From the route we take to work to bigger tasks that can dictate our chances of professional success, we are defined by the choices we make.  Who to hire? What to promote? Where to allocate budgets and resources? Or the mundane – which tie or shoes to wear? Decisions big and small are made every moment of the day.

We took a look at the research into how many decisions we make on a given day. There are some estimates that claim we make an astonishing (and unbelievable) 35,000 decisions a day – or a decision every 2 seconds. A study from 2006 suggested that we make over 200 decisions a day just on what to eat!

While we won’t accept any of these data points as fact, we are faced with making thousands of decisions a day, consciously or not.

effective decision-making process

A 2021 survey found that many people were struggling with decision-making in daily tasks during the pandemic. Millennials struggled the most – with 48% saying they had difficulty making even basic decisions, such as what to eat or wear.

Regardless of our circumstances, having a personal decision-making framework can not only improve our ability to make the right decision faster but relieve decision-making anxiety.

The Decision-Making Brain

There’s a science behind our ability to make a decision.

Simple decisions are usually made based on reason, emotion, and memories. For day-to-day choices such as where to go for lunch or which movie to watch, you’ll likely (even without realizing it) use one of the common strategic decision-making models:

  • Single-Feature Decision Model – Making a decision based on one single variable such as price or appearance.
  • Additive Model – Taking all factors into consideration and evaluating the choices systematically.
  • Heuristic Model – Choosing the most appropriate path based on the (sometimes incomplete) information you have.
  • Emotional Decision – Choosing based on a feeling or emotion associated with the outcome.
  • Random Choice – The simple method of selecting randomly. Ie: flip a coin!

However, for complex decisions with ambiguous and uncertain outcomes, the process, in turn, becomes more complicated. It also combines elements from all the models above. When faced with a decision we’ve never encountered, with possibilities we’ve not experienced, the brain needs to work overtime.

Throughout life, we create memory anchors that establish cognitive biases (or shortcuts) in our decision-making, based on the outcomes of previous situations.

Our memories, along with reasoning and emotions, are integral in making complex decisions. If we don’t have previous experience to draw on or the ability to separate logic from emotions and biases, it’s all the more challenging to make a tough decision with confidence.

How to Make Complex Decisions

Some decisions are easy: toast or cereal, bike or walk, chocolate or vanilla. But what do you do when the options or choices are not laid out neatly in front of you? For those more complicated situations, here are 4 important steps to making tough decisions with confidence.

1. Brainstorming

One of the first steps in complex decision-making is analyzing a situation, extracting key information, and identifying potential solutions.

When brainstorming ideas and solutions, embrace the unexpected. In reframing choices through the lens of what you could do differently and better, you open yourself up to innovative and creative thinking.

A popular method, used by teams at Microsoft and MIT for relieving some of the pressure in a brainstorming process, is creating a list of questions rather than ideas. List questions you or your team would ask about the project or challenge at hand. This method can help reframe the issue and spark creative ideas, alternative options, and solutions.

Another method is to actively avoid what everyone else is doing. Looking to competitors or colleagues for answers can be helpful, but it removes the space for considering alternatives without preconceived notions of what outcomes to expect. Instead, collect ideas and build on them using a constructive method (such as the “yes, and” concept).

2. Evaluating

After brainstorming, the next step is to evaluate and weigh your options. Part of the evaluation process involves ensuring that memory anchors and biases are not dominating your decision. It’s essential to view a problem from different perspectives and try to be open-minded.

Methods used when evaluating options will center around either an Isolated Evaluation or a Comparative Evaluation. In an Isolated Evaluation, decision-makers analyze the characteristics and data of each choice in isolation. With a Comparative Evaluation, on the other hand, you compare the data of all options together.

When considering models for decision-making, consider using one of the following frameworks of evaluation:

  1. Pros and Cons – Don’t underestimate the value of a detailed Pros and Cons list.
  2. SWOT – The SWOT technique is a tool to examine both internal and external factors of your choices. Evaluate potential solutions based on an analysis of the 4 aspects of each option or outcome: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.
  3. Evaluation Matrix – This tool is used to visually map out potential risks and rewards. In an Evaluation Matrix, a table is drawn with columns for each factor, to weigh data, analysis methods, and criteria being compared.

Whatever approach you take when making a decision, it’s essential to have some scientific basis, so that you can learn from your decisions, good or bad.

3. Decision-Making With Confidence

With every decision, there’s an opportunity cost. But there’s no opportunity cost greater than making no decision at all.

Once you come to a decision, stay firm. This is even more challenging when there’s a clear opportunity cost to your decision. Vanilla or chocolate is no big deal – you’ll get it right next time (or maybe you’ll just buy that second cone). But choosing who to hire has a very high opportunity cost. Besides the costs of a poor choice being very high, you are also likely to lose the option of ever hiring the other candidates.

You should take your time when making decisions, especially the big ones with a significant degree of uncertainty. Catherine Richardson, counselor and therapist, suggests making 24 to 48 hours the baseline for the decision-making process. And 5-6 days for more important decisions.

At the same time, Forbes calls overthinking and “rumination” as useful as dwelling on the past. Putting a time limit on the deliberation process is a smart practice. At a certain point, all data, tests, and potential outcomes will have been reviewed, and hovering over your choices for too long will just muddy the logic associated with the decision.

Once you put an idea or decision forth, be there to own it.

When working in a team, it’s inevitable that someone will challenge your decisions. But good leadership lets everyone feel valued and included while also holding a measure of decisiveness needed to move forward and avoid workflow paralysis. Anxiety and worry about whether or not you made the “right” decision can have a way of leading even good choices astray.

Be decisive, own it, and you’re more likely to see a positive outcome.

And when that sneaking feeling of second-guessing comes knocking, trust the decision-making criteria you used – including those you can’t put on the whiteboard: your intuition and your gut.

decision-making process

4. Dealing With Decisions

It happens. Product launches fail, marketing campaigns fall flat, and life choices take unexpected turns. The paradigm that 9 out of 10 startups fail is unfortunately true. Even the most well-thought-out decisions can turn out to be wrong.

When your decision turns out to be faulty – admit the mistake. Once you’ve admitted that you made the wrong decision, you can begin to assess the damage. You can then reevaluate your options and identify new solutions.

But keep those bad decisions on the charts. Take the wrong choices forward with you, extract the lessons, and share learned knowledge with your colleagues and team members to bring value to even the biggest failures.

When the Decision Is Yours

With the sheer volume of decisions we make on a daily basis, no system is going to guarantee success every time. You can get the wrong outcomes even with the correct decision-making process.

Accidents definitely happen. And the variables in many decision-making processes are too numerous for even the most sophisticated AI to compute – let alone our overdrawn, anxiety-ridden, burned-out brains. Even with the right data, analysis, and common sense, the answers to certain big decisions still won’t always be crystal clear.

On top of this, decision-making is a process and a skill set that is honed throughout a career and lifetime. Coming up with innovative and creative solutions isn’t always going to come with ease. You need a personal toolbox, framework, and tactics for making tough decisions with confidence.

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