I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This is my article on decision making, originally posted on the Time Management for iPad page, August 2013.
Five seconds before Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his colleagues successfully crash-landed their Soyuz capsule onto the steppes of Kazakhstan, Mission Control sent the following command: “close your mouths.” This was a timely and proactive message, given that immediately afterwards, the capsule made contact with earth with the force of a serious car crash. Had the control centre not issued that command loudly and verbally, one or more tongues might have been involuntarily bitten off from the impact. There were too many things for the astronauts to focus on at that point, which is why there was both a checklist, and a person assigned to read the command exactly on time. This was not a moment for decision-making; it was a moment for rote action.
For all humans, time and decisions make uneasy bedfellows, since decisions usually require more time than they are given, and pressure makes the entire process physiologically difficult. Humans are also reactive by nature; we are designed to move instinctively, and the capacity for reasoned thought is still very new to us, collectively, as a species.
That is why professionals use checklists. Front-line medical people, for example, use the rules of triage to eliminate the need to make decisions in literal life-or-death situations. Pilots and flight attendants announce their activities in rote fashion, so as to remove the need to arbitrarily remember. Procedures abound, and with good reason.
For busy working people, such checklists, or more specifically, appropriate checklists, are seldom around when we need them. When a decision has to be made, it is often done in haste and with hope. Sometimes, luck plays our way, things work out and we feel that yes, we have an instinctive gut feeling that we can rely upon in future situations. And then other times, it all goes wrong.
Therefore when making any sort of decision, it is preferable to use a series of steps, which conveniently fit into a checklist. Here are two for your consideration; a long one and a short one.
Decision Making: Long Form (8 Steps)
- Collect all the facts: do not leap to the first option or action that springs to mind. The closer you are to an A-Type personality, the more difficult this will be. Find out everything you can about the issue, using the journalists’ W5 technique (who, what, when, where, why, how), or the excellence technique of the 5 why’s (ask why five times as in: why is this happening? and then to the answer to this question, ask why again, and so on). Learn the context, the background, the limitations, everything you can.
- Write them out: write these facts out. Get them out of your head and onto a surface were everyone can see them. The act of reviewing your own writing will spur additional thoughts and ideas. Keeping them bottled up won’t. Also, when other people see what you are writing, they are better able to chime in with their own suggestions or experiences.
- Go away and think about it: after you have collected all the facts, take a walk, grab some lunch; do something that will let your mind wander, which does not mean doing other work or answering emails on your phone. Do some blue-sky thinking, and give your mind room to work its magic.
- Ask someone else: turn to whoever you can find and ask their opinion. Mentors abound everywhere. Their own experience and suggestions will be useful, regardless whether they support or contradict your own thinking.
- Go away some more: sleep on it. If there is any chance at all for a good period of time before a decision has to be made, then take advantage of this. Not only does this give your mind additional time to think, there is also the fact that your body changes its chemistry as food and sleep take effect, and you will actually be a slightly different person this time tomorrow. This might add a refreshed perspective to your decisions, especially if anger or other high emotions were present at the start.
- Create a contingency plan: what happens if your decision results in something less-than-optimum? Or, what if you factor in more than one decision outcome. Envisioning plans for alternate outcomes, allows you to examine the problem from many sides, turning it into more of a 3D model in your head.
- Execute: Once you have arrived at a plan of action, stick to it. Seek to consciously reinforce your conviction that your choice is the correct one. There will always be myriad other ways to have dealt with a problem. But you have chosen. Now move forwards will full belief that you are correct.
- Follow-up: Once you have acted on your decision, make sure to follow-up. Take note of what created the circumstances, how you dealt with it and what the outcomes were. Follow-up, or as some call it, “post-mortem” allows a review of what happened in order to both learn and teach. It is an essential final step.
The short form:
There are some times when circumstances do not allow the luxury of time to proceed with all the steps above. Sometimes in fact, decisions have to be made on the spot, perhaps even using a coin toss to determine a direction of action. In that case, consider the short approach.
1. Take ten seconds to think.
2. Do it. Go with the strongest thought or leaning that your body and mind deliver to you.
3. Follow-up. Just like in the long-form list above, time spent reviewing why a circumstance happened provides opportunity for review, learning and even perhaps preparation of a checklist for future occurrences.