Decision Making 101: How To Be a Successful Decision-Maker

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The topic of decision-making often comes up when I work with clients. It’s a key skill for life and leadership. Many people are overwhelmed by choices, plagued by indecision, and stressed by analysis paralysis.

I get it. You want to make the right decision. The best decision. And in many cases, the sheer amount of options you have to wade through sets you up to question the very decisions you make.

We are facing decisions all the time. In fact, many sources claim that we make up to 35,000 remotely conscious decisions daily. This seems like a ridiculous amount, but it’s probable.

Let’s play it out. When you woke up today, you likely decided to get out of bed or push the snooze button. You decided whether or not to take a run, how to dress and what to have for breakfast. Research from Cornell University suggests we make over 200 decisions per day on food alone.

Then you may have decided what route to take to work, whether to respond to email or check social media – and if you did find your way onto social media, you likely made dozens of decisions on what to read, pass, like, comment on and share. Once at work, you probably made hundreds more decisions responding to emails, having meetings and talking with colleagues from the moment you walked in the door.

If you find your’re struggling to make a specific decision, feel like you’re a bad decision-maker in general, often second-guess yourself or have post decision regret, or would like some additional resources in your decision-making toolkit, you’re in the right place.

The 3 P’s of Decision-Making

First, I’d like to introduce the 3 P’s of decision-making:

  • Perspective – what to think about when making a decision
  • Process – the steps for making a decision
  • Preference – identifying your best strategies for decision making

Perspective: What to Think About When Making a Decision

As you now know, we make tens of thousands of decisions daily. So much of making good decisions lies in the way we think about the decision itself. Here are some things to consider:

Put the decision in context.

How important is this decision? Sometimes we agonize over the smallest decisions like what to have for dinner or what to wear. These decisions are unimportant in the grand scheme of things and have very few consequences.

Next time you get stuck on a decision, take a step back and ask yourself to rate the importance of the decision. On a scale of one to five, with five being a very critical decision to your life (career change, who to marry or whether to have kids) and one being fairly innocuous with smaller effects (what meal to order or whether to comment on a social media post). If it’s a five, you’ll likely want to spend more time on it; but if it’s a one, you can quickly make the decision and move on.

If it won’t matter in 5 years, don’t spend more than 5 minutes on it.

Know thyself.

Many ancient philosophers from Aristotle to Socrates touted the benefits of “knowing thyself”. This applies to decision-making, too. We make decisions through our own perspective and lens and it’s critical to know yourself: your style, values, beliefs, fears, stories and what works for you.

When you have strong self-knowledge, it makes many decisions much quicker and easier. For example, when you know your values, and, for example, know you value family, it’s easy to decide to miss that work event for your kid’s soccer game. Or, if you value ambition, it’s easy to decide to work late tonight and miss Happy Hour with friends.

Another part of knowing yourself is identifying why you get stuck. There’s probably a pattern of when you get stuck in indecision. Seek to figure that out. Perhaps you get stuck trying to find the best solution or when you don’t have a clear picture. Maybe you get stuck because you don’t want to cause conflict or you’re worried about consequences. Or, possibly, you get stuck when you have too much time to decide and need a deadline.

You can also look over your history when you’ve been confident and made the best decisions. There’s a pattern for that, too. What worked before? Use that formula to move forward today.

To thy own self be true. — William Shakespeare

Learn to satisfice (yes, that is a word).

In his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Barry Schwartz talks about the power of satisficing instead of maximizing.

Maximizers want to make the absolute best decision. They exhaust all alternatives trying to find the one right choice. This often leads to analysis paralysis, stress about the decision and regret once a decision has been made. Satisficers seek to find what is “good enough”. They know there is never a perfect choice and seek to find a decision that meets most of their needs or requirements.

When you learn to satisfice instead of maximize, you can make better, faster decisions with less regret.

Accept that you won’t always like your decision.

Often, people hesitate to make a decision because they don’t like the decision – even when they know it’s the best decision to choose. And just because a decision is right doesn’t make it any easier to make.

I come across this with clients all the time. They tell me they don’t know what to do; but as we talk, they actually do know exactly what they need to do, they just don’t like the answer. This is especially prominent when people have a true dilemma, when all options are equally terrible but a choice is unavoidable.

Identify which decisions to streamline to avoid decision fatigue.

The more decisions that are made, the more energy is used. Ultimately. this comprises your ability to make wise decisions. This is called decision fatigue.

