The 36 Proven Decision-Making Tools That I Most Recommend

mental models and decision-making tools
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How to pick the right mental model and decision framework for any given circumstance. 

Which mental models (if any) do you use to make decisions? There is a lot to choose from. Do you know the best decision-making tools for each situation?

Over the years I have been taught, and then tried and tested many decision-making approaches. I have also researched, adapted, and even invented a few others along the way. 

In writing this recent series of articles on decision-making, I thought I would collate and share the decision-making heuristics, processes, and approaches that I use the most. These are all tools that I find the most helpful, whether making decisions in a personal context or in my work as a leader, strategy consultant and executive coach. 

Having experimented with these approaches in different situations over the years I have found certain models that are my ‘go to’ tools for certain circumstances. Therefore, I have grouped the tools by context. I hope you find some familiar faces and new friends among the models below. 

For easing or improving simple choices

Take a chance

It really is not worth sweating the small stuff. If choice really does not matter, then just flip a coin (if it is a binary decision) or roll some dice (if there are multiple options). This approach can seem flippant (pun intended) but can also provide deeper insight. Once you have flipped or rolled then reflect on how you feel about the result. If you are overly disappointed at the result, then maybe you cared more about the decision than you admitted to yourself. If this is the case, you might want to reconsider. 

Replace the decision

If it is a simple decision, then replace it with an automatic process or quick heuristic (rule of thumb). We can spend a lot of time each day thinking about what to wear, what to eat, or what to do. Creating routines reduces these decisions to allow time and energy for more important decisions.

Make a habit

To reinforce good decisions, we need good habits. In order to develop good habits, we need to assess the process of stimulus and response. I favour Charles Duhigg’s model, the habit loop when analysing and experimenting with developing new habits. Work out:

  • The cue – the stimuli
  • The routine – the response or required action
  • The reward – the payoff gained or gratification from the activity

For when you need more information to decide

Ask a trusted person

If in doubt, phone a friend! And don’t just ask friends. What you want when making a choice is informed – and sometimes critical – thought. Friends and family can often tell you want to hear, rather than what you need to hear. So, ask a person who will give you a straight answer. That might even be a competitor or someone you don’t get on with. If it is a complex issue, then ask several different people. The more diverse the group of people the more useful the data will be for informing your decision. 

Rub your nose against it

In the military, there is a saying that “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.” In other words, if you are deciding what to do, there is nothing quite as good as seeing the ground for yourself. In mountaineering, there is a similar phrase, that you should “rub your nose against the mountain” before deciding. Things can look very different when you are up close to them. So, if you have an important decision to make, try to get an immersive experience to inform you. See it, try it. Engage the senses, then decide.

For when you need to commit

Get accountable

If you need to choose and stick to your decision then make yourself accountable to someone. Many people use a professional coach for this, but you can use someone else, as long as you trust them not to let you off the hook! 

Put your money where your mouth is

Put money against your decision to make it stick. There are even apps now that allow you to put up a sum of money that goes to charity if you fail in your decision or goal. The money is controlled by a trusted third party who can release the cash back if you see your decision through. George Halachev has an article on Better Humans with 6 you could try.

Announce first, decide later

If you are still unsure of your exact choice but still want to commit, then you can set a self-imposed deadline. Announce publicly that you are to going to share your decision on a particular date. This does not need to be a press release, it could be just to friends, colleagues, or family, but it is much harder to go back on a choice when it is shared (just ask any government!) A deadline also helps to focus the mind. 

For big or important decisions

Consider consequences

If you are trying to work out if a decision is significant then it is worth thinking through the consequences. The importance of a choice is relative to its impact. Ask yourself, what is the worst that can happen? Then ask, is this decision reversible? If the impact is small or the decision is reversible then you should not delay. As Darren Matthews recommends, ask where will this decision take us?

Personal values

Knowingly or unknowingly, we make many decisions based on our individual beliefs. Our most important decisions – such as whom we want to marry or spend our life with – are informed by our principles. We may differ from someone in skills and interests but be bonded by precepts. Therefore, it is important to work out your own personal values. The hardest decisions in life are often the ones where our values are in tension with one another. If you understand that tension you can find ways to choose.

For judgements based on your personality 

The Big 5 personality traits

As well as knowing personal values it is important to understand our personality type. This helps us play to our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses when we make decisions. There are plenty of psychometric tools available to help but my preferred model is the Big 5 or OCEAN model. This assesses your personality across five factors:

  • Openness to experience (curious vs cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient vs extravagant)
  • Extraversion (outgoing vs reserved)
  • Agreeableness (compassionate vs critical)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive vs resilient) 

There are plenty of free tests you can do online, just do a quick search and try one.

For rational decision-making

Consider factors

When assessing a choice rationally, work out what the key factors are that affect the decision. For example, when buying a home these might be things like location, type of property, number of rooms, access to transport etc.

Weighted factors

Once you have a long list of factors you will likely find that some factors are more important than others. For example, as per the example above, the location might be more important than the exact type of property. Therefore, give greater weight to more important factors. If you were scoring your options, you can multiply a factor’s scores relative to their importance. 

Pros and cons

Once you have worked out the factors influencing a decision and weighted them, you are still likely to have different options to choose from. To approach the decision logically, consider the pros (advantages) and cons (disadvantages) of each course of action you can take.

For a faster decision-making process

The OODA loop

If you want to speed up decision-making for you, your team or your organisation then you can use the OODA loop to analyse your processes. OODA represents a decision-making cycle in its basic form. It stands for observeorientatedecide and act; the key steps of decision-making. By studying the cycle, working through each stage of the process, you can identify where you are faster or slower in making choices. Then you can identify ways to speed up that element of the cycle. 

For generative and creative thinking


When making notes I tend to use mindmaps. These are particularly good in assisting decision-making as they keep to one page, forcing you to crystallise and prioritise information. Having the data branch out from the central concept also allows links to be made between ideas that might not have been seen in linear notes. 

The Thinking Environment

The best way to help someone make a decision is to help them to think clearly. Nancy Kline developed the principles of the Thinking Environment based on research and practice over the course of 30 years. The components of the Thinking Environment include attention, equality, ease, appreciation, encouragement, information, feelings, diversity, incisive questions, andplace. And the most important thing we can do: give people our full attention and really listen (without interrupting) when they are trying to think.

The 6 Thinking Hats

Edward de Bono, the advocate of lateral thought, developed the 6 hats approach to considering problems. The idea is to look at the problem from 6 different perspectives that are represented by 6 coloured hats. The hats are:

  • White hat – analytical and fact-based
  • Red hat – emotional and subjective
  • Black hat – critical and sceptical, identifying risks
  • Yellow hat – optimistic, looking at best case
  • Green hat – creative, brainstorming
  • Blue hat – the big picture, structured and strategic

For choosing life goals and improving work-life balance

The Wheel of Life

The wheel of life is a great way to look at life balance. You simply draw a circle and divide it into segments (usually 8). Name each segment after a role or aspect of life. These could include family, health, work, learning, leisure, finance, relationships, spirituality for example. Then score and mark up each element; a zero being the centre of the circle, 10 being the outside. You now have a visual representation of which aspects of life you want to improve. 

The GROW model

The GROW model is one of the most common coaching tools for choosing and refining life goals. GROW stands for goal, reality, options and will and is applied in this way:

  • Goal – define and state the aim
  • Reality – analyse the present situation and how that affects the goal
  • Options – consider different courses of action and any obstacles that stand in the way
  • Will – make the decision and commit to it

For choosing a vocation or career

The perfect day

When coaching people through a career change, the first exercise I recommend is writing out their idea of a perfect day. This dream – developed in detail from the moment of waking, to going to sleep – is a powerful way to inform what future work-life balance should look like. 

Writing your eulogy 

The second exercise is to write your own eulogy. This might sound morbid but, writing a fictional version of what you would want to be said at your funeral, or written as your obituary, changes your perspective from the here and now, to the end of life. This challenges short-term ideas of success and reveals longer lasting values. These exercises are surprisingly powerful.

For situational awareness and deciding upon a strategy

The 5Ws

The 5Ws approach uses interrogative words starting with a w (why, where, what, who, when). The H of howis usually added to this list and I have found that adding which is very helpful too in decision-making. It is a technique I was taught as a bomb disposal officer. The idea with the 5Ws is that you list the question words and use them as triggers or prompts for questions related to the problem. For example, the whereinterrogative can prompt inquiries such as where have we come from, where are we now and where are we going?

The SWOT analysis

Ok, so you are very likely to know the SWOT analysis but don’t discount it just because it is common. There is a good reason why it is so popular. SWOT – as you may know – stands for strengthsweaknesses,opportunities, and threats and is generally drawn as a 2-by-2 matrix. The SWOT is a quick and effective way to get a snapshot of a situation, by brainstorming the critical points in each quadrant. It was developed with organisational strategy in mind, but I have also found it useful for individuals too. Some of the best insights come from identifying relationships between the quadrants. 

The Hedgehog Concept

As well as being an entrepreneur in my own right I have worked in and with many start-ups. When working with growing businesses, developing strategy, one of the most insightful tools I have used is the one set out by Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great. It is what he calls the Hedgehog Concept, based on the Greek parable that says “the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The model is drawn as a Venn diagram; three circles that encompass three questions:

  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • What can you be the best in the world at?
  • What drives your economic engine?

There will be various answers to these questions but when the answers align, in the centre, is the answer to what you should be focussing on.

For productivity and prioritisation

The Eisenhower matrix

Another well-known tool, the Eisenhower matrix uses a 2-by-2 grid as per the SWOT analysis but this time the matrix relates to two axes: what is important and what is urgent. This creates four fields that you can sort your tasks into, and what you should do about them:

  1. Urgent and important – do them now
  2. Not urgent but important – plan them into your diary
  3. Urgent but not-important – try to delegate these to someone else
  4. Not urgent or important – try to avoid or reduce these activities

The Pareto principle

The Pareto principle – or 80:20 rule – is a simple rule of thumb for inputs and outputs. The idea is that 80 per cent of our productivity and profit is likely to come from 20 per cent of our work or client base. It is an easy but effective way of assessing where you should focus your time and energy.

Be more Steve

Productivity largely comes down to good prioritisation and Steve Jobs used to ask himself one critical question every time he had to choose what to do next. He asked, “if you could do just one thing, what would it be?” In other words, what is the single most important, impactful way you can use your next block of time? Do that. Be more Steve.

For when you want to delegate tasks and evaluate decisions


A ‘SMART’ task is one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. This is good to remember for your own goals. But people often forget to use the SMARTER framework that adds evaluateand re-evaluate to the SMART acronym. This allows for the assessment and, if necessary the adjustment, of decisions and plans as the situation progresses. Don’t just be SMART, be SMARTER when you set goals

Traffic lights

There are lots of ways to review decisions, assess projects and identify lessons but my favourite method is the traffic light approach. It is based on three simple questions to consider after an event:

  • Red – what should we stop doing?
  • Amber – what should we continue doing?
  • Green – what should we start doing?

For defining the challenge and problem-solving

The Cynefin framework

Problems are not made equal and if we wrongly identify the type of issue we are facing then we can make the situation worse, not better. The Cynefin framework helps us define problems and therefore assess the correct approach. 

  • Clear problems are simple and have tried and tested best practice solutions
  • Complicated problems can be assessed using first principles and good practice
  • Complex problems are new, emergent issues that require an experimental approach
  • Chaotic problems require swift action to create enough order to move the problem into another quadrant

For choosing the right leadership or management style

The Grint Model

Keith Grint’s model relates different leadership approaches to varying problem types, but in a more simplified way than the Cynefin framework. The Grint method says that for:

  • Tame problems, that have known solutions, use a tested plan and manage the process
  • Critical problems, where there is crisis or time is limited, then command and provide quick, clear direction
  • Wicked problems, where there are no simple or good responses, then lead, providing a clear vision and empowering people to deal with complexity

Situational leadership

Another related model is the situational leadership model developed by Kenneth Blanchard. The model assesses the circumstances and the capability of the team to guide the leader into either:

  • Directing – when time is critical, or team confidence is low
  • Delegating – when teams are capable to do the task with little management
  • Supporting – where trust is high, and teams can mutually support one another
  • Coaching – when individuals might need focussed support to develop confidence

For choosing and developing a team

The 3Cs

When choosing a team member, I refer back to the 3Cs or character, competence and chemistry, recommended by Bill Hybels in his book Courageous Leadership. These 3Cs should be considered in that order when hiring because:

  • Character is hardest to develop, and bad characters can do you the most harm
  • Competence is important but people (especially of the right character) can develop this
  • Chemistry is less important. It is great to like people but hiring people just because they are similar to us is not the recipe for a successful team, as we shall see in the next model.

The Belbin Team Roles

Meredith Belbin conducted research over a couple of decades that identified the 9 critical roles that are needed within any team. Some people have preferences for certain roles, but each function is critical to success. Whatever size of the team this model will help you work out what needs to be done and who is best to fulfil each role (if you know your people). The titles and descriptions are as follows:

  • Plants are highly creative and good at solving problems
  • Resource Investigators connect with the world outside the team, bringing in external views on opportunities and competition
  • Monitor Evaluators provide a logical, impartial view and help to weigh up options
  • Co-ordinators focus on the objective and delegate tasks to team members
  • Implementers plan and manage a workable strategy
  • Completer Finishers bring high standards, see errors, and add polish to the final solution
  • Team workers help the team gel and identify things that need doing to help the team
  • Shapers challenge and provide momentum by driving the team forward
  • Specialists provide in-depth knowledge within a key area

The Tuckman Cycle

If you want to know where your team is on the journey to high performance, then the Tuckman cycle can help analyse which stage you are at. Bruce Tuckman identified that every team goes through these phases:

  • Forming – coming together, tentatively
  • Storming – working out roles, often with friction
  • Norming – settling into a functioning team
  • Performing – team synergy is producing exponential gains
  • Adjourning – a project ends or team member leaves, starting the cycle to start again

For help in moving a team from one stage to another, I also recommend the Drexler-Sibbet model.

Start now and try one!

Making effective decisions is a skill. Honing that skill requires practise but the good news is that there is a host of models, tools and processes that can help to refine that competency. 

So next time you need to make a decision, work out which tool would best situation. Choose one of the models listed above and give it a try. I recommend you make a note of the approach you use, your decision and then review your choice later. This reflection process is probably the most important aspect of improving your decision-making skills. We need practice and feedback in order to improve.

Think about what you must do today. Which mental model could help you make the right choice? Give it a go!

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