Timely reminder: Don’t rush that tough decision

There are sound reasons why it’s vital you slow down the moment you think there’s a tough decision to be taken.

As human beings, we make a litany of decisions every single day. It’s unavoidable – but that doesn’t mean you have to struggle with (and occasionally bungle) the more difficult choices in life.

With a solid foundation of theory and some practical tips on navigating the decision-making process, you may just find that your life begins to move in a very different direction.

What makes decisions difficult?

  • What distinguishes an easy decision from a tough one? Most of us would likely agree on the following criteria:
  • Easy decisions often have only a few variables, making for “black and white” scenarios.
  • The outcomes of easy decisions are reasonably predictable.
  • Easy decisions are low-risk with mostly positive potential outcomes and minimal risk.

Tough decisions, by comparison, tend to have many moving parts and possible outcomes. They also typically break new ground, creating a sense of less certainty and greater risk.

Another key criterion that makes for tougher decisions is the emotion factor.

We often view decision-making as a logical process in which we ask questions, weigh up the options and likely outcomes, and make a choice, but the process rarely works like this in practice.

In reality, our emotions have a profound impact on most of the decisions we make and the outcomes we enjoy.

This can be seen in almost every aspect of our lives, from our finances to our romantic endeavours.

When you’re in a retail store changing room trying on an item of clothing you love – something that makes you feel more like the person you truly want to be – you’ll likely end up buying it, with little regard for the price tag or the match with your existing wardrobe.

In this situation, it’s easy to choose from the two options available – to buy or not to buy – based on the relatively low risk associated with the purchase and the anticipated feelings of confidence and fulfilment that will come as a result.

The trouble is, emotions don’t always make decision-making easy; in fact, powerful negative emotions like fear, grief, apathy, guilt and shame can make it almost impossible.

When these emotions are present, they lead to worry, procrastination, hesitation, and brain fog, and ultimately keep you from moving forward, no matter how simple and seemingly logical the decision may be.

Whenever you want to do something for yourself – for example, applying for a new job, trying a class or auditioning for a production – negative self-talk will try to keep you in a place of fear and shame, and ultimately prevent you from achieving your goal.

The best way to escape this space is to climb the ladder.

Your emotions in a nutshell: Dr David Hawkins’ ladder of consciousness

As mentioned above, fear, grief, apathy, guilt and shame are “low vibration” emotions, aptly situated on the bottom rungs of Dr David Hawkins’ ladder, as pictured below.

As long as these emotions are present in your mind, you will likely struggle to make the best decisions available to you – and it’s something to which none of us are immune.

Image: Dr Hawkins’ Levels of Consciousness overlaid with the Go-Getter’s Compass Achiever Archetypes

Let me give you an example.

I am confident in my intellect.  I love to learn, I have a strong mind, and I’m capable of finding solutions to complex problems that others may be unable to see – yet, there are times when I have stood in front of a mirror, unable to decide what to wear. 

It’s not because I’m stupid, or vain. It’s caused by the survival mechanism built into my brain.  

The human mind has layers to it. Those layers that have evolved in our more recent history – the prefrontal cortex, for example – allow us to handle complex thought processes. In this space, affectionately referred to as the “Primate Brain”, we make our most effective decisions.

There is also a section of the brain called the stem that is common to even the most primitive animals on Earth, earning it the nickname “Lizard Brain”.  It takes care of your most basic movement and survival functions, driving you to eat, sleep, seek safety and procreate. 

A third section of your mind, the thalamus, sits between the Big Brain and the Lizard Brain directing traffic. If it senses a threat – be it physical, mental or emotional – it shuts down the operations of the Primate Brain and pushes all the traffic into the Lizard Brain. 

Returning to the earlier analogy, when you are feeling happy and confident, selecting the most appropriate pair of shoes from a wardrobe is a no-brainer – but when fear is dominant, that dynamic changes.

Let’s say you are scheduled to make a speech in front of hundreds of people.

Naturally, you’d be feeling nervous in the lead-up to the presentation, the adrenaline pumping as you get dressed on the morning of. As you go to choose a pair of shoes from your wardrobe, you realise that this decision is much more important than the shoes themselves. Whatever you choose will contribute to your first impression of people who could determine the future of your career – and suddenly, it seems far more difficult to make the right choice.

High heels? No – you’ll look like you’re trying too hard, and what if you trip?

Flats? No! They look too informal.

Medium black heels? Too strict and ball-busting.

Your analytical brain goes into hyperdrive, each failed attempt to decide increasing the adrenaline and fear of failure, and eventually, the escalation trips the alarm in the thalamus, which then diverts all traffic from the “Primate Brain” into the “Lizard Brain”.

Image: When our brains sense a threat we are pushed into our “lizard brains”.

Then, one of two things happens.

Either:

1) A brain fog descends, leaving you feeling numb and incapable of deciding, and you stare at the mirror, feeling lost.

Or

2) You make a knee-jerk decision and grab at the first thing you see. This often results in a poor decision – something that’s the wrong colour or size – and leaves you berating yourself on the way to the event.

Neither scenario is desirable, but both are fairly universal human experiences. Fortunately, there’s one sure way to increase the likelihood of success: slow down the decision-making process.

The bottom line: never rush a tough decision

Having lived through that shoe scenario many times in my early career, I eventually learned that the best way to deal with the situation was to grab all the potential options and make the decision later.

Whenever I made the conscious decision to wait until the adrenaline had eased, my thalamus would send the message that the threat had passed and allow me to access my Primate Brain state once again. Then, the answer inevitably became more apparent, and I was able to make a decision I felt good about.

The bottom line in this story is that you should never rush decisions that aren’t ready to be made.

Here’s what to do instead:

1. When a decision feels difficult, start by examining your own emotions. You’ll likely find that you’re operating from the lower rungs of Hawkins’ ladder – and simply identifying this simple fact will set you on track to feeling better.

2. Work out a way to change the emotion before proceeding with the decision. Go for a walk or a run, listen to your favourite music, flick through a photo album of happy memories – do anything you can think of that will replace your negative emotion with something more positive.

3. Define the smallest possible decision. When you find yourself in these fight-or-flight states, it can be tempting to make a big decision and escape the discomfort but starting small allows you to break out of your mental stalemate and gain some momentum, one step at a time.

4. Set a timeline. Fear can often trigger knee-jerk decisions, a common flight response of the primal brain, but the decision may not be as urgent as it first seems. Consider whether you really need to decide right now, and if not, set yourself a realistic deadline.

5. Work out how you will make the decision. There’s no need to fly blind when you have a concrete process to fall back on, so decide how you will analyse your options and stick to them. This way, when outside pressures threaten to unravel your composure, you can count on your trusted, methodical approach to guide you toward the best possible outcomes.

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