There are many areas in your life where you can automate decisions so you don’t have to make them at all. This leaves more mental bandwidth for the important decisions.

Think about decisions you make in your daily life where you could streamline the process and set up an automated choice instead. Perhaps it’s what you eat. Could you simplify and have eggs on toast every morning so you don’t have to make that decision? Maybe it’s what you wear.

Steve Jobs was famously known for wearing his black turtleneck and blue jeans, freeing his mind to make other, more important decisions.

How can you reduce or even eliminate choices in your life so that you make space for those that are most important to spend your time and energy on?

Consider the risk of indecision.

Maybe you’ve explored your options and narrowed them down, but just can’t make a decision because of the potential risks.

I’ve been working with a client who is considering leaving his job and moving into a new industry. As he explored possible alternatives, he kept coming back to the risks of leaving his safe, stable position. Would he be able to find another job elsewhere? Would he be paid the same? Would he have the same level of flexibility?

As he considered these risks, I asked another question: What’s the greater risk here? As he shifted his perspective, he realized the greater risk was in staying in his job – unhappy, unfulfilled and stressed out. It was negatively affecting his health, marriage and family.

So when you feel stuck making a decision and tied up with all the what if’s, consider the greater risk. Instead of “What if it isn’t right? What if there is something else out there? What if it’s the worst decision I ever make?” Try changing your paradigm like my client. Is the bigger risk actually staying where you are?

It’s better to rock the boat than to die sinking in it.

Process: The Steps for Making a Decision

In 2007, Pam Brown of Singleton Hospital in Wales created a 7-step decision-making process. Many others have followed in his footsteps with hundreds of different adaptations of this same formula.

I use a similar process to help clients figure out the next step in their lives and careers.

Here are the 7 steps:

1. Outline the goal and outcome.

What decision are you trying to make? What are you trying to accomplish with this decision? A mentor of mine once said, “A well-defined problem presents its own solution”. Get crystal clear on the problem and decision.

2. Gather data.

This step is about collecting enough information you need to make an informed decision.

3. Develop alternatives.

Brainstorm and identify your options. You want to make sure you have enough options that you can make a good decision, but not so many that you feel overwhelmed.

This may sound counter intuitive, but research proves that when you have too many options, it decreases your satisfaction in the end decision.

4. List pros and cons of each alternative.

In this step, weigh the evidence and identify the advantages and disadvantages of each. You can also consider how likely it is that each option meets your goals.

5. Make the decision.

It’s decision time. Here, choose the best option amongst your alternatives. Not sure how to decide? Check out the preferences strategies below.

6. Immediately take action.

What’s your first step?

“A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.” – Tony Robbins

7. Learn and reflect.

Now, it’s time to review your decision, understand the consequences of your choice and use that information to improve future decision-making.

Preference: IdentifyYour Best Strategies for ecision-Making

Once you have perspective and understand the process, you can proceed using the strategy that works best for you.

Here’s an array of potential tools for decision-making that I’ve gathered and tested over the years with myself, clients, family and friends.

Listen to your inner voice.

Trust your gut. Stop listening to everyone else and what they say you should do and get clear on what you believe. Here’s how.

Identify the risk/reward.

My dad raised us to always think about the risk/reward and cost/benefit of our decisions. Is the reward worth the risk? Is the benefit worth the cost? There will always be trade-offs in life; are they acceptable?

Think about a decision or choice you’re trying to make right now. Ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Is what I’m choosing worth the time, energy, effort, risk that I’m taking?

If your answer is a definitive “yes!” than go for it. If your answer is a lukewarm “maybe,” then you probably need more information. If it’s a resounding “no,” well then, you really have your answer.

Phone a friend.

It’s hard to make decisions alone, so get some help! Consider a best friend (who knows how to listen), a coach (who can walk you through the relevant questions to reveal your thinking), mentor (who has been in that situation before).

Be cautious about who to involve. Part of the challenge in decision-making is to not get swayed too far off your own beliefs. Everyone is going to have an opinion. Don’t let someone convince you otherwise when you know something is best for you.

Use the Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic NLP Model.

Are you a visual, auditory or kinesthetic decision-maker? How do you know? Think about a decision you’ve made recently that went well and put yourself back in the mindset when you made that decision. Did you make it based on the picture you had of what it would “look” like (visual), your internal self-talk or dialogue (auditory) or on a feeling you had (kinesthetic)?

