On the Corner

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By Robert Docter – 

Do you have trouble making decisions?

You’re not alone. Many find it very difficult. Then, of course, there are at least a similar number who have no problem making a decision and then leap to the wrong one.

We tend to assume that decision makers deliberately choose a course of action after rational consideration–that they take into account all of the value issues, the probability of certain consequences following a number of different options available to them, and that they are able to do this in a timely manner.

Nice assumption. Too bad it doesn’t often happen that way. The limitations of the human mind usually don’t allow us to understand and keep in mind all of the essential, relevant information needed to determine the best solution. Moreover, we don’t have available to us all of the information necessary, nor the knowledge of cause and effect relationships to make accurate predictions about consequences. These factors slow down the decision making process considerably. Sadly, we see decision making as an event rather than a process.

The main reason we have difficulty making decisions, however, has to do with the effect of our emotions on our thinking patterns. We call this stress. Everybody has it. Some have learned to manage it better than others. We experience stress in relation to our conflicts in dealing with the vast amounts of data impacting us in this electronic age. And, we experience stress when a feeling of fear of some type of loss imposes itself upon us. In these circumstances, we worry about everything–about what we don’t know, about what could go wrong with almost any choice, about losing self esteem, about the sacrifice of ideals. These fears often push us into anticipatory anxiety, shame, guilt–which of course results in more stress. It seems almost that we can’t get enough of the stuff. We get immobilized.

When the stress level gets way up there we experience significant discomfort from which we work to escape. This often leads to something called premature closure. It is the ejection seat of stress, and we use a number of techniques to accomplish it–like not looking at all the criteria involved; or only making a tiny change when conditions warrant a major change; or deciding to make a “popular” decision regardless of the outcomes; or emphasizing too much historical precedent; or playing the numbers game and overemphasizing some formula.

Effective decision making involves a number of different factors. First, we need to keep our eye on the real goal. Without that, you’re lost. Second, we have to examine a wide range of alternative courses of action; third, we must look at the values underlying each available choice; fourth, we need to weigh the risks in the various courses of action; fifth, we need to gather as much relevant information as possible; sixth, we must evaluate the consequences of each course of action; and seventh, we need to understand implementation designs.

If these criteria aren’t involved, you’re going to have some trouble. Even reading them is stressful. We find ways to deal with our stress–most of which are very ineffective. Here are some of them according to an author I read recently: (1) unconflicted inertia–this is simply ignoring the problem–like hoping the car will fix itself; (2) unconflicted change–this involves leaping to a decision on irrational grounds without any examination of the possible outcomes; (3) defensive avoidance–this concerns something I’m very good at, procrastination. Also included is shifting responsibility or finding ways to justify picking the least objectionable alternative; (4) hypervigilance–a panic-like state with frantic efforts to escape, or impulsive selection simply to gain relief.

The best approach the author called vigilance. This involves carefully going about the process of decision making in a rational manner.

Timing is important, too. Some decisions have to be made quickly. We are all faced with many decisions daily. Staying in good physical shape, getting enough sleep, and learning stress management skills can help in your decision making process.

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