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Your Life is the Sum of Your Decisions. Your Decisions Determine Who You Are

Category: Personal Development

How you make decisions and how you can take the anxiety out of decision making and make better decisions.

Jeff Van Pelt, Ed.D.

Decisions are the fundamental tools with which we face life’s challenges, uncertainties, and opportunities. Anxiety generally accompanies the need to make a decision and some people do a better job of making them than others. This is because they are able to avoid the psychological pitfalls and faulty thinking that can sabotage decision making.
Our typical way of approaching decisions—whether we do it well or not—is called our decision-making style. There are four basic styles:

Reactive style. Reactive decision makers tend to react to events rather than consciously and proactively shaping them. But it’s impossible not to make decisions, so even though they don’t think carefully about them, they are making decisions nonetheless.
Reactive decision makers tend to be driven by the desire to satisfy their immediate needs. They seek to maximize pleasure and avoid discomfort in the present, rather than thinking long range. It isn’t hard to see how this approach could lead to less than ideal outcomes, especially in terms of career advancement.
For example, Jarred couldn’t make up his mind whether to go to college or to work for the family business. He “forgot” to get the college application in on time, so he figured he had no choice but to work for Mom and Dad. He didn’t realize it, but he had made a decision just as surely as if he had announced from the start, “I’m not interested in college.”

Emotional style. People who use an emotional decision-making style follow their hearts instead of their heads. They let emotions such as anger, guilt, loneliness, and fear skew their decisions. They often seek to please others, or avoid upsetting them, rather than build self confidence and doing what would make the most sense in the long run.
When Rico asked Carmen to marry him, she desperately wanted to say “yes.” But she had lived with her father since her mother died, and she handled all the things her mother had once handled. She couldn’t imagine her father managing by himself. She was overwhelmed with guilt when she thought about getting married and moving out. She told Rico that she wasn’t ready for marriage.

Analytical style. This approach is the opposite of the emotional style. An analytical decision maker uses only logic or reason, and ignores their feelings as well as those of others. The problem with this is that they fail to tap into important sources of information, such as intuition and empathy.
Intuition is the accumulated, unconscious wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experience, and unlike rational thought, it surfaces almost instantaneously if we are open to it. Empathy is the ability to understand other people’s feelings, and how our actions affect those feelings.
Norris insisted that his eight-year-old son, Conner, sign up for soccer again, even though Conner whined and pleaded that he didn’t want to play this year. Conner didn’t like the long, grueling practices or the pressure of competition. He would rather be riding his bike or shooting hoops with his friends. But Norris “knew” that competition builds self confidence and character, that vigorous exercise is good for you, and that kids should not be allowed to choose the easy way out. Conner played soccer, but he was miserable and his relationship with his dad suffered.

Integrative style. The most effective decision-making style is one that integrates the strengths of the other styles and uses them flexibly, depending on the demands of the situation.
Unlike the reactive style, the integrative style is deliberate, taking time to consider all the options. Unlike the emotional and analytical styles, it is multi-faceted, uses a variety of data, and embraces complexity rather than seeking to simplify.

Steps to Better Decision Making
So what can you do if you tend to use one of the first three decision-making styles?
The good news is that you can change your decision-making style. Making good decisions is not an esoteric art or a birthright of the few and the lucky. It is a learnable skill and necessary for career advancement. The first thing to know is that decision making is not an event, but a process. As with any process, it consists of a sequence of steps, as follows:

Brainstorm. Think of as many options as possible for whatever you are trying to decide. Don’t critique your options at this stage; just list them. This is the creative stage of decision making, and we are most creative when we let our thoughts roam freely.
Research on brain waves has shown that we are most creative during alpha and theta brain wave activity. These occur when we are relaxed and just let our minds wander.
Beta waves, on the other hand, are not conducive to creativity. These occur when we are feeling pressured and under stress, such as when deadlines are approaching. Interestingly, caffeine increases beta waves and inhibits alpha and theta waves—so that triple latte may be good for your energy level but bad for your creativity.
Take advantage of this knowledge to get the best results from your brainstorming. Many people say they have their most creative ideas just before falling asleep, while lying in bed in the morning, while doing mindless tasks such as shaving or showering, or while unwinding, relaxing or meditating. The saying, “I need to sleep on it” takes on new depth of meaning.

Find facts. After you have finished the creative process of brainstorming come the analytical steps. First, get whatever additional information you need in order to choose between the options you came up with during brainstorming. Do your research. Talk to people. Whatever it takes.
As an example, say you are trying to decide whether to buy a new car or keep driving your old clunker. (In reality, you might come up with more options than these, but for simplicity we will consider only these two.) You need factual information to help you decide. You might have a mechanic look at your old car and tell you what kind of shape it is in. Then you would probably check out the cost of new cars, what interest rates and loan terms you would qualify for, and what the corresponding payments would be. You might also look into how much your insurance and taxes would go up, and so forth.

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Once you have the relevant facts, you need a systematic approach to weighing that information in order to figure out the implications. One way to do this is with a cost-benefit analysis.
List the advantages of keeping your old car, and then the advantages of buying a new one. Assign each advantage a value of 1 to 5, where 1 is a slight advantage and 5 is a major advantage. Add them up for each car.
Next, list the disadvantages of keeping the old car, and of buying the new one. Assign each of these a value of -1 to -5, where -1 is a minor disadvantage and -5 is major. Add these up for each car and subtract them from your earlier totals. What do the numbers suggest?
This exercise makes you spell out the basis for making your decision. In the process, you should begin to get a clearer picture of which direction makes the most sense for you.

Consider compromises, trade-offs, hybrid solutions, and incremental decisions. You don’t have to be stuck with an either/or situation if neither choice seems like a good one. Consider alternatives. Continuing with the above example, you might buy a late model used car, or start taking the bus to work so you aren’t using your old car as much, or lease a car with the option to buy later, to keep your payments lower.
Incremental decision making refers to breaking a major decision down into a number of smaller decisions, and committing to each smaller decision a step at a time, and only when it makes sense to do so. Conditions change over time, so why lock yourself into a course of action before you have to? You might continue driving your old car for the time being, while monitoring interest rates and car sale ads for the best timing to buy.

Evaluate the results and determine next steps. Again, decision making is a process, not an event. After making your decision and implementing it, it is important to observe the consequences. Where did it succeed and where did it fall short? What fine-tuning can you do to improve the outcome? What new information do you have now that you didn’t before, and what are the implications for future actions?

If the road to making better decisions could be summed up in a sentence it would be: Take your time, be creative in coming up with alternatives, use all of the factual information available to you, be flexible, and go one step at a time. If you do this, you will soon be making better decisions and getting better results. And your skills will continue to improve the more practice you get.

Dr. Jeff Van is a corporate wellness consultant.

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