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On Better Decision Making

Humans are funny creatures. Study after study has demonstrated that we are not rational actors, we don't make decisions that are in our best interest, and we allow all kinds of noise to affect our decisions. What should we do about the reality that we appear to be making bad decisions, left and right? For starters . . .

Focus on Decision Making Rather than on Outcomes

Between whatever your process is for decision making and whatever actually happens at the proverbial end of the day, is a whole host of things you cannot control, including your luck or lack thereof. Therefore, in some sense we aren't as responsible for the good outcomes of our decision making as we like to think. And of course the flip side is true. We can have a clean decision-making process that doesn't end well for us or that does. And our decision-making process can be a mess, chock full of bias, emotions, noise and bad or incomplete information, and the outcome can be fantastic. Or not.

When you look back at your decisions to assess them, you shouldn't be reflecting on the actual decision and how it played out for you, but on the process you used for making the decision. That, after all, is the part you can control.

Decision making as a field of study is having a moment, and right now, you can buy a few dozen books or listen to a few dozen podcasts on the topic. I'm a big fan of Shane Parrish's books, blog, and podcast for ideas, as well as Katy Milkman's Choiceology podcast, and her book, How to Change. One of my favorite people to read and listen to on this, is former poker champ and decision strategist, Annie Duke, who recommends treating every decision like a bet. I love the way she thinks. She's a fun writer and a great podcast guest and I recommend checking her out.

There's No Best Way to Make All Decisions

With that said, there are definitely components that should be part of every decision-making process (for decisions of consequence). There are wise guidelines for decision making, in general.

At minimum, your decision-making process should involve:

  • Asking the right question. What do you want to know? What are you trying to achieve? How is it that you want to feel at the end of this decision-making process, and if the decision ended up being the "right" one (a.k.a., if things went your way)? Notice that's two different things--the end of the process, and the unfolding of the outcome.

  • Research. Many decisions are poorly made because of lack of information or even willful ignorance/blindness. Don't skimp on fact finding.

  • Making a decision after you ask yourself--If I look back a year from now and this ended badly, what about my process might have been faulty? If I look back a year from now and this worked out great, what else needed to happen? In other words, what am I missing? What are my blind spots?

  • Not making a decision if: you're under slept, angry, in a rush, in a bad mood, have had too much caffeine, any alcohol, you've just made other important decisions (which, believe it or not, could affect the one in question), you've just fallen in love, or you're otherwise not clear headed or "objective."

  • Paying attention to what happens next. Regardless of the outcome, explore factors not related to your decision making that influenced the outcome. Make a mental (or physical) note of your decision making as well as external factors that became important. Perhaps there's something external that you should have factored in but you chose to ignore it because you can't control it.

Mindfulness can be tremendously helpful in decision making and is part of the curriculum in classes for Teens as well as Financial Advisors. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is at the heart of all of the classes I offer, provides a skillful means for decision-making that you won't read about in many books. But it's fundamental to a clean decision-making process, as it allows you to observe your intentions and biases and noise, real time, and then learn from those observations. It provides crucial insight.

Mindfulness isn't easy, but if you want to make decisions from wisdom rather than urgency, it provides you with all of the tools you need for a calm, clear, decision-making process.

Registration for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness and Life Skills for Teens, and

Mindfulness for Financial Advisors is open.

Classes start in September!


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