For most people the process of making a decision can be one that presents a lot of challenges. There are things to assess, deadlines to meet, and a lot is typically riding on whatever decision is made.

Can you say pressure?

While making decisions is not the easiest process to undertake, it doesn’t have to be the most challenging either. There are a series of steps that can be taken to help you make well-informed and well thought out decisions which more often than not turn out to be the best decisions in a given situation.

Prepare Yourself

Making a well-informed decision requires the decision maker(s) to be in the right frame of mind. This first means being self-aware enough to note when there are factors or outside influences that might interfere with the decision-making process. 

Factors as seemingly small as a lack of sleep or as large as stress in a relationship can impact a person’s ability to think clearly and objectively. It is important to take steps that will put you in the best position to make the best decision. The following are some things to take into consideration before settling down to make a decision.

Assess Your Thoughts

It’s tough to make a clear decision when your mind is cluttered with unrelated thoughts. It can be quite valuable to take a pause and identify thoughts, ideas, and even preconceived notions and biases that may influence our ability to look at the situation objectively and make a clear decision. Mindfulness meditation can be a helpful tool to help highlight and eliminate intrusive thoughts and biases. It’s a process that involves increasing awareness of the present moment.

A study conducted by Zoe Kinias, assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, found that meditation not only reduced how much people focused on the past and future, but that the psychological shift of focusing more on the present led to less negative emotion, which meant less emotional interference (Hafenbrack, 2014 ref). 

Talking through your thoughts with a respected and neutral person might also be a great tool. The point is to declutter the mind so as to create a conducive mental environment for decision making.

Assess Your Environment

Believe it or not, the environment you are in when making a decision can impact the decision making. Factors such as the temperature in the room, the organization or lack thereof of a particular environment, and even the noisiness of the space can all influence decision making. The Journal of Consumer Psychology noted in a study that even the type of lighting used within a space could impact decision-making. 

According to study researcher Alison Jing Xu, an assistant professor of management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, it was noted that bright light seems to intensify the initial emotional reaction we have to various stimuli, including products and people (Xu & Labroo, 2014 ref). 

Since all of these factors can affect us, briefly analyzing your space and addressing environmental influences that could impact your state of mind and being in a way that influences your decisions is a step that should not be overlooked. 

Assess External Factors

This simply boils down to asking yourself if there is anything happening to you or around you that might interfere with your ability to make a solid decision. Are you hungry? Are you sleep deprived? Are you depressed? Are you anxious? Are you just in a bad mood? All of these elements can prove to be detrimental because most of us are not able to effectively set these elements aside, so they don’t impact us. 

Acknowledging these elements and improving emotional intelligence can help to minimize the likelihood of these factors impacting our decisions. A 2013 study conducted by University of Toronto researchers found that the ability to identify and manage emotions, both positive (such as excitement) and negative (such as anxiety or stress), can isolate those emotions that have nothing to do with the decision at hand and thus end up making better decisions (McGuffin, 2013 ref).  

Get Motivated

Whether you know it or not, motivation can have a significant influence on the decision-making process. When we are motivated to do something, the frontal lobes of our brains become activated and those are the areas responsible for decision making (Kinsley, 2019 ref).

Thus, it is important to first get motivated and then sustain that motivation as we move throughout the decision-making process. There are several steps that can be taken to help us develop and maintain motivation. 

Self-confidence and Self-efficacy

The belief in yourself and your ability to reach goals and achieve success is an important part of motivation. When you doubt your own abilities it is challenging to become excited about facing a challenge or making a tough decision. 

Psychologist Albert Bandura from Stanford University notes that our self-efficacy or lack thereof can go on to impact the goals we set, and the decisions made as we work towards those goals. Thus, a lack of self-efficacy could negatively impact our decision making since our lack of faith in ourselves would cause us to approach the situation from a negative perspective.  

Goal Setting

It is hard to get motivated to accomplish a task when there is no clarity as to what the specific task at hand is. Goal setting provides clarity and a foundation upon which we can build and grow.

Goals that are set should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound). It is by setting these types of goals and accomplishing these goals that we see ourselves making progress which then encourages us to keep moving forward. 

