3 Steps to Great Decisions

By July 22, 2022Anxiety
Great decisions

Great decision-making always involves emotional processes and some level of value judgement.

After all, decision-making is about choosing, and what we choose is based on subjective values of what’s better or worse for the situation. Decisions are binary (A or B) because our brains basically have circuits firing for either choice, and the circuit that fires more wins. So you ask, what impacts the firing of these circuits so I can make a good decision? It involves the three steps in making great decisions.

Step 1 – Choose your inputs. Get all the facts.

A decision can only be as good as the information it’s based on. Seem obvious, right? Let’s say you are trying to decide where to go for dinner. What kinds of inputs are there? First, do you want to go out at all? Then there are things like what time, what type of food, what places are available, how much to spend, and how to get there. Most individuals do not have a full set of factual information when deciding. Our brains give priority to recent and common ‘facts,’ and we aren’t aware that this is happening. But we think we have enough facts. This is like your common set of favourite places to eat, instead of every place within thirty minutes. This fact-limiting approach is often because of the second rule.

Step 2 – Watch your assumptions.

Even with our simple example, we make assumptions. Our emotional state influences the assumptions we make. For example, how hungry is everyone? Are you or others working to please someone or impress someone? Our emotions influence the assumptions we make about availability, service, quality of food, cost, and getting there and back. What complicates this is that each person is sensing and making assumptions about the emotions of others in real time. How much one person prefers a type of food, is worried about cost, or “imagines” how nice it would be at a certain place. Nobody wants to seem pushy, so everyone defers to everyone else, and the group can’t decide! Emotions influence the significance of different facts such that some facts override other facts. The cost will often override quality. Avoiding disagreement and wanting to please will override one’s preferred choice. Each person involved makes assumptions about their facts and what others think. The key is to be aware of the assumptions being made. Ideally, one reviews and validates any assumptions. This is part of getting the facts.

Step 3 – Trust people you trust.

Let’s say a friend told you to avoid Sloppy Pete’s Pizza. But you LOVE pizza, and it’s close by and not expensive. And you are hungry!  What might happen? You “discount” the advice of your friend. And you might not even bother to check out what other pizza places are available. Your friend is actually very reliable. They have given you good advice before. But you decide not to “trust” their advice and go with your gut feeling. The “let’s get pizza now” circuit was firing stronger than the “find another place” circuit, so you ordered the pizza. 

After waiting over an hour, paying extra for the delivery, and eating cold pizza with cheap crust and skippy toppings, you feel pretty unsatisfied. How did this happen? Simple, your emotional, subjective thinking circuits fired stronger than your objective, rational thinking circuits. You did not make a great decision!

Subjectivity is part of decision-making.

While decision-making is a complex biological process, it is not a purely cognitive one. Deciding the answer for two plus two or if one cookie is bigger than another are cognitive decisions. Is the bigger cookie better is a subjective choice and depends on an individual’s values and objectives. The stories or opinions you have about cookies, which are subjective, will influence your decision. Deciding which cookie to eat is subjective. Deciding to eat it now or later is subjective. The subjectivity is valid. When deciding, the challenge is to be aware of one’s subjective, feeling-based thinking.

Level of differentiation and great decisions.

One aspect of differentiation is the ability to recognize subjective feeling-based thinking versus objective, rational thinking. Feelings are useful information. Feeling hungry is useful, but that shouldn’t be the sole factor in deciding when, what, and how much to eat. Feeling anxious about food that has made you sick in the past is valid but shouldn’t automatically drive your decision-making. The point is to recognize the feeling but be objective about it. For example, it might be a fact that some food upset you in the past, but it’s an assumption that this will happen again. The goal is to recognize the fact and the assumption so one can validate the assumption. Don’t just assume and don’t just discount feelings.

Comfort is not the basis of a great decision.

Our anxiety (I’m nervous about this) can often interfere with decision-making. We can want to choose the “comfortable” option versus the “better” option. Putting off medical tests or deciding what to eat or when to exercise can be like this. Even trying something new versus what’s familiar. Making choices for your children can REALLY be like this. A child asks – “can I stay out until 11 pm? I’ll take the bus home?” The parent (anxiety rising) replies: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, no.” Now the parent feels better. But they have conveyed a lack of confidence and level of “the world is scary” to their child. The parent isn’t really aware of the assumptions they are making, it’s just the discomfort they are reacting to. The parent could have gotten more facts: where will you be, who will you be with, what’s the bus situation like, how about 10:30 instead. They could have also said, “Well, this gets me nervous, so let’s talk about it so aren’t making any assumptions.” This example could have also been, “Yes, go ahead” because the parent didn’t want to experience the discomfort of a big argument.

Better decision-making is possible.

Differentiated thinking would recognize that not getting facts, not recognizing assumptions, wishful thinking, not trusting advice, and not recognizing anxiety can all lead to poor decisions with poor outcomes. Differentiated thinking understands that feelings aren’t bad but that subjective thinking is not fact-based rational thinking. Decisions based on feeling comfortable aren’t wrong but should be very conscious choices. That comfortable “feeling” will be based on assumptions that could be inaccurate. The key is being thoughtful and aware of subjective versus object thinking and how it’s influencing your decision-making process.

Years ago decided to work on differentiation and being more thoughtful. I gathered facts about the concept, I discussed and thought about my assumptions. I listened to others that I considered advisors. Maybe that’s why it’s been a great decision!

Now it’s your turn to think about how you can be more thoughtful in making great decisions.

Dave Galloway


This post was inspired by the following article:


Listen to Dr. Papero on Anxiety and Decision Making: Anxiety and Decisions.