Five Forgotten Rules of Decisions

[6-Minute Read + How-To's]Are you pondering a bold goal but still finding the courage to live it? Apply these decision rules and discover you are already brave enough to make your goal a reality.

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

Five Forgotten Rules of Decisions

Are you pondering a bold goal but still finding the courage to live it? Apply these decision rules and discover you are already brave enough to make your goal a reality.

There Are Effortless Decisions

Decisions should feel like you’re a leaf floating along a trickling mountain brook. The natural momentum of life carries you through the twists and bends of your choices. 

Wait, what?!?

Let’s end the day spa commercial right there.

Yes, that’s how decisions ‘should’ feel, and many decisions in our everyday lives flow effortlessly, most of the time.

  • Which side will I part my hair?
  •  Will I drink another coffee or switch it to water?
  •  Will I set the alarm for 6:30 am or 7 am?

You get the drift. 

These simple decisions occur with little or no resistance.  

When you practice these decisions frequently, they become automated, and you are no longer consciously aware that you are making them.

Then There Are Bold Decisions

At the other end of the spectrum are bold decisions, which seem more complex and higher risk.

  • Will I change careers?
  •  Will I ask for that pay rise?
  •  Will I move to a new country?
  •  Will I start a business?
  •  Will I share my opinions at the next team meeting?

I deliberately used the words “which seem more” because the difficulty of a decision is in the eyes of the decider.

You and I have very different perspectives, ethics and life experience, and those factors influence how we assess the complexity and risk of a decision. What may be a no-brainer to you can be a risk-ridden decision for me and have me spinning wheels for days, months or years.  

You’re not alone if you feel like your decisions are sometimes lacklustre and inefficient. Research from McKinsey & Co indicates that, on average, 61 per cent of business leaders use most of their decision-making time ineffectively. Among C-levels, 57 per cent say the same.

Sandy Suckling Tackled A Bold Decision

My mate Sandy Suckling had a bold decision to navigate. She secretly wanted to run 1100km (that’s 26 marathons!) in 21 days but hesitated to commit, fearing failure. (You can listen to Sandy’s story on the RAV podcast.)

Photo: Sandy Suckling at the start of her 1100km run.

Around 80% of people quit on their idea before they start. Of those who do start, most will stop before reaching their destination. I’m glad to report that Sandy proved the exception to the rule and, in April 2022, achieved her mission in 21 days.   

So what did Sandy do differently to the executives in McKinsey’s research and other people who fail to make effective decisions?

Rule 1. Decisions Are Stepping-Stones, Not End Points

When you write a plan to achieve a bold goal, you break down the outcome into progressive stages and tasks.

Decisions work the same way. You need to break a bold decision down into incremental steps if you want the decision process to be efficient and effective.

For example, Sandy didn’t make “the decision” to run 1100km. She made incremental decisions that progressed her toward her mind-blowing achievement. 

  1. Sandy had the idea and decided to talk to someone about it.
  2. Next, she decided to map out a possible route.
  3. When that seemed plausible, Sandy and her husband decided to jump in a car and drive the route.
  4. When they returned from that trip, Sandy decided she could do the run.
  5. Then a succession of decisions were made about her food, training, sleep, recovery, and medical care.
  6. On every day of her run, she made progressive decisions and dealt with problems as they emerged.

Can you see the chain of decisions occurring? Each one is a stepping-stone to the next.

That’s how I achieve all my major projects and bold goals; I tackle bold goals one small decision at a time.

Most people stall because they bundle many small decisions into one big decision and feel overwhelmed, or the risk feels too big.

Rule 2. Distil To Two Options

Neuroscience has shown that having only two choices leads to efficient decisions, and the rate of hesitation and disengagement dramatically increases with each additional option available. 

Use Rule 1 and Rule 2 together to set up an easier decision. 

Applying Rule 1, you know to break big decisions into smaller ones. Rule 2 says you have correctly sized the decision when you have only two options, such as:

  • Yes or no
  •  Stop or go
  •  Red pill or blue pill
  •  Will or won’t

Yesterday I asked a friend to share a decision she’s procrastinating about.

“Ahh,” she said. “I just don’t seem to be able to decide what to do about my career. I want to change what I am doing but…”

“What’s the decision you need to make?”, I asked.

“Will I stay in my current job or pursue a new life path.”

“That’s a heck of a big decision.”

“You’re telling me! That’s why I keep procrastinating about it. What if I screw up and regret it?”

I probed for further detail and discovered her biggest fear was keeping a roof over her head while studying for a new qualification. Whenever she thought about making the move, she felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being unable to support herself and shelved the idea.

We started by applying Rule 1 and breaking the big decision into smaller ones.

“Have you written a budget?”, I asked.

“No…”, she said.

I then applied Rule 1. “What would be the steps in writing a budget?”

“Well, firstly I’d need to write down my current expenses…”

At this point, I used Rule 2 and put two options on the table.

“Good one, will you do that? Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

She did it that afternoon.

It turns out the picture wasn’t as scary as she thought. What impact do you think that had on her momentum and mood?

Sandy Suckling had a similar experience working toward her goal of running 1100km. Their reconnaissance trip confirmed the route’s viability and put a binary decision in front of Sandy. 

Could she run it? Yes or no? 

She answered an indisputable yes. That decision proved to be the keystone in her progress.

“Once I decided that it was going to happen, I started putting the plan together. It was like a buzz feeling and the conversation changed to focus purely on logistics. I stopped thinking about it and started doing.”, said Sandy.

Rule 3. Effective Decisions Achieve Action

Unless a decision has degenerated into work, it is not a decision; it is, at best, a good intention.

Peter Drucker

Sandy also perfectly demonstrates the third rule of decisions.

Our decisions take us to a time and place in the future. It may be a forward, sideways or backward movement, but decisions move us.

I will lose weight isn’t an effective decision; it is an intention.

Choosing to eat an apple instead of an apple pie is a great decision.

Choosing to walk instead of catching the bus is another outstanding decision.

Choose to walk away. Choose to start again. Choose to do research.

You see how it flows; effective decisions innately involve action. If your decisions aren’t taking you somewhere, you’re likely not deciding.

Rule 4. Own Your Decision

Rule 4 moves onto some sensitive ground.

If selflessness is a dominant behaviour for you or you prefer blending in rather than separating from the crowd, you will struggle to make bold decisions.

Let’s return to my girlfriend, who is considering a career change.

She is a selfless woman. She loves folding everyone into her family, always puts the needs of others first, and consults widely about everything. 

For example, buying a simple item like a T-shirt involves:

  • Asking the shop attendant’s opinion
  • Sending photos to friends for their thoughts
  • and ultimately getting a friend to decide for her. 

Most people wouldn’t consider buying a T-shirt a bold decision, but this friend has turned it into one. 

Group Think is the same behaviour in a work or group context. The fear of separation and its consequences can drive a person to consult widely and then outsource the decision to the group. That is, they go along with what others want to do. 

In these examples, decisions get made, but they are ineffective for two reasons.

#1 The decision is unlikely to progress you toward your bold goal.

Sandy is fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly supportive people who back her 100% when she says she is keen to achieve a bold goal. However, in many other situations, the self-interest of others would likely pull you away from what you want to achieve.  

#2 You’re unlikely to execute your decision well if you don’t own it.

Sandy also 100% owned her decision. She consulted widely but made the decision alone. When you fully and publically commit to a decision, you will do what’s necessary to achieve the outcome. Outsourcing the decision to others gives your mind wiggle room.

Consider these questions if you struggle to own your decisions.

  • Can the decision be broken down into stepping stones?
  • What are the actions that could come from the decision?
  • Of those actions, which ones are within your control to implement?
  •  What is the right thing to do rather than the acceptable one?

These questions will likely prompt you to do more research and refine your understanding of the decision. Keep working until the decision reaches a point where you feel confident to decide independently.

Rule 5. Write Your Rationale

Why the heck did I decide to do that?

What was I thinking?

Why did it look like a good idea at the time?

If you second-guess your decisions, you’ll benefit from remembering Rule 5. 

Decisions are ultimately trade-offs between options. There are upsides and downsides whichever way you go. Some decisions will work well, and others will belly-flop. 

Whatever the outcome, you will progress toward your bold goal if you learn from the experience. Recording the rationale for your decision is essential as it will enable you to reflect on why you made a particular choice. 

Reading your notes in moments of doubt will strengthen your conviction and commitment to see things through.

When the decision has played out, those notes will also provide helpful insight into what worked, what didn’t and how you could improve next time. 

After all, learning is the cornerstone of achieving any bold decision or goal. If you can learn from each step, you will reach your destination no matter how rugged the mountains ahead. 

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

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