This is supported by the research of Harvard’s Teresa Amabile, who found that nothing is more motivating than progress. In the book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work she notes what is called the progress principle which states that the single most powerful event that influence inner work life is progress in meaningful work. 

It also noted that the single most powerful of all the negative events that influence inner work life is setbacks in work (Barker, 2015 ref).

Thus, one can conclude that continuous progress, monitored through the setting and accomplishing of well-documented goals can increase and sustain motivation in individuals.  

Attitude

Our attitudes and thought process shape our actions. New research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology suggest that we become more motivated and subsequently more successful when we are happier or in a more positive mood. 

Studies noted in the book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work support this concept. In one study, doctors who were in a positive mood prior to making a diagnosis were shown to have nearly three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state. 

This meant they made an accurate diagnosis 19% faster. In another study, optimistic sales people were found to outsell their pessimistic peers by nearly 56% (Achor, 2010 ref). 

Research also notes that procrastination is a mood-management technique we employ more often than not, when we are in a bad mood (Barker, 2014 ref). Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that we can avoid or decrease our reliance on procrastination by regulating our moods and attitudes. 

Environment

Our environment significantly impacts our levels of motivation. Many of us work in spaces and environments that are downright distracting which prevents us from being able to focus long enough to make critical decisions or get tasks done. 

Former Harvard Medical School professor and best-selling author of Driven to Distraction, Ed Hallowell, notes that establishing focus is a byproduct of limiting the number of options we give ourselves to procrastinate (Hallowell et. al., 2011 ref). 

Essentially, the ability to focus which feeds motivation and starves procrastination is eliminating distractions. It is how well that we are able to do this on a continuous basis that determines how focused and thus how motivated we will be. 

Take Your Time

Good decisions cannot be made hastily. Thus, it is important to devote an appropriate amount of time to the decision that needs to be made. A PLoS ONE study suggested that spending just a fraction of a second more when making a decision could assist in decision making accuracy.

Jack Grinband, PhD, study researcher and associate research scientist at theTaub Institute noted that delaying the onset of the decision-making process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds was all that was needed to enhance the decision-making process. The study highlighted that within that brief timeframe the brain was better able to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors (Columbia University Irving Medical Center, 2014 ref). 

It is important to note that taking your time does not mean inaction or avoidance. There should always be some sort of deadline for when a decision should be made, so as to guide the process. 

If the time given to make a decision is open-ended, this could lead to a delay that causes more problems on top of the one(s) that already exist. So while there should not be an impulsive rush to provide an answer or solution right away, creating and sticking to a timeline is a good strategy to help increase the chances of success. 

Conduct a Thorough Analysis

Before a situation can be properly addressed it must be thoroughly analyzed. An analysis allows all contributing factors to be considered and all potential solutions to be weighed. This analysis process may be the most vital, as it provides the foundation for a decision to be made and assesses each option that could be used to address the situation in great deal. In order for an analysis to be thorough, the following steps should be taken:

Situation Analysis

A situation analysis breaks down each facet of the situation that calls for a decision to be made. Elements to be looked at include why a decision needs to be made, the timeline for the decision to be made, those who would be directly and indirectly impacted by the decision, and the information and data needed to make the decision (Myatt, 2012 ref).

The ultimate goal of a situation analysis is to identify the problem or outline the specific reason a decision needs to be made.

Cost/Benefit Analysis

A cost/benefit analysis looks at each potential solution for a given problem and weighs each, looking at the cost of each option versus the benefit of that option. It’s important to note that cost doesn’t just mean the financial cost, but also looks at factors such as time spent, and effort exerted.

Things to be considered include whether the proposed benefits justify the cost and what happens if the cost exceeds the projected benefits (Myatt, 2012 ref). 

Risk/Reward Assessment

This type of assessment takes a similar approach to the cost/benefit analysis. However, this assessment weighs the risks associated with each potential solution versus the expected reward associated with each potential solution. Things to be considered include the likelihood that each potential solution will result in a positive outcome (Myatt, 2012 ref). 

