How to Make Better Decisions in 10 Steps

how to make effective decisions
Photo by Keira Burton from Pexels

How do you know if you have made the right choice?

I have been fascinated by the art and science of decision-making ever since being trained as a bomb disposal officer, back at the beginning of my career. Since then, I have worked in various sectors and in numerous senior management roles. I have learned that the need to make good decisions is critical to every leadership position. What is more, working as a leadership coach I have found that a large part of my coaching is helping people think about choices they must make and assisting them in effective decision-making.

We all have the ability to make choices, but making effective decisions is not a given. The good news is that decision-making can be learned, and by applying simple models you can ensure you will make better decisions and develop your competency as a decision-maker.

Important vs non-important decisions 

My experience, coupled with my reading and research, has led me to these ten steps that I recommend to anyone needing to make an important decision. I say important decision as most of the time it is not worth sweating over the small stuff. If we overthink every decision, we can suffer from analysis paralysis. For smaller, less critical decisions we can use heuristics (rules of thumb) or simple hacks to help with choices. We don’t want to spend an age deciding what coffee we are having today or scrutinise every item we select at the supermarket. 

So, what is an important decision? In this case, I am talking about are the larger choices we must make in life. Decisions about our vocation, our life direction, or our loved ones. If you are considering a new job, a romantic partner, a new home, or something else of a similar magnitude, then it is worth following these steps. 

The 10 steps to making effective decisions

So here are the ten steps in summary:

  1. Take time out
  2. Identify the type of problem
  3. Apply a decision-making process or model
  4. Ask questions
  5. Understand what really matters
  6. Assess factors and constraints 
  7. Identify assumptions
  8. Consider your options
  9. Think through the consequences
  10. Make your choice and act upon the decision

Let’s now look at each step in more detail. 

1. Take time out

The first thing, when faced with an important decision, is to pause. Take time to make your decision. We all face stimuli, external forces that we need to react to. Each stimulus leads to a response. The gap between the stimulus and our response is called the decision space. This is where we engage our brain rather than just relying on instinct. Our reactions and intuitive responses can be very helpful, but we should try to use our head, as well as our heart, whenever we can.

Even when faced with an imminent, life-threatening decision it is (more often than not) worth taking just a micro-pause to think before you act. For example, if you are hiking in the woods and you are suddenly confronted with a bear then everything inside of you might be screaming at you to turn and run. This is the natural fight or flight response. But running is not the recommended option. The National Parks Service recommends that you identify yourself, stand your ground, wave your arms, and remain calm. Doing that requires a moment to think, control yourself and decide to do those things. They are not a natural response.

Most big decisions are not so life-threatening, or so time-critical, that we cannot take time out. Therefore, set aside time, put it in your diary and avoid other distractions so you can objectively think about the choice you have to make.

2. Identify the type of problem

The next thing to work out is the sort of problem you are facing. Maybe you did not even realise there are different sorts of problems, but there are, and the nature of the problem relates to the sort of solution you want to pursue.

One of the best-known frameworks for classifying problems is that of Keith Grint who developed the idea of criticalwicked and tame problems. Critical problems are ones that need immediate action and clear direction. The example of coming face-to-face with a bear would come into this category. Wicked problems are ones with no known solution and may not even have an endpoint. These require novel approaches, creativity and finding the least-worst outcome. Tame problems have known solutions and can be managed with the right expertise. Most problems we face are actually tame. Other people have faced and overcome the same issues, which is good news for us, as we can get advice and learn from other people’s experiences as we seek to make our own decisions. 

3. Apply a decision-making process or model

Once we know the type of problem, we can choose a model or process to help us think through the problem and make our decision. Have a look at tools and frameworks that other people have used to make similar choices. 

There are lots of different tools you can use. You may already be aware of some common ones such as the SWOT analysis or GROW model. These generic tools can be applied to many decisions, but it is worth doing some research as you may find that there are specific tools that can help with your particular situation. Resources such as The Decision Book (Korgerus and Tschapeler) is a great place to start as it has 50 different models to try.

4. Ask questions

Whichever model you choose you will find that it is generally a structured process of asking questions. Each tool aids us by giving a framework of questions for us to consider. You can even use question words, or interrogatives, as a framework. That is one of my favourite approaches and one I have used since my days as a bomb disposal officer. 

You can do this by writing down the main interrogatives of why, where, what, how, who, when and which. Create your own open questions relating to your specific issue. My recommendation is to start with why questions, as I will explain next. 

