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Why Are Some Decisions Just So Hard? (Decision Series 1/8)

Throughout our lives, we will make our fair share of difficult decisions – what school to attend, career to pursue, whom to marry, where to live, how many children to have? And there will be infinitely more smaller daily decisions – what takeout to order, what to wear to an important event, which gym to […]

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Throughout our lives, we will make our fair share of difficult decisions – what school to attend, career to pursue, whom to marry, where to live, how many children to have? And there will be infinitely more smaller daily decisions – what takeout to order, what to wear to an important event, which gym to attend, how much time should be spent on watching tv or reading and so on.

Indeed, our days can sometimes seem like they are filled with a constant stream of decisions.  A Columbia University study found that we are bogged down by 70 decisions a day. 

How do we handle all of those decisions, and more importantly, how satisfied will we be with our choices?  According to Dan and Chip Heath in their book Decisive, it is common for people to make decisions they regret.  When people decide to go to law school, there is a 44% chance that they will not recommend becoming lawyers.  When the Philadelphia school system examined teacher retention rates, they found that teachers were twice as likely as students to drop out.  Knowing that a lot of people regret their decisions speaks even more to the challenge of deciding well.    

Let’s explore 3 key reasons why decision-making is just so hard:

1. We lack a strong understanding of ourselves.  Believe it or not, many of us walk through life not knowing what is most important to us – is it love, money, family, learning, fun, exploration, or something else.  What are our core values?  Where do they come from?  Do we have those values because it is what we feel we SHOULD or MUST be emphasizing or it is because of what we genuinely want?

When we know our values, it becomes so much easier to make a decision that aligns with them. For example, you value family so when you are presented with a new position that involves a two-hour commute each way, you realize that your quality family time will drop significantly.  If your family value is non-negotiable, the decision becomes clear on whether to take the job.  When we make decisions that support our values, we experience less stress and more happiness. 

2. We have a faulty information strategy.  When you feel like youdo not have enough information or are still really confused about a problem, what methods do you pursue to gather more data and broaden your horizons?  Believe it or not, people rarely consider more than two options when making a decision.  In a study led by Ohio State University Professor Paul Nutt, he examined 168 decisions of big organizations and found that 69% only had one alternative.  Two-option decisions lead to unfavorable results 52% of the time.  But when they considered more than two options, they had a favorable outcome of more than 66%.  When our information strategy includes only two choices, we feel trapped and fail to see all the possibilities genuinely available to us, and that can create struggle, stress, and lead to decisions in which we are not proud. 

We also do not want to overload ourselves with too many choices because then we would suffer from what Barry Schwartz labels a Paradox of Choice.  The more alternatives we are given, the less satisfied we become with what we choose because we are aware of all the other opportunities we are forfeiting.  For example, the American Scientist Sheena Iyengar looked at behavior in supermarkets and found that if there are too few choices, we do not like to shop there because we wonder if another place has more items.  If we have too many selections, we look but do not buy because we experience choice overload.  When it comes to low-level decisions like which cereal to buy, the right amount of items that the human mind likes to choose between is 3 and 6.  Of course, life is not a supermarket, especially when it comes to the monumental decisions we need to make so when do we know when we know enough? This question will be covered later in the series.

3. We lack decision-making systems to guide us.  Some people make decisions out of gut instinct, and while emotions can give strong direction, it may be an incomplete way of pulling the trigger because we could be blinded by short-term satisfaction over long-term value attainment.  Having processes and systems in place can help us take a more comprehensive approach.  Methods such as gaining psychological distance, conducting experiments, and running a pre-mortem will be explored later in the series to make better decisions.

Decisions are hard, and for a good reason; some of them can significantly alter our lives and happiness.  I must confess, I struggled with deciding how to organize this blog series, but once I took action, got clear in my values, utilized an effective information strategy, and relied on some of my trusty systems, things seemed to fall into place.  Here’s hoping that a little regret does not seep in later on.

Quote of the day: “Most of the problems in life are because of two reasons: we act without thinking, or we keep thinking without acting.” -anonymous

Q: What are some other challenges you notice with decision-making?  Comment and share below, we would love to hear from you!

[The next blog in this series 2/8 will focus on knowing yourself to make the best decisions.] 

As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with leaders to help them make hard decisions, contact me to explore this topic further.

How do you make tough decisions?
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