We reach decisions all the time – experts estimate that we make between 20,000 and 100,000 each day. Most of them are instantaneous: Should I put on blue or black trousers? Are we going to an Italian or Chinese restaurant this evening? However, we find it difficult when we have to reach decisions that could have a major and lasting impact on our future lives. One thing is certain: Not deciding is the worst decision we can make.
Never before were we able to decide on as many things as we do today – we have an enormous range of choices in almost all areas of life: From our choice of career to where we live to the partner we want to be with. The list of options is potentially unlimited. For example: Do you know all the different professions that exist in the world? The fact is: The more choice we have, the more difficult it is to decide. This is what psychologists refer to as ‘the tyranny of choice’.
And we frequently take decisions without being aware of the exact reasons for them, since there are numerous factors that can influence our decision-making: The (un)conscious influence of our environment, what we expect of ourselves, hormones (e.g. testosterone increases our tendency to take risks), sales tactics, the power of habits – combined with the fear of change – etc.
Better the devil you know
When reaching decisions, we are often faced with the fear of missing out. After all, if I decide in FAVOR of something, it means that I am, at the same time, deciding AGAINST something else. And if I have to give up something I am used to, I find it even more difficult – for two reasons: 1) When something is familiar, our brains release the happiness hormone dopamine – making us feel good.
2) If we are used to something, it means that we know what we have. When it comes to new options, the outcome is unknown. That is why many people choose what they already know – in line with the motto ‘Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’. Does that really always make sense? You know the answer: Sometimes yes perhaps, but generally speaking no!
A large number of people apply an unsuccessful strategy when taking important decisions: They put off making a decision, or sometimes fail to decide altogether. They are worried about the consequences and shy away from assuming responsibility. What they would like most is to be 100% certain that their decision is the right one. Unfortunately, however, we can’t predict the future – as already mentioned – and we therefore can’t know at the time of the decision what implications it will have. The outcome is that we don’t take any decision at all. That said, not deciding is also a form of decision – since it means that we are leaving things unchanged. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can frequently also mean that we are stuck with ‘the devil we know’.
Use your head – and listen to what your gut is telling you
I learned the following from my old boss Oswald Grübel, former CEO of Credit Suisse and UBS: It is better to take a decision and make a mistake – which can then be corrected – than to not make any decision at all. I would therefore urge you to show courage and decide. These tips could help you in this context:
- Use your head when making decisions but also listen to what your gut is telling you. Thinking rationally will help you to weigh up the pros and cons of the individual options. Once you have done this, however, it is important to listen to yourself – and sense how you feel deep inside – to see if the decision you have made is in line with your feelings and wishes.
- Closely examine your personal needs and values. What is really important to you in life, and what matters less? Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by the expectations of others when reaching your decision.
- Decide for yourself. In other words: Don’t delegate responsibility for the decision to others. After all, you are the person who will have to live with the consequences of the decision.
- Don’t spend time reflecting on what others think about your decision. It has to be right for you. Others spend less time assessing and evaluating you than you might think. Most people are mainly preoccupied with themselves.
- The traditional method of reaching a decision is to write a list of pros and cons – with details of the advantages and disadvantages of each option. However, I don’t believe that the rational total of these advantages and disadvantages should be the sole deciding factor. The emotional importance of the individual aspects should also be considered.
- Reflect on the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each individual option.
- Don’t make a decision when you are stressed or under a lot of pressure, since your fears tend to take over at times like that. This does not create the best basis for a carefully considered step.
- Set yourself a deadline for the decision. The longer you think about different options, the more criteria and advantages or disadvantages will come to mind. That can be confusing.
- Suzy Welch, wife of the former boss of General Electric Jack Welch, developed what is known as the 10-10-10 rule for making decisions that is based on the following three questions:
1) What will you feel about your decision 10 minutes from now? 2) How about 10 months from now? 3) And 10 years from now?
- Don’t be afraid of change. Going outside your comfort zone is about discovering new dimensions of yourself and evolving as a person.
- If you find it difficult to choose one option, consider how many times you have previously taken the wrong decision in your life – probably very few. In reality, there are no wrong decisions, since they always trigger a development and help you to advance. And you often have the chance to change your decision again later – e.g. if circumstances change or you obtain additional information about the matter in hand. The key thing is to make this change as soon as you recognize the need for it – in line with the motto ‘fail fast’.
- Practice applying this advice first when making unimportant decisions. If you see that it works in the case of these small steps, then this experience of success will give you the courage to tackle larger issues.
- Once you have reached a decision, avoid continuously questioning it afterwards – or even regretting it. That is a waste of time, since you can reverse the decision in most cases. It is better to invest your time and energy in considering how you can implement your decision as effectively as possible.
- After making the decision, try to regularly reflect on the extent to which you have put it into practice – and think about the hopes that you have already achieved and those that have not yet been realized. Next, draw up a plan for how you can successfully move forward in implementing the decision.
I would like to conclude with one of my favorite quotes – this time by the legendary American singer Joan Baez: “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you’re going to live. Now!”
© Claudia Kraaz