Wednesday 19 April 2023

Left or Right? Nine Strategies for Making Wise Decisions

Always make decisions that prioritize your inner peace. ― Izey Victoria Odiase

We make hundreds of decisions every day. What time to get up. What to wear. Where and what to eat. The majority of our decisions are minor, even trivial, and we make them without weighing all the options and consequences. But every now and again there’s a decision to be made and we just — stop. We’re unsure which way to turn, or if we even need to decide right now. That’s when we turn to our strategies for decision making. But what are they, exactly? In this post I explore eight techniques I use, and one I don’t because I’m scared to.

1. The 51% Test

In a recent conversation with Fran I shared that I was undecided about whether to reach out to someone I’d lost touch with. There was no obviously right or best path to take. Fran listened to me for a while, then asked, “Are you 51%?”

I knew what she meant. It’s an approach we’ve used on numerous occasions. I closed my eyes, gauging how I felt about contacting my former friend. “I think I’m 51%, yes.”

“Then do it,” Fran said.

I wavered. “I’m only just 51%.”

“51% means yes,” she reminded me. That’s the beauty of this technique. It doesn’t require you to feel very sure, just more than half sure. If you’re unclear of your emotional response, you can reverse the test. In my case, that would mean testing how I felt about not contacting the person I was thinking about. I remained undecided, so Fran offered me an alternative strategy, the ring of fingers.

2. The Ring of Fingers (Self Muscle Test)

Fran invited me to join the thumb and forefinger of my left hand into a circle, then form an interlinked circle with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. Unsure of where this was leading, I did so. Fran instructed me to move my hands apart, first resisting, and then allowing my fingers to part. Once I understood the technique, she told me to close my eyes, imagine myself contacting the person, and move my hands apart. Whether my fingers instinctively opened or resisted opening would give me my answer; yes if they opened, no if they resisted opening. I did so and found my fingers instinctively resisted opening.

I later learned that this technique is better known as the self muscle test. It’s one of several methods based on connecting with the body’s state of tension or resistance to various scenarios. I haven’t tried them enough to comment on their validity, but they provide an interesting approach to when I’m unsure about which decision feels right.

3. Imagine You’ve Already Decided

The third strategy is one I’ve used many times. It works best when you’re struggling to decide which of two or three options feels right to you. Close your eyes and imagine you’ve already taken the first path. The decision is behind you. You’re on the other side. Focus on your emotional response to having taken this path. How does it feel? Do you feel warm, positive, and optimistic about the path you’re now on; or uncertain, anxious, regretful, or scared? Open your eyes, then after a few minutes repeat the exercise with each of the other options. I find this technique useful because it takes me out of the decision making process, and allows me to focus on how I feel about the options themselves.

4. T-Chart

The T-chart is a simple technique for thinking through the advantages and disadvantages of taking a particular decision. Write the option or decision at the top of a sheet of paper. Draw a horizontal line below what you just wrote, and a vertical line down the centre of the page, to form a large “T” shape. On the left side, list as many advantages, positive outcomes, or justifications you can find for taking this option. List disadvantages, negative outcomes, or reasons for not taking this option on the right hand side. Once you’ve finished, review what you’ve written to help reach a decision. I find this works best for yes/no decisions.

5. Best in Class

This technique works well when you need to choose between several different options. I’ve used it recently when trying to decide which mobile phone to buy. On a sheet of paper, draw vertical lines so you have one column for each phone you want to compare, plus one extra column. To compare three phones, divide the page vertically into four columns. Label the first (left-most) column “Features” and label each of the remaining columns with the name of the phone you are considering.

Down the first colum, list key features, such as price, memory, storage, size, plus any others you’re interested in. For each phone in turn, research and fill in the relevant details. Once you’ve completed the grid, highlight or circle the best result for each feature. In the price row, circle the lowest price. In the memory row, circle the highest or best memory. When you’ve finished, review the results and see which option scores highest in the most categories.

Due to its grid structure, this approach works best on lined or squared (graph) paper, or in a spreadsheet if you prefer to work digitally.

6. Write it Out

I’ve kept a daily diary for decades so I’m used to exploring what’s going on for me by writing about it. I also blog here on a weekly basis, often incorporating events and situations from my life into my blog posts. Exploring things in these ways helps me clarify my priorities, thoughts, and feelings, which can help me towards making a decision about what’s best for me.

7. Talk it Out

Talking things over with people I trust to listen without passing judgment can help me move towards a decision. The conversation with Fran that I mentioned earlier is a great example, but other friends help me in different ways. It’s important to me to have people who will let me share my thoughts and feelings without pushing me down any particular path. There’s a good example in our book High Tide, Low Tide. In this case the roles were reversed; Fran needed to reach a decision about whether to embark on a three month trip around Europe with her parents. She needed me to help her reach a decision, but it was important I didn’t influence her unduly. My role was to remind her of her options, and hold a space in which she could explore things for herself.

Martin: You can still decide not to go.

Fran: i wanna go.. it’s just that it won’t be easy.. it may stretch me beyond what i am capable of.. i have some peace to make with my mother.. i want an adventure and am scared shitless.. afraid of getting lost.. of not knowing where i am.. of how to do things.. but the adventure lures me.. i want to be there for my mum.. it would mean a lot to her and to me.. it is the right thing to do..

Martin: I think I just helped you clarify some things.

Fran: yes.. thank you for drawing that out.. i will need to keep reminding myself when i feel like giving up.. it won’t be easy..

8. Random Strategies

When you’ve tried every strategy you can think of but still can’t make up your mind, you might consider letting chance decide for you. If it’s a yes/no decision, you might toss a coin. If there are more than two options, you might roll dice or employ a pseudo random number generator such as I’m personally wary of delegating my decision making to chance. I can trace my feelings to the novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart. The lead character begins basing his everyday decisions on the throw of a die. It begins innocently enough but the practice leads him into some very dangerous situations. The blurb was enough for me. I’d be scared to read the book in case I was tempted to try.

Discussing this, my son Mike offered sound advice about using random processes safely. “Toss a coin,” he said. “And if you get a strong negative feeling about the decision, choose the other one.”

9. Defer the Decision

The desire to make the best decision — or to avoid making the wrong one — can get in the way of us seeing things clearly. It’s worth remembering that defering your decision is often a valid option. Maybe you need to gather more information, seek expert guidance or advice, or talk things over with others. Maybe you need time to process what’s happening until you’re ready to reach a decision you’re comfortable with.

We discussed one deferral approach recently in The Box on the Shelf: A Strategy for Handling Difficult Issues and Situations. As we described it, “[the box] is a strategy for dealing with troublesome or persistent issues a little at a time, setting them aside in between so you can get on with other things. It’s not intended as a way of hiding things away or putting them off altogether.”

What Is a Wise Decision, Anyway?

I’ve described techniques I use to help me make what I hope are wise decisions. I’ve said nothing about what constitutes wise decision making, because that’s a very personal thing. What is a wise decision for one person might be folly to someone else. It’s a topic I may return to on another occasion. For now, I’ll share two quotations which shed a little light on my own perspective. The first is by author and speaker Deepak Chopra. It counters the stifling notion that there’s always a right or best decision to be made.

If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience. (Deepak Chopra)

This resonates because I’ve never been someone to regret past decisions. There are choices that didn’t work out well for me or for people I’ve impacted, but to me regret is a pointless indulgence. The honest response to making “wrong” decisions is not regret but acknowledging and owning their consequences. That’s how we grow and mature. As Mark Twain put it, “Experience comes from making bad decisions.”

The second quotation is spoken by the character Meredith Grey in the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy.

We’re all going to die. We don’t get much say over how or when, but we do get to decide how we’re gonna live. So, do it. Decide. Is this the life you want to life? Is this the person you want to love? Is this the best you can be? Can you be stronger? Kinder? More compassionate? Decide. Breathe in. Breathe out and decide. (Meredith Grey)

Although it does speak of being the “best you can be” (and thus hints at making the best decisions towards that goal), I like this quotation. It’s the perfect antidote to indecision and prevarication, and a call to each of us to own our decisions and take responsibility for how we live our lives.

Over to You

What are your thoughts on the techniques I’ve presented? How do you approach decision making? What techniques or approaches work for you? Do you regret decisions you’ve made in the past? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Burst at Unsplash.


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