How to Make Decisions

Decision-making is incredibly difficult, especially for us analytical types.

Fact: We rarely have enough information to make a guaranteed-to-be-correct decision. 

In most cases, the decisions we make are educated guesses. That’s not comfortable. But it means that to get better at making decisions, you must embrace uncertainty. You must be okay with not knowing the right decision until after you’ve made it.

The mark of successful decision-making isn’t that you always make the right decision, it’s that you make more decisions with greater confidence. As one person mulls over a single decision for days, weeks, or even years, another person has already made a similar decision and acted on it. If it’s the wrong decision, that person can then make another decision to fix it. But the person who fails to make decisions and instead lets life “happen to them” will be far behind even if they make a higher percentage of good decisions.

Why do you think that so many successful people were previously bankrupt? The most successful people tend to have the most failures, too. It’s because successful people are decision-makers, and that makes it more likely that they’ll choose wrong sometimes. Choosing wrong is almost always better than not choosing. This is the first and most important lesson about decision-making, as negative consequences from poor choices are rarely permanent.

That’s why this article is titled, “How to Make Decisions” and not “How to Make Good Decisions.” The latter implies that the only decisions worth making are the “right” ones. But that involves crystal balls and other things most of us don’t have access to.

The right question is: How can we make decisions with greater frequency and confidence?

The most helpful factor for making a decision is knowing the basis behind the decision. If you know your basis, you can make the decision and move forward with executing that decision. This is a skill that you can practice!

Define Your Basis

Your basis for decisions plays a key role in your ability to choose and choose well. And choose you must, because passivity is the enemy of human vitality. Passive living kills our souls because we are meant to move. When we don’t move our bodies, we get sick. When we don’t “move” our minds (learn), our minds lose their sharpness and we lose some interest in life.

“Ok, But What IS the Basis of a Decision?”

Put simply, a basis is a foundation. It’s the bedrock from which all further thoughts and ideas are built upon. It’s the underlying objective behind your decision. Here’s an example of a decision basis, and you’ll see why it’s the vital first step of decision-making.

Let’s say you want to buy a toaster. It seems like a simple task, but without a basis, you could spend hours debating between various toasters with different features, models, price points, and brands.

Here are some possible bases for buying a toaster.

  • Quality: You want the best toaster
  • Price: You want the most economical toaster
  • Value: You want the best quality for the money
  • Features: You want a certain feature for your toaster
  • Brand: You want a toaster made by a particular brand
  • Speed: You want to buy the first toaster you see because they’re a commodity to you

Now, in truth, all of these bases will naturally be considered when buying a toaster, but it’s extremely helpful to determine which factors matter the most to you. Many people, when making decisions, try to analyze all of the above factors without asking themselves which factors carry the most weight. This is easily seen in the common pros/cons list, which doesn’t ​weigh factors,​ it only lists them.

Figuring out the basis (or bases) for your decision is the most difficult part of the decision, but once you’ve figured it out, the decision is much easier to make. Not only will it make your decision easier, but it will usually produce better decisions.

You MUST be intentional about defining your basis. By default, we tend to wallow around in a sea of too many variables of different weights. We’re considering the price of a toaster even when we care far more about the quality. We’re looking at the value of a toaster even though it doesn’t have the feature we desire most. Such inefficient thinking causes us to delay decision-making and be passive. Not good.

How to Handle Multiple Bases

Life is complex. It’s ridiculous to claim that you can find *one* basis for your decision, and I’m not doing that. While it can be nigh impossible to always find THE one basis, if you can narrow your primary bases from 20 down to say, 2 or 3 main ones, you’ve just made your decision exponentially easier to make. Your confidence in your choice will increase as well because you’ve explicitly stated what you want out of the decision. Clarity brings confidence.

Here’s a real life example of mine. I spent months thinking about this decision before I finally narrowed down my bases and got my answer. If I had sought my core bases sooner, I would have saved a lot of time!

Here’s the decision: I’ve been considering moving away from Seattle to Orlando. A pros/cons list is better than nothing, but all that would give me is a very long list full of pros and cons. To make my choice, I needed to figure out what mattered most out of so many variables. Here are some of the key variables I wrestled with, with the winning location following.

  • Weather: Orlando
  • Friends: Seattle
  • Family: Orlando
  • Location perks: Seattle for food, events, water access, casinos, and cruising, Orlando for theme parks (which I do love)
  • Least hassle: Seattle (I wouldn’t have to move)
  • Cost of Living: Orlando (but only after 1-2 years because of moving costs and having to buy a car there)
  • Political Environment: Orlando (I don’t care for politics. Seattle is obsessed. Boo.)
  • Dating: Orlando
  • Lifestyle: Seattle (I have basketball in my apartment, I walk everywhere to get around, and I have healthy food within one block of my apartment)
  • Local Adventure: Orlando (owning a car means I can/will go more places)
  • Major Airport Access: Seattle

Now, this is not an easy decision! Or is it? It looks like a toss up or advantage Orlando if anything (6 to 5 variables favored Orlando). But this is precisely why it’s so important to define your bases! It’s not about which place tallies up the most wins, it’s about which of these wins matter most to me.

My decision became easy when I realized my main priority (and primary basis for the decision) is lifestyle. Seattle, for all of its flaws, enables me to eat healthy food, stay active, and play basketball at any time. There are some unique aspects of my exact location that couldn’t be replicated in Orlando, such as my regular 5 mile roundtrip lakeside walk to Urban Float in Fremont as I listen to audiobooks. Right now, this lifestyle means the world to me, and I don’t want to give it up, not even for Disney world!

Another major basis that prompted the idea to move is cost of living. My rent cost is atrociously high. I can afford it right now, but as an entrepreneur, I don’t have a guaranteed paycheck. Amazon could announce tomorrow that they no longer sell books and there goes my income. I don’t know. Things can happen and I like to be prepared for the worst. This basis seemed to favor Orlando, but then I looked closer. One huge benefit of defining a basis is that it allows for deeper analysis.

Once I looked into the actual numbers, moving to Orlando wouldn’t actually save me much money unless I lived there two or more years. Rent is significantly less, but there’d be the cost of moving across the country, starting over with furniture and such, and the massive one-time cost of getting a car there (along with monthly car fees). I realized that while my rent is very high, I’m also living in an area where I don’t need a car and there’s no state income tax here. My analysis helped me see that Seattle is cheaper than it seems, and I have world class amenities and entertainment all around me.

I plan to travel more in the winter, and in Seattle, I can take the light rail to the airport for $3 and not have to worry about long term car parking. Seattle has also become a major airport hub, especially to Asian countries. I can get direct flights to South Korea and China! Adding to that, Seattle is a major cruise hub, and I love cruising.

As you can see, once I defined the primary bases for my decision, it became a lot easier to make it. If I had decided that weather was my top priority, then I’d leave Seattle at once. Weather is a factor, but it’s not nearly as important to me as my lifestyle.

And who knows, maybe I’m making the wrong decision or maybe I’ll change my mind later, but the most important part of making a decision is owning it, and I will own this. It’s essential to remind yourself that decisions are not final life sentences. You can change your mind. You can adjust.

If you have a decision to make, write out the factors (or pros/cons if you wish), and then spend your energy determining the primary basis (or bases) for your decision. Once you nail that down, you’ll be well on your way to making a decision you can feel good about. You won’t always make the right decision—I might regret not moving in a year—but that’s life. You make the best decision with the information you have at the time. That’s the best you can do.

(photo by Sky Noir)

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