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How to Make Hard Personal Decisions Easier

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Fred had a difficult decision to make: to continue to grow his consulting business or to accept a permanent position with a local startup company that offered salary, benefits, and shares in the company plus fewer transportation costs. He enjoyed consulting, the freedom it offered, and the chance to travel. But he recognized that steady employment with benefits would provide more security and allow him to grow his savings. How could he decide? 


Why Is Personal Decision Making Difficult?

Personal decision making is often far more fraught than organizational or group decision making. Many of the reasons are rooted in past experience: the “once burnt, twice shy” reaction. With personal decisions, we also have to worry about: 

  • Overturning the status quo; what we know is more comfortable than the unknown.
  • Adversely affecting others; we may want to maintain the good opinion others have of us; or we may need to consider the effect on our family when deciding whether to quit a job.
  • Making an irrevocable decision; many decisions loom large even though the consequences are not as dire as we project.
  • Analysis paralysis; we want all the facts, although by the time all the facts are gathered, if that’s even possible, the opportunity will be gone.
  • Choice overload; we are more comfortable choosing among a few options than an infinite variety which is why, for example, people tend to stick with the same car brand.
  • Fatigue; sometimes we are just too stressed and too tired for clear decision making.


What Techniques Ease Decisions Making?


  • Consider Your Values
    Prioritize your choices based what is most important to you. For example, in deciding whether to move to a large city, you might consider the relative value you place on educational opportunities for your children and uprooting them from familiar friends and schools. In Fred’s case, security and freedom were competing values, as were travel and a local location. By assigning a rank or importance to each value, he can identify the decision that aligns with his highest value(s).
  • Consider the Pros and Cons
    Values may emerge from simply making two columns, pro and con for each choice, then listing the relevant information. Are there more pro items than con items for one of the choices?


  • Look Ahead
    Look ahead one year or five years. If your choice does work out, what will you have accomplished? If it doesn’t work out, can you survive the consequences? Values also help in determining the long term effects of a decision: which decision will bring you closer to the type of life you envision for yourself?
  • Use a Decision Tree
    Decision trees are especially helpful for decisions with many possible solutions or with solutions that lead to potential problems.
  1. Draw a box on a piece of paper that represents the problem (should Fred change jobs?).
  2. Draw lines from the box, each representing a potential solution (take the new job, stay with the old job).
  3. Create a separate square to indicate the possible outcome of that solution (increased savings, no savings).
  4. Give a number value to each square. 
  5. If the exact number is unknown, change the square to a circle and put in an estimate or percentage.
  6. Follow each solution through all of the possible outcomes (for example, if Fred increases his savings, will he also spend more?).
  7. When you reach an end point, draw a triangle.
  8. Add and subtract the numbers to come up with the most effective solution.

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