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Decisions, Decisions…

We all make decisions. It’s a part of life, and more specifically, a part of our jobs. We make so many, that you’d think we’d all be pretty good at decision making by now.

Unfortunately, that’s often not the case; even for confident people. Well, actually, most of us are pretty good at making those decisions, but we like to refuse to accept that we are good at it. Our brains play tricks and convince us that we might mess things up, get fired, not be accepted, be put down, be rebuked, or be presented any number of an endless string of negative reactions.

It’s true. Some of those things might happen. What’s wrong with that? If we aren’t willing to make a few mistakes, we may as well just drop out of the game and move into a tent. But, whoops, that’s a decision too.

It’s a common axiom that if you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t doing anything productive either. Due to a large number of business and self-help books pushing that concept, mistakes are a lot more socially acceptable than they were in years past. The basic idea is that by making a lot of decisions, the right ones will outweigh the wrong ones. You learn from the mistakes and feed that new knowledge back into your decision making process.

The key, really, is to keep a certain amount of the right kind of intelligence in the process – unless you like games of chance. The key to making decisions isn’t just the willingness to act. The key is in understanding and accepting.

“I don’t have a clue.”

If you really like the unknown, than this is the phase for you. If the unknown is your friend, you can pretty much make any decisions at any time. Most of us, however, are a little less comfortable with the unseeable void. That being the case, we can still decide when we don’t know the outcome, but we have to balance understanding of the possible outcomes with the level of randomness we are willing to accept.

It’s (metaphorically) a set of two numbers that need to equal 100. One number is the amount you know about all of the possible outcomes. The other number is your willingness to accept uncertainty. If you can add your numbers and they equal or are greater than 100, go for it. You can have a little of one if you have a lot of the other, or you can have a lot of both. If you don’t have much understanding of the possible outcomes, and don’t have a high tolerance for the unknown, you should probably stop and do a bit more research, or just move on.

“I know the possible outcomes. Some are good, and some are worse than I can handle”

This is not the time for wishful thinking. If losing your job, for example, is one of five possible outcomes, is a very real possibility, and you can’t tolerate losing your job, don’t wishful think that possibility away. If, on the other hand, you can live with losing your job (and all of the other possible outcomes), go ahead and jump. You need to be able to accept the worst possible outcome, or be comfortable with the odds of the worst possible outcome.

You’ll, weight the possible outcomes based on your understanding of their likelihood. That may sound like a lot of extra analysis, but our brains pretty much operate based on weighted options, so it’s probably not as difficult as it might sound.

“What’s the worst than can happen?”, he (should have) asked rhetorically

Know it or not, this is where most of our day to day decisions fall. These are usually the lightweights in the right or wrong department. Yet, they cause a disproportionate amount of hesitation.

People who struggle to make decisions often just say “no” to the big decisions. There are some people who can make the big calls, yet can’t deal with the little things. But more often than not, the big ones are simply not an option, while the little ones turn into paralysis. Saying “no” may keep you from experiencing some good things, but at least a definitive “no” doesn’t shut you down.

Don’t ride the “I don’t know” train

Riding the “I don’t know” is worse than a simple “no.” It has the same disadvantages as saying no, without the advantage of being able to move on to the next thing. Fear of a bad outcome keeps us stuck in indecision.

In most cases, the result of a wrong decision will fade pretty quickly. In my experience and observations, though, these are the decisions that cause the most indecision. The possible repercussions are not that large, either in the positive, or in the negative, so we unintentionally give the negative a greater weight than it deserves. Why? I don’t know, but I’ve seen it enough times to consider it a truism.

One way to get out of an indecision loop with these lightweights is to learn to accept the fear, or get past the fear. Act as though you are already wrong. Assume you will be making the wrong decision. Just assume that you will get a stern lecture from you boss, or rolling eyes from a coworker. Assume someone’s going to yell at you. Feel the emotions associated with being wrong, and then just go for the decision.

If you do end up making the wrong decision, well, whoopee, you’ve met your own expectations. Most likely though, you’ll be okay and will be relieved at not having to face down another snide look. Do this enough times and your need to act pre-wrong will fade into a state of confidence.

I’ve made my decision now: Coke, not Pepsi.