Today I had a decision to make: What will I write about? After looking over my many options, I noticed that several months ago I started compiling a comprehensive list of references on decision making, so I picked up where I left off and brought them all together for you.For the references used in this article, see the decision making "tree" I planted in my digital garden.  Note: These links don't work in Google Chrome anymore because Google doesn't like the lack of SSL on the wiki.  It's still here for historical reasons but I've abandoned development on the wiki for now.

Making decisions is an important part of life, and to be successful, you must master the art of decision making. In fact, in the long term making good decisions is the biggest factor in getting what you want in life. To ensure you become adept at this most important skill, make sure you carefully consider and deeply understand all of the following factors.

Initial Steps

First, make sure to be in a calm state before making any decisions. This is true whether the decision is weighty or not, but especially if it is. If it is not a major decision, do not spend a disproportionate amount of time on the process. The amount of time spent on the decision making process should be proportionate with the seriousness of the outcome. Don't allow yourself to be rushed though. Be especially wary of urgency on the part of those who want to sell you something. It is in their best interests, not yours, to move quickly. Take a few minutes to calmly consider the pros and cons of walking away from the deal. Even better, before you begin negotiations try to find another equally compelling option that you can fall back on if this one doesn't work out.

Second, decisions are much easier to make if you have a clear understanding of your values, and the values of everyone involved in the decision. Future posts will cover this topic in depth. If more than one person is involved in the decision, make sure they each fully understand what is under consideration and have an opportunity to weigh in.

Third, learn all you can, within reason, about the decision needing to be made.

  • What are the objectives the decision has to reach?
  • What are the minimum goals it has to attain?
  • What are the conditions it has to satisfy?

Be aware that you may never have all the information possible in order to make the decision.  Make a reasonable effort to gather as much information as possible, and then start researching.

While researching your decision, look for others who have experience in the arena. Find out what they know, but resist trying to get their help to predict the future. Humans are notoriously bad at prediction, and that includes experts.

Adjust Your Mindset

Take a long range view of the decision. Try to distance yourself by fast forwarding 10 years, 100 years into the future. Look back on the decision fron that perspective. How does it look now? In what ways can your decision have an impact on that future time?

Think about the decision in terms of someone else making it. Imagine you have nothing invested in the outcome and you are giving advice to a friend in your shoes. What would you suggest?

Try to make the decision in terms of two or more choices rather than a yes/no decision. Weigh the pros and cons of each decision. This is especially important if more than one person has weighed in on the process. Carefully weighing each option will let each person know their ideas are valued.

Use the power of the unconscious mind to help with weighty matters. The first step is to clearly and consciously define the problem and explore all the possibilities you can consciously. This works especially well if you have several days to ponder the factors. When you wake up each morning, have a notepad ready to write down every thought you have related to the decision.

Manage Risk

Are there ways that the decision can be made in smaller steps? Are there ways to test the decision in miniature? Look for as many ways as possible to try different options before committing to a final decision. However, when the time comes to commit, be willing to turn your back on all the other options. Don't let yourself get distracted by focusing on good points of the now-rejected options.

Be willing to take risks. Rather than look for an outcome with no negatives, look for a risk with potential outcomes you can live with. Even if the potential loss is a bit higher than you would ordinarily risk, if the payoff is good enough, it's probably best to do it. Don't let yourself regret the decision if it doesn't work out. If you make enough decisions like this, your overall payoff will be much higher than if you always make the safest bet.

Try to use mathematical formulas and computer programs as much as possible. Human reasoning is frequently faulty. It's much better to try to find a base rate for the type of situation you are facing. Then adjust this according to how the current situation varies from the average. I'll cover more on this topic later as well.

The Home Stretch

When you have narrowed the decision down to a few options, for each one, consider what would happen if the result was bad. Try to list as many possible ways that the outcome could turn out poorly. For critical decisions, take a long time on this step. After you have exhausted all ideas, go through each one at a time and see what could be done to salvage the outcome. If you can successfully think of a way to cope with any obstacle you can think of, your decision will have the best chance of success.

Try to keep track of the steps you took in making the decision. Record them somewhere you will be able to find them again (a decision journal, for example). Next time you need to make a decision that's related in any way, your notes may help you save time and anxiety. Just be sure that you still weigh all the factors each time. Relying on a method that worked once will cause problems if the new scenario is different enough.

Once you have weighed the factors and made the decision, focus on implementing it. Make adjustments as conditions change, but avoid giving in to feelings of regret or dissatisfaction. Focus on the positives. You have made a decision, and by doing so you have deliberately moved your life in a positive direction. Problems will arise in life, including those due to mistakes on your part, but do not dwell on them.

The Payoff

Now comes the best part. Enjoy the fruits of your labors. Your life will be improved as a result of the effort you put into this process. And over time, as you refine and master the art of good decision making, you will see your life continue to improve.