Gather Information

Gathering information and data is an essential part of the decision-making process. A thorough situation analysis, as mentioned above, should identify the types of information and data needed to make a well-informed decision. 

When gathering and consulting that information and data, the following should be kept in mind.

Consult a Variety of Sources

It’s important to gather information from a variety of sources so that there is a well-rounded view of the situation. The goal is not to find information that confirms our own beliefs or ideas, but to find information that will allow us to examine the situation and possible solutions from all sides. 

Assess for Potential Bias

Bias can be defined as a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasonable (Dictionary.com, 2019 ref). Identifying bias within sources of information is significant because bias limits objectivity, which is a key component of fair and effective decision making.

When assessing for bias it’s important to note whether the information being provided is benefitting the source and whether there are hidden or competing agendas that may be altering the input being received (Myatt, 2012 ref). 

Assess for Credibility

Credibility looks at whether a source of information/data is reliable. If unreliable data is being used as a basis to form a decision, then the decision will ultimately be unreliable. 

Factors that should be looked at include the track record of the source and whether the source will provide an unedited version of the truth versus a filtered version (Myatt, 2012 ref).

Trust Your Instincts

As it turns out research reveals that our gut instincts are relatively accurate in many situations. Neuroscientist Dr. Joel Pearson and his research team conducted studies which revealed that intuition does exist. Intuition is essentially the ability to make correct decisions without using rationale or analysis beforehand.

Via their research they uncovered that unconscious emotions improved both the speed and accuracy of decision making (Pearson, n.d. ref). Based on these findings, one can conclude that those gut instincts that often induce visceral reactions should be given more weight and that in these situations, additional analysis may be best used as a supporting tool. 

Consult Another Person

This step may seem counter to making an objective opinion, but there is value to be found in discussing the situation with someone. The key is to ensure that the person is a neutral party with no connection to the situation and that your goal is not for that person to tell you what to do.

Rather the aim should be to pick their brain regarding the processes they’ve gone through in order to make similar decisions. There may be something they share about their own process that proves to be useful. 

This neutral party might also be able to uncover unconscious bias or prejudice within you that might negatively impact your decision-making ability. 

The following questions can help guide your discussion: 

  • What factors did you consider when in this type of situation?
  • What sources of information did you look at when in this type of situation?
  • In what ways, if any, do you see that I possess bias or preconceived notions
    that may negatively influence my decision-making process?
  • What other resources might be useful to me during this process?

Face Your Fear

Fear can be a major hindrance in the decision-making process. Work in the field of neuroscience has revealed that when the fear system of the brain is active, exploratory activity and risk-taking become deactivated within the brain. 

This means that fear can actually keep you from effectively analyzing information and then making necessary decisions (Berns, 2008 ref). In order to overcome fear, science suggests that the key is to neutralize the fear center of the brain.

This can be done be taking a series of steps to limit fears influence on decision making. 

Don’t overemphasize the risks

Let’s face it- every single situation comes with a measure of risk. And it’s true that risks could sometimes result in failures. However, it is also true that most rewards do not come without some level of risk. 

Therefore, the focus should not be placed on what might go wrong. Instead the focus should be placed on the need for the decision and the positives that coming to a decision will create. 

If you focus too much on the risks, you will naturally become fearful and avoid making the necessary moves to resolve the situation. By altering your perception, also known as reframing, you can change the association you make with risks (Berns, 2008 ref). Reframing is the ability to take a negative situation and adjust our view of it so that we can see the positive and thus think more positively about the situation. 

Reframing is about consciously deciding to find the good amongst the bad and choosing to highlight it. In doing so, we develop an ability to rise above our circumstances and thrive in the midst of them. 

So, rather than risks being associated with fear and anxiety you can come to view risks as a necessary part of the growth and development process. 

Eliminate negative influences

Truth be told, there are some people who are fear mongers. Fear Mongering is a tactic that involves the spreading of frightening or exaggerated rumors of an impending danger or negative outcomes. At times, this can be an unintentional act whereby people’s own anxiety and personal fears drive them to project those onto other people. 

Other times, fear mongering is an intentional act used to cause panic and arouse public fear. Typically when it’s an intentional act the underlying motive is to use fear to manipulate people into behaving a certain way or making a particular decision. 

If you find yourself in a situation where you are surrounded by people who utilize this tactic, it is wise to push them aside or avoid them while engaged in the process of decision-making. As noted above, our emotions can negatively impede our decision-making abilities, and fear is included.

So if there is a person or persons who generate fear, make every effort to minimize your contact with them as well as minimizing their influence within the process. This will help to ensure that any decisions made are not muddied by negative emotions which may lead you in the wrong direction. 

Take Action

Once you’ve thoroughly assessed the situation, reviewed necessary data/information, and weighed all possible decisions on all sides it is time to act. Naturally, there will be some hesitation to act when a decision is made because of the weight that decision carries. 

It’s important however to remember that the wrong action beats inaction on any given day. A decision made that happens not to work out can be rectified and altered. A lack of any decision simply allows the issue at hand to continue to fester and likely become bigger. 

Have a Contingency Plan

Murphy’s Law is an adage or epigram that is generally stated as, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Based on this, it is wise for any person put in the position to make any sort of decision to have developed an alternate plan in the instance that the primary course of action turns out not to be the best one.

Having a backup plan on hand is a means of anticipating unexpected problems which will help to alleviate stress in the instance that a problem arises because you will be prepared to handle it. 

Contingency plans should not be viewed as second-rate plans, but they should be designed to be just as formidable as the first course of action. A solid contingency plan should also be strategic and intentional. 

This means that risks identified during the risk/reward assessment phase should be those items that a contingency plan accounts for.

The plan should also address the following questions (Wrike, 2019 ref): 

  1. When will the plan be executed? What needs to happen for the plan to be put in motion?
  2. How will the plan be executed? 
  3. Who will be involved?
  4. What role will the involved individuals play?

Review & Adjust

Once a decision has been made, there is still work to be done. The decision maker should take sometimes to assess the decision made, the implementation of that decision, and how effective that decision is in addressing the outlined problem. Best case scenario is that the decision made solves the problem and produces the intended positive results.

However, if the analysis of the decision reveals that the identified need has not been met, adjustments need to be made to the decision (UMass Dartmouth, nd. ref). In some cases this means altering a few facets. In other cases this means making a whole new decision altogether and implementing the aforementioned contingency plan. 

Decision-making is not a process that should be feared. Rather, it is one that should be welcomed and embraced. Making decisions is how things get done. Some of the greatest accomplishments happened because decisions were made, whether intentionally or unintentionally. 

By understanding and implementing the strategies outlined within this document you should be able to develop a process that will make you feel confident in the decisions you make, while also having a plan in place should things go awry. 

Ultimately, no matter what happens after a decision is made, there is learning and growth that can later be applied to produce more favorable results. And in the best-case scenario, the decisions made will yield favorable results that increase your belief in yourself and your abilities to make sound decisions. 

References:

Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Broadway Business.

Barker, E. (2014, June 30). How to Motivate Yourself: 3 Steps Backed By Science. Retrieved from.

Barker, E. (2015, March 31). The Best Way To Motivate People. Retrieved from.

Berns, G. (2008, December 6). In Hard Times, Fear Can Impair Decision-Making. Retrieved from.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center. (2014, March 7). Ever-So-Slight Delay Improves Decision-Making Accuracy. Retrieved from.

Dictionary.com. (2019). bias. Retrieved from.

Edward M. Hallowell, M., & John J. Ratey, M. (2011). Driven to Distraction (Revised): Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder. New York, NY: Anchor.

Hafenbrack, A. (2014, February 12). Mindfulness meditation may improve decision making. Retrieved from.

How The Light In A Room Could Affect Your Emotions. (2014, February 24). Retrieved from.

McGuffinn, K. (2013, November 19). Higher Emotional Intelligence leads to better decision-making. Retrieved from.

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Pearson, J. (n.d.). Tapping the Mind. Retrieved from.

Wrike. (2019). What is Contingency Plan in Project Management? Retrieved from.

Xu, A. J., & Labroo, A. A. (2014, April). Incandescent affect: Turning on the hot emotional system with bright light. Retrieved from.