5. Understand what really matters 

As you start to develop your questions you will have to answer why the decision really matters. This is probably the most important thing to get straight in your mind before you go further. I agree with Simon Sinek in that we should ‘start with why’ when facing a problem or decision.

Asking why helps to delve into our motivation and priorities around the choice we are making. It makes us think about how our personal values relate to a given issue. Our principles guide us in the decisions we make. The hardest choices usually force us to prioritise and select between things we value. We can only make these kinds of choices if we are truly aware of those underlying values. 

6. Assess factors and constraints 

Once we have established our values, we can assess the various factors and constraints that we face in our situation. These factors will vary dependent upon the choice we are making. If we are choosing a home then factors might include the size of the property, its proximity to our workplace and whether it has a garden. Constraints are likely to include what we can afford and how far we can realistically commute. 

7. Identify assumptions

 It is good to gather data to help inform our decision, but we can never have all the information we might like or need. Therefore, we must make some assumptions in the absence of that data. 

For example, we cannot know everything about someone we are attracted to. Whether you are at the point of asking them out for the first time or committing to them for life, you have to make that decision based on incomplete knowledge. 

So, assumptions are essential, but we must be careful about making false assumptions just as much as ignoring key factors. Let’s say the person you are attracted to loses things. That is a factor. You might miss that fact, you might choose to discount it, but assuming someone will simply change is likely to be a false assumption. I can attest to this!

We can also make harmful false assumptions about ourselves. We can undermine our own decisions with these defeater beliefs. For example, we might discount ourselves from even asking someone out just because we feel we are not good enough. 

At this stage of the process, having someone else to assist you can be really helpful. An objective friend, a mentor, coach, or counsellor is more likely to help you unearth and challenge any false assumptions you might hold, than if you just try and do it yourself. If it really is an important decision, get a third party involved, even if that just means phoning someone you trust to talk it through.  

8. Consider your options

Once you have considered the situation, with all its factors and assumptions, you can then come up with different potential courses of action to address the problem. Very few issues have only one solution and usually, there is a plethora of advice and options that you could choose from. Therefore, once you have come up with a long list of ideas you can start to whittle the list down to the most attractive options. 

You can use your values or an assessment of factors to help choose between options. One simple approach is to use a scoring system in a grid. List the options then score them against the principles or factors that are most relevant. The highest scoring course of action should be the best one.

9. Think through the consequences 

When considering your options, you should also think about the consequences. Work out the risks related to any course of action and think forward to imagine what could happen if you followed that route. Once again here you need to rely on certain assumptions so make sure they are reasonable ones. 

Also, don’t discount the consequences of not making a decision. Delaying, avoiding, or actively not doing anything is a choice in itself. What is the opportunity cost of not deciding now, or in the future? Sometimes doing nothing is the right choice but make sure it is an active and considered decision.

Also, remember that you can’t always be right and sometimes things just don’t go your way. Don’t worry. Most decisions are reversible, even if they do come at cost of opportunity, time, money, or heartache. Some of our most important life lessons come from mistakes if we choose to learn from them. Things can also turn out better than expected. For example, joining the Army was not my first career choice but it turned out to be a great opportunity and I would not go back and change that if I could. Remember, at the end of the day – however things turn out – we have a choice about how we respond to events. 

10. Make and act upon the decision

Finally, once you have thought things through, you must commit. You must choose and take action. Once decided you then act; you have to physically ask that person, press that button, make that purchase, or whatever it is to turn your choice into a reality. 

My recommendation is that you record the process you used and the decision you make. That way, however it goes, you can reflect back on your approach and the outcome. Journaling can help with this but there is no one right way. The important thing is that you can reflect on your choices and learn. In that way, the decision-making cycle also becomes a learning cycle, and you will get better at making decisions. 

Over to you

So that’s it. Whether you are setting yourself an audacious goal, picking a career, or choosing a life partner you can start with these ten steps and be confident that you will make a better informed and more effective decision than if you did not follow any process. You might have flipped a coin or gone on a gut feeling alone – and it might even work out – but you will be leaving a lot to luck and you will be missing out on a chance to improve your decision-making.

If you want to build your confidence and competence today and practice before you apply this to something really big, then you can use this same process for a slightly smaller choice. That might be something bigger than which TV series to watch after work but not as significant as changing your job. For example, you could plan a future vacation, where you want to go, with whom and what you want to do. Whatever you choose, take the time out to go through all the steps, record your thoughts and your decision. And feel free to let me know in the comments what you choose!

If you found this useful then please do sign up to my newsletter. If you subscribe now you will get a free e-book to help you set goals and create a personal action plan. Don’t miss out; sign up here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.