How to Learn the Skill (& Art) of Good Decision-Making

decision-making, career coach

Good decision-making is a critical skill that has an enormous impact on your life. Whether they are decisions about your career, relationships or everyday life, developing skill and confidence in your decision-making will pay huge dividends. Good decision-making is learned – learned from practice, from trial and error, from taking risks and by (gulp) making mistakes.

As a career coach working with college students, recent graduates and young professionals, I see the anxiety many of my clients face when making a big decision. The first major decision most undergraduate students have made is where to attend college.

For a significant percentage of college freshmen, that decision will have been a poor one. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, of those attending four-year public universities, nearly 30 percent will transfer after freshman year, compared with a 25 percent freshman transfer rate at four-year private colleges. Either way, those numbers are high and can be costly.

An article in the Graziodo Business Review (Pepperdine’s School of Business and Management), cites decisiveness and the ability to make challenging decisions as a critical trait of great leaders. Developing strong decision-making skills requires emotional intelligence, the ability to manage uncertainty and limit choices, and good intuition.

So, how do you develop better decision-making skills and reduce the associated stress and anxiety?

As with anything, developing a skill requires practice. We are not born natural decision-makers. We must work at it to improve.

The following can help anyone develop better decision-making skills. Be sure to use all the steps in this process. Although you may be tempted to skip a step, don’t do it! Each of these steps has a purpose. Following all of them will help you make better decisions.

  1. Get Clarity.

    This is the point in your decision-making where you seek input from others – others you trust, who know you well, or who have information or expertise you lack. They are there to serve as advisors, but they cannot make the decision for you. Remember, it’s your decision.
    Know that not everything will be black and white. The first step is to do your research. Get the information you need to decide. Then get comfortable with the fact that you cannot possibly know everything or accurately predict the future. But you can and should be, reasonably well informed prior to making a decision.

  2. Evaluate your options.

    Create a list of the pros and cons of the decision you are weighing. If you are job searching, you’ve hit a home run if you have competing job offers to compare. Create a list; putting job A on the left and job B on the right, list the pros and cons for each. Be sure to evaluate not just the length of your pro (or con) list, but also evaluate the qualitative aspects of each item on the list. Perhaps living in San Francisco carries more importance for you than salary. You may be faced with one offer and no comparison. The pro-con list method still works and will provide you with insight you didn’t have before the exercise.

  3. Narrow your choices.

    This is a critical step. Failure to limit your options usually leads to analysis-paralysis. More information generally is not helpful and, in fact, muddies the water. When you have too many options, you cannot “see the forest for the trees”. Not convinced? Re-read #1 above.

  4. Have a Plan B.

    In negotiating, there is a concept known as a BATNA or “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” That is a fancy way of saying “have a plan B.” Always have a plan B. It’s possible that your plan B may be continuing your job search rather than accepting the offer. That still requires deciding: deciding to walk away from the offer. And declining an offer might be the best decision for you at that time.

  5. Overcome your fears.

    Don’t let your emotions rule your decision-making. Endless “what if” questions will only amp up your stress levels. Being self-aware and learning to quiet your nerves are two key components of emotional intelligence, which is critically important in making sound decisions.

  6. Cultivate your intuition.

    Intuition develops with life experience. It is often referred to as the nagging voice in your head or that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach.

    As it turns out, listening to your gut isn’t just an expression, it’s founded in science. We have neurotransmitters in our stomachs that release chemicals from our nerves into our bodies. Essentially, neurotransmitters are messengers: our nerves sending us signals. You can learn both how to spot those signals and when to listen to them.
    To tune into your intuition, you need to tune out distractions. In our technologically obsessed culture, this can be hard to do. Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook serve to drown out your inner voice.

  7. Set a deadline.

    With some decisions, such as a job offer, the deadline may be set for you. For others, it’s you who sets your timetable. Set a reasonable deadline, one that gives you enough time to do the steps above but not so long that it allows for endless procrastination. Once you have set a deadline, honor it. Only let extraordinary circumstances alter a deadline. (Be rigorous about your definition of “extraordinary circumstances: your favorite band being in town or an invitation to ski with friends do not qualify).

  8. Decide.

    Failing to decide is a decision, and it’s a poor one. By now you have plenty of information to make a well-informed decision, so make it!

  9. Commit.

    You’ve made your decision. Congratulations! Now is not the time for second-guessing. You do not need more information. In fact, it’s counterproductive. If you’ve followed all the steps in this process so far, you’ll know you made your decision based on sound research. You’ve narrowed your options and trusted your instincts. Re-hashing your decision won’t change the facts nor the outcome. Embrace your decision with a positive attitude and move forward.

  10. Learn and adjust.

    You might mess up. It’s not the end of the world. Learn from it. What worked? What didn’t? Did you have the right information when you made your decision? Consider keeping a journal to log your decisions and how you felt when making them. Chances are you’ll see a pattern. Were you nervous or confident? Did you feel in control? What were the possible outcomes, positive or negative, that you anticipated?

    Note what worked and what didn’t, what surprised you, and what you would do differently. Then, take your lessons learned and apply them the next time you are faced with a decision.
    Many of our best life lessons come from making mistakes. Making a mistake is not a sin, failing to learn from it is.

  11. Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

  12. Make decisions in such a way that you continually learn how to make better ones.

    Recently, a client of mine faced a big decision about whether to accept a job offer and was struggling with the decision. I told her there are very, very few decisions you make in life that you can’t adjust later on. Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith and go for it. Learning, and using, the fundamentals of good decision-making puts you in greater control of your life. Who doesn’t want to be in the driver’s seat for life’s great adventures?


About Lisa

Chief Career Catalyst @C2C, former Fortune 500 businesswoman, dog lover, avid skier, mediocre tennis player, golfer, new SUPer, aspiring surfer, cyclist, yoga & exercise enthusiast, happy wife & home chef. I am a regular contributor to the Bangor Daily News, and have appeared on WCSH6 where I offer career advice for college students, recent graduates and young professionals.
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