Decision making made easier

Decision making © Can Stock Photo Inc. / BrebcaWhen decision-making is tough, it pays off to approach it from a different side.

We all encounter decision making on a daily basis. Sometimes decisions are tough to make, especially when they will have a big impact on our lives and work.

A different focus on your decisions leads to a new arrangement of the aspects that make up the situation. Often this new perspective will present you with fresh, unthought-of, and even unexpectedly positive possibilities.

Here we (briefly) introduce one such an alternative approach. It enables you to look at your decision-making from an unexpected angle. The unexpectedness creates the possibility to step away from your usual way of thinking. Without talking to someone else yet, you will gain insight in what an objective outsider would share with you regarding your options. This will make you better prepared to make the right decision.

Decision-making: what to cut off?

The original meaning of ‘to decide’ is: to cut off. The question this alternative approach explores is: what to cut off?

There are two possibilities to separate that which you want to keep from that which you want to cut off. You can focus on:

  • What you don’t want
  • What you do  want

Contrary to what you might expect, to decide what you DON’T want is the focus when the situation allows you to select and weigh all the options. When you cut off what you don’t want, you have left what you do want. From the remaining options you choose the one that is most in accordance with what is essential to you.

Again counter-intuitively, to decide what you DO want is the focus when the circumstances coerce you to select only from options you would not have freely chosen. From these (negative) options you are presented with, you choose the one that is the best available option. This is the option that is most in accordance with your values (what you do want).

Let’s see how this works.

What to do when you have time to weigh all the options

  • In this situation there is no pressure and your choices are free from constraints.

Issues about your life and work are of critical importance. Ideally this importance allows you a good deal of time and liberty to prepare for the decision. If this is the case, you determine in advance what your goal is. You ascertain what values, interests, and commitments must be present to make a positive choice. All you have to do now is to cut off what you don’t want. If what is then left resembles what has to be present, you have reached a position where you can make a decision that is right for you.

What to do when your hand is forced

  • In this situation there is unavoidable pressure and constraints determine your choices.

Although some things are of critical importance, this doesn’t imply life won’t force your hand. Sometimes you have to choose the best option from a bad lot. Compare this to the position of a doctor in a war. There are limited resources. In the triage process, the doctor has to decide which of the wounded to assist, and which will have to remain untreated. (Writer, soldier and doctor Jon Kerstetter[1] wrote a beautiful if unsettling essay about this situation.)

You don’t want any of this, so what you are left with is to find what you do want in these adverse circumstances. With what remains of what you do want, you continue and work your way through the unfavorable situation.

Why this approach to decision-making works

In using these unusual perspectives, you will have gained some objectivity. By doing something that is slightly different, you remove yourself from your usual biases. This allows for more options to become visible to you.

Always base your decisions on what is essential to you

Making decisions about career and life matters is always hard work. Ideally you have time and many options open to you. Yet, whatever the conditions are, only when what is essential to you is present in the choice, your decisions will be right for you.

That is why both in favorable and unfavorable situations, it pays to know your basics. Know what is essential to you. This will ease your decision making in all situations.

When you have ample time to make decisions, it makes it easier to cut off the non-essentials, what you don’t want. You will distinguish clearly in what remains what is of real value to you.

When circumstances are unfavorable and your choices minimal, it becomes even more critical to know what is essential to you. You choose what you want from options you would not have chosen in the first place. You have to be sure what is essential to you to be able remain loyal to your values in these circumstances.

Making tough decisions is never easy. Looking at your decision from a different angle at least makes it easier to decide what to cut off and what to keep. This will make it easier to make a decision that will be right for you.

By Iris Dorreboom and Rudi de Graaf

Decision-making in the best possible way is one of the soft skills we coach managers and professionals in.

When you want to explore how our approach to decision-making can help you in make tough life and career decisions, a coaching session might be a good idea.

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[1] Jon Kerstetter, ‘writer, doctor, soldier’, as he describes himself, wrote an essay about his experiences as a triage doctor in Iraq. Whatever your political views, read the essay for its humanity and what it means to make difficult decisions. See: ‘Triage’, first published in River Teeth, vol.13, # 2, Jan. 2012; reprinted in Best American Essays 2013; available scanned at