Making decisions is an essential part of everyday life.
From major life choices to tiny, unconscious preferences, decision making skills involve mastering the hundreds (if not thousands) of quick, strategic choices daily.
While much of this process may be happening below the surface, there are still plenty of ways to hone your capacity for effective decision making so you can find the key factors to weigh and the right course of action to take.
Want to become a pro at examining alternatives for possible solutions and making quick, effective decisions? Here’s how to hone your decision making process and set yourself up for decision making success.
What is Decision Making?
Let’s start by defining what decision making actually is.
On a psychological level, making a decision is the cognitive process of choosing between two or more alternatives. Another oft-cited definition of decision making comes from a 1993 textbook on management by Trewatha & Newport. It states that “decision-making involves the selection of a course of action from among two or more possible alternatives in order to arrive at a solution for a given problem.”
We might say that the first definition encompasses nearly every decision we make, from who we date to what order we put on our clothes in the morning. This includes unconscious decisions. The second definition refers to strategic decision making, or decisions we make to solve problems, whether work-related or more personal.
Such decisions involve weighing the alternatives and choosing a course of action to avoid negative consequences or achieve a desired outcome.
Strategic Decision Making: How to Make Good Decisions
To understand how to become an ace decision maker, it’s important to first understand the type and amount of decisions we actually make in a given day.
So, what’s your guess?
Participants of a 2006 study estimated it was somewhere around 15. Turns out they were way off! The study found we make over 200 decisions a day just related to food and beverage choices alone.
John S. Dyson, Professor of Marketing and of Applied Economics at Cornell, told the Cornell Chronicle, “So many food decisions are made on mindless autopilot.” When you consider how much more we do in a day, you can imagine the true scope of human decision making and how many alternatives we’re actually contending with.
According to a 2016 study, American adults are estimated to make around 35,000 decisions in a day, and we’re not even aware of most of them. So how do you turn off the “mindless autopilot” and determine your own course of action?
The first step is to determine what decisions you want to bring into deliberate focus.
This includes any areas where making a good decision will have a positive impact on your life, and a poor decision could result in negative consequences.
This might involve decisions about your:
- health and wellness
- love life
- choice of career
- social circle
- cultural or political affiliations
Setting goals in these areas will help you hone in on what’s most important to you. Then you can focus your mental and emotional energy on the things that really matter. When it comes to what kind of takeout to order or what color car to buy, the stakes aren’t quite as high.
The Human Decision Making Process
Once you’ve determined the areas you want to focus on, the next step in the decision making process is to get educated about alternatives.
Gathering the relevant data, getting informed about what the experts think, and leaning on your own personal experience to guide you are all a part of effective decision making.
When you’re educated about a subject, whether it’s the healthiest food to fuel your body or the most effective way to fix up a classic car, you’re well on the way to making good decisions that will lead you to your goal.
Research shows that getting educated will also help you feel more confident in your decision making process, which is a key aspect of success.
When you have the self-confidence to make tough calls under pressure, you’re more likely to make good decisions and follow through on your chosen course of action without distraction from doubts and personal insecurities.
Want to boost your confidence? Check out these self confidence quotes for a little inspiration.
7 steps to good decision making
Let’s break it down into steps.
There’s a general consensus that the decision making process involves about seven steps. This framework is used in all kinds of decision making, from ethical to business decisions.
The 7 steps to good decision are:
- Identifying the decision:
What is it you need to make a decision about?
- Gathering relevant info:
In this stage, talk to people with more experience, read up on similar decisions made in the past, and get familiar with the facts.
- Identifying alternatives:
It’s pretty rare that our choices appear in clear-cut black and white. Usually, there are multiple options and gradients to the potential benefits and downsides. The best way to get clear on your options is to map them out, either visually or in list form.
- Weighing the evidence:
This involves examining the details of each potential decision, along with the potential positive and negative consequences.
- Choosing among the alternatives
Decision makers take all the relevant information, put aside their personal biases, avoid the perils of following their gut reactions, and make a call.
- Taking action
Once you’ve taken the time to gather facts and have made a decision, do it!
- Reviewing your decision:
Did your decision result in your desired outcome? Do you have to go back to the drawing board? This reflection phase of decision making process will help inform your future decisions, making your decision making more effective each time you do it.
Organizational Decision Making
When it comes to organizational behavior and making decisions that lead to better outcomes within group dynamics, there are additional factors to consider when you’re weighing the possible alternatives.
Group decision making involves taking into account the interests of all parties involved, known as “stakeholders” in the business world. If you’re making a decision that affects a larger group, like your team, your clients, your board, or your shareholders, you may want to keep the PLUS Ethical Decision Making Model in mind.
This model lays out an additional set of guidelines, a structured approach that can help you make a good decision in light of organization values, procedures, and precedents, a balance system that pays dividends within groups over time.
The components of the PLUS model are as follows:
- P = Policies
- L = Legal
- U = Universal
- S = Self
When it comes to the policies step, ask yourself whether your decision is consistent with your organization’s policies, procedures and guidelines. Are there past precedents in the organization that are similar to the decision you have to make?
What organizational values does your decision honor?
The next question to ask is whether your decision is going to have unintended negative consequences, i.e. does it break the rules?
This doesn’t just pertain to the law though. It’s important to ask whether your decision is acceptable under the applicable guidelines and regulations or your specific organization.
Does it violate any codes of ethics or contractual agreements? Does it leave anyone out in the cold?
Does your decision conform to the universal principles and values of your organization? Does it not only conform to, but uphold those values? Does the decision result in the most good for the greatest number of people involved?
Does your choice satisfy your personal definition of right, good, and fair? In other words, do you feel as though your decision is in integrity with your values?
If the decision you’re making checks all these boxes, you’re well on your way to making a sound, ethical, and effective decision that brings about positive results for your organization.
That’s the stuff of good organizational decision making.
How to Combat Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue describes the impaired ability to make decisions and control behavior as a consequence of repeated acts of decision-making. In other words, being responsible for a lot of decisions can actually impair your ability to keep making decisions effectively.
More colloquially, this fatigue is sometimes known as analysis paralysis. This idea comes from the Strength Model of Self-Control, which argues that people have a limited capacity to regulate their behavior.
Just like your muscles get tired when you repeatedly use them, your decision “muscles,” known in psychology as executive function and emotional regulation, can get tired. The effort of processing information to make a decision can leave you feeling depleted, confused, and frustrated.
When you get to this point, you might find that you can hardly tell up from down, let alone feel confident in making a solid choice.
When this happens, it’s best to leave it alone for a while. Instead, try a calming activity that has nothing to do with your decision. For instance, try:
- Calling a friend and chatting about something unrelated to your decision
- Taking a walk and enjoying the sights and sounds
- Doing something hands-on, like making art or gardening
- Getting your heart rate moving by exercising, jogging, riding a bike, or lifting weights
No matter who you are, decision making is an essential part of life.
Every day consists of thousands of decisions that are affected by a number of factors including powerful cognitive biases, big and small, that add up to shape the direction you move in.
Making decisions may be difficult at times, but such problems can be avoided and you can empower yourself by getting educated about the most effective methods for strategic decision making.
Take charge of your decision making process and avoid common errors by learning the tools and techniques that successful leaders use to make tough calls under pressure, elevate their values, and make choices that result in positive results for everyone involved.