A friend recently asked me how I make decisions so quickly. It wasn’t a criticism about a choice I had made but a genuine desire to understand my thought process. And it wasn’t the first time I was admired for (or perhaps accused of) being decisive. In fact, decision making is an essential skill for any competent leader. What follows is an introduction to how I evaluate a choice and ultimately arrive at a decision.

Now I will share this up front; not all decisions are simple, and not all decisions are quick. In fact, the amount of time spent making a decision varies based on several variables including urgency, importance, information, experience, and, surprisingly, instinct. Yes, your gut can tell you a lot about a choice.

I will also point out that this article won’t tell you how to make the right decisions. If you want that type of fairy dust, find a state where it’s legal. It will, however, describe my approach to making an actual decision.

Is it urgent?

Urgency is my initial consideration, how quickly do I need to make the decision? If I’m forced to choose now, instinct takes over, completely ignoring both information and experience. Fortunately, experience influences our impulses, so often this works out in our favor.

More often than not, luckily, that sense of urgency is nothing more than a feeling. The decision isn’t urgent. And in most cases, slowing down and going through a complete decision-making process is the best approach. When I don’t know enough to make an informed decision, I’ll take time to gather more information, or in some cases more experience, which then helps me make a better choice. It doesn’t always mean it will be the right choice, but at least it isn’t one hastily chosen without sufficient knowledge.

Is it important?

Everyone makes a multitude of decisions each day, most of which fall into the unimportant category. Unimportant choices usually only affect me, and by that fact alone aren’t worth a moment of thought. For example, choosing an Americano instead of drip coffee involves just me and the barista. So not important.

Important decisions, however, are worthy of careful thought and consideration using every bit of my knowledge and experience. And the importance of that decision is almost directly related to the number of people affected by it.

Another aspect of importance is the degree of risk associated with the decision. If the degree of risk is small, the significance of the decision itself is low. However, that degree of risk is variable, and it can change over time.

When making an important decision that could affect others, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of including everyone who may be affected by the decision early on in the decision-making process. Some decisions may seem personal, but if you have to tell others your decision, it’s very likely that they’ll be affected by your ultimate choice.

Is it something I want?

When I want something, the desire to have it becomes the driving force in any decisions related to getting it. And that compulsion silences any logic in the decision-making process. My choices become biased towards getting what I want, and by refusing to acknowledge and adequately consider the risks, this emotionally fueled decision may push me to minimize or likely even ignore potentially significant consequences.

Recognizing that I am making an emotional decision is a crucial step, as I can then reintroduce logic going forward. At that point, and with a clear head, I can use my knowledge and experience to measure risk accurately, identify benefits, and raise concerns. It doesn’t mean that I’m unbiased, I still want it, but I’m no longer acting purely on emotion.

The challenge is that most of the significant decisions we make involve things we want. Whether it’s a new car, a job promotion, a fitness goal, or a trip to the beach, wanting something usually leads to making choices.

Watch for rough spots!

Even when I think I’ve made the right decision, there may be challenges down the road. A variable can change (duh, that’s why they’re called variables) leading to an unexpected constraint that impacts the original decision. By acknowledging this possibility, I may defer aspects of the decision until a later time when more information might be available.

Minimize confusion

Choice can significantly influence decision making, especially when there are numerous options available. Too many options can create confusion and become overwhelming. It is in these moments that having a list, such as a core set of attributes, values, or goals, which can be used to evