could be helpful to invest in the upfront time to generate a list of the ways a solution can fail.  A good question to ask to kick off this inquiry is: If this decision was a debacle one week, one month, or one year from now, what would be the causes of the failure?

4. Take a break.  When we find ourselves mulling over a decision and we feel like we have expended all our energy, hit pause.   Either do something else you enjoy like going for a run or playing catch with your kids or simply allow yourself to be bored so you can review the problem in new ways.  Einstein turned to his violin whenever stuck.  Woody Allen changed rooms and took multiple showers.  Beethoven took hour-long strolls.  When you get distance from the problem and do something completely different, you broaden your focus.  Author Ron Friedman says, “It’s only then, when you have some distance, that loose connections suddenly appear, making creative insights more likely.”  Our brain continues to mull over unresolved problems, even when we turn our attention elsewhere, and we can bring that additional insight into making better decisions.

5. Time-box your decisions.  Once you have gathered your information, instead of waiting for the moons to align, give yourself a window of time to make up your mind and set a date because then you will be more motivated to act.  In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Mark Chussil, Founder of Advanced Competitive Strategies, recounts wise words from his friend who said, “you should not spend your life making up your mind because things change, values change, and dreams change.  What broke your heart or made your day at age 25 is inconsequential at age 45.”  If the issue on the table has been reasonably vetted and the choices are equally attractive, it is time to decide, take action, and break the impasse. That dreaded feeling of being stuck could be corroding other areas of your life and draining your energy.

6. Avoid decision fatigue by automating.  Some decisions are minor, like what to eat and what to wear.  Others are more difficult, like deciding between two job offers; if you should move to a new country for someone you love; if you should cut a toxic friend out of your life, even though you share a rich history.  With so many decisions taking up your day, when you can turn the small ones into a routine, you can save your mental resources for the complex decisions.  It is the reason why Steve Jobs wore black turtlenecks, and Mark Zuckerberg dons hoodies.  Both men have stated that these decisions are the simple result of daily routines intended to cut down on decision fatigue.  Barack Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”  Routines can prime your mental state for the best decision-making.

7. Make one big decision at a time.  Some people try to make 2-3 decisions at once.  How about just making one, waiting, and then seeing how the landscape changes.  You do not need to solve everything before you take action.  Similar to riding a bike, it is easier to steer and make turns once you are moving.  We cannot plan life just from the sidelines; we need to participate and adjust on the go.  Is there one decision you can make that can be a lead domino for three others?

8. Make decisions in advance.  When you decide now how you will act in the future, you set yourself up for success.  For example, if you want to go for a run in the morning, you can lay out your clothes in advance and be mentally prepared to know that you are going first thing in the morning.  You do not have to think about it at the moment when you may be sleepy and unmotivated.  With advanced planning, you can even anticipate the fatigue that you may feel, and how you will overcome it.

9. Aim for 80% or a good enough choice.  Many things we can be deciding on could relate to wicked problems with changing requirements that are often hard to recognize and numerous unintended consequences. Even with all the best research and strategies, there will always be information that eludes us.  Steven Covey says that trying to be perfect prevents action.  If you feel about 80% confident in your decision, go for it.  Any difficult decision may not be ideal, but we can go for a good enough choice. Choices are made depending on the estimation of how things will be in the future, but the future is ever-changing so decisions made today can be based on faulty information. In that case, it could be helpful to choose a direction rather than a destination because you become open to the possibility of adjusting as you go to better match the realities you will be given.

10. Examine tradeoffs.  Ray Dalio, Author of Principles said, “I learned that if you work hard and creatively, you can have just about anything you want, but not everything you want.  Maturity is the ability to reject good alternatives to pursue even better ones.”  When faced with a choice between two things that you need and that are seemingly at odds, try and figure out how much of each you can get and know when you say no to one thing, you can say yes to another in which you are more enthusiastic.

11. Avoid indecision.  When we are in the deliberation stage, we have stress and anxiety, but when we move into phase two of pulling the trigger, our mind moves into action mode; it convinces us that the thing we have is better than the thing we left behind.  We sometimes wonder, after the fact, how we were even having a tough time deciding in the first place.  The energy you save by not deliberating pointlessly will be useful for other things, so put a timer on your decision and go for it.

Hard decisions are hard when we are in the process of making them, but after that, it is just life.  When we have systems in place to help us with decision-making, we can find ways to make the process a little less strenuous on ourselves, so we can spend more time in action with the things we love, and less time stuck in deciding.

Quote of the day: “[People are] born to live and not to prepare to live” – Boris Pasternak, Russian Poet

Q: What is your favorite system that you rely on for good decision-making? Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog in this series 7/8 will focus on the aftermath of a decision.]

As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with leaders to help them make hard decisions, contact me to explore this topic further.

What’s your system for making decisions?