I tend to visualize the outcome, then go with my gut. If I can’t picture it or it doesn’t feel right, I don’t move forward. Too much self-talk or inner dialogue can tends to get in my way.

Flip a coin.

Have you ever flipped a coin, only to decide to do the exact opposite of what the coin said? Flipping a coin instigates our instinctive response because it gives us something to react to.

That decision you’re stuck on right now? Flip a coin. Are you happy and ready to go with that answer? Or do you want to flip again? Best two out of three, anyone? Well then you already know what you want, don’t you?

Take action.

Sometimes you don’t know until you’re “in it”. When you’re faced with two choices, make the best choice with the information you have and what you feel is best, and then start moving. You’ll know if that choice is right for you if you feel good as you move forward.

You’ll know it’s wrong if you continue to feel heaviness or resistance. The more you move forward, the clearer the signal will become.

Ask for divine guidance.

I have a lot of friends and clients who use tarot cards, meditation or prayer to make important decisions. Which of these may work for you (or already does)?

Use decision-making software.

For complex decisions, especially those which involve many people, a team, or significant ramifications, try using a decision-making software such as Cloverpop .

Consultant Carolyn Murphy of Stop Meeting Like This highlights that software like this can help teams make better decisions faster:

“We like it because collaborative decision-making is s a huge pain point for teams and Cloverpop leverages all the best decision-research in an easy-to-use format while putting cognitive diversity into practice. Teams are able to refer back to decisions and save a ton of time.”

Follow Colin Powell’s 40-70 rule.

Former Secretary of State Powell’s advice on leadership and decision-making states that you need between 40-70% of the total information to make a decision. Any less than 40 and you’re bound to make the wrong decision; but if you wait until you are 100% sure, it’s almost always too late and you have missed the opportunity.

Bottom line, gather enough information to make a good decision and then go with your gut.

Eat the decision.

Yep, you read that right. I know it might sound a bit odd, but hear me out:

Years ago, I read about a CEO who made all his big decisions this way. Let’s say he was considering acquiring another company. He would sit down and imagine he was eating that decision. Then he would stop, wait and see how he felt. Did he feel energized and alive or sick to his stomach?

Essentially, this tactic allows you to get out of your head and, instead, rely on somatic markers – or feelings in your body to make decisions.

Leverage your emotions.

Our emotions affect our ability to make decisions. When you are aware of and understand your emotional states, you can make better decisions.

On the flipside, when you aren’t aware of your emotions and whether they are truly connected to the decision itself, then you can make the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons.

See the graph below for details or learn more about emotions in decision-making:

Sleep on it.

When my dad has a big problem he’s trying to solve or an important decision to make, he thinks about it before bed. In the shower the next morning, solutions start bubbling up. Research confirms what he already knows. When you sleep on it, you make better decisions.

Set rules.

Establish rules and boundaries about how many options you’ll give yourself or how much time you have to make the decision. This might include a deadline or ultimatum to help force a decision that needs to be made.


On the other hand, sometimes we pressure or put false deadlines on ourselves and we don’t have an answer because we’re not ready or it’s not the right time…just yet.

If you have the freedom, sometimes the best thing you can do is wait until the right decision emerges on its own. Sometimes this could be as little as a few minutes or hours and other times it could be months.

The Bottom Line

That decision you’ve been putting off or agonizing over, now is the time to move forward. It’s time to decide.

Get perspective, follow the process, and identify which strategies you prefer. Don’t know which one to start with? See which one you’re drawn to, what’s worked best in the past, or just choose one, test to see how it goes and then test another.

Then, when you’ve made a decision, don’t look back. Sure, there is some value in analyzing the decision so you can make a better one next time, but looking back and wondering if you made the right decision, or fantasizing about the outcome of a better decision, only causes stress and regret.

Instead, practice gratitude for your decision. Remind yourself why it’s right and why you chose it in the first place. Put the energy into making that decision right. I had a client tell me this recently as she debated over a big decision. In the end, she said, “I just committed to the decision I made and decided I was going to make it work.”

Lastly, when things don’t go as you’d hoped, remind yourself you made the best decision you could with the information you had at the time. You can’t know what you don’t know and we all know hindsight is 20/20.

We are all human. We are evolving and learning and growing and making mistakes is just part of the process. Learn from them, grow from them and move forward to the next decision in your life. You have approximately 35,000 to make today, so let’s not waste another minute.

Featured photo credit: Brendan Church via

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