Decisions, decisions

Exploring the process we use to make decisions and how we can get better at it.

How do you make decisions? I’m not talking about the myriad decisions we make every day, like what to have for breakfast or watch on TV, but life’s big decisions like moving house or changing job. It’s a question that I would struggle to answer, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be thinking the same right now.

If I were to hazard a guess at my process it would look something like this:

  • thinking about the possible choices and their outcomes (if this, then that)
  • picking the one that feels the best and sitting with it a while
  • ask for other people’s opinions on my likely course of action
  • maybe test out how another option feels
  • probably go back to the first choice and run with that

That doesn’t sound very good to me, and seems to rely a little too much on instinct and luck. So how do we get better at decision-making?

Values-based decision-making

In Themes for Thinkers #10, Matt Ragland talks of using “the principles I try to follow in life and work” as a filter to pass the decision through. I’ve talked about having a set of rules to live by or a personal manifesto. These both can act as guide points to help us make decisions, because how can we make a decision if we don’t know what we care about? Before we can approach making life’s big decisions we must first understand what our values are.

Evaluation and improvement

Have you ever taken the time to evaluate a decision you’ve made? And by that I mean to reflect on how you came to a decision, what you thought would happen and what actually happened. No? Me neither. But if we don’t reflect on our decision-making how can we learn from it and get better at it?

One way to capture this reflection and properly evaluate our decisions over time is to keep a decision journal. By actually writing down the answers to the questions posed above as well as recording some context for the decision and what other options were explored, we prevent ourselves from skewing the story about the decisions we’ve made in the past. Because without hard evidence to the contrary, we’ll always rationalise the outcomes of our decisions to make them look more favourable.

The key to the decision journal, and the way we can learn from it is to review it on a regular basis, as Shane Parrish explains:

“The review is an important part of the process. This is where you can get better. Realizing where you make mistakes, how you make them, what types of decisions you’re bad at, etc., will help you make better decisions if you’re rational enough… And keep in mind that it’s not all about outcomes. You might have made the right decision (which, in our sense, means used a good process) and still had a bad outcome. We call that a bad break.”

So where do you start with a decisions journal? First you need a notebook, one dedicated to the task. Personally, I love an old school exercise book for things like this. Then you need a set of questions you’re going to ask yourself each time you make a complex decision.

A good place to start with this is the Shane Parrish article linked above which includes a question template at the end. I’d use this to start with and refine as you go along. Templates are always only every starting points, you need to find a system that works for you. And obviously, the last thing you need is a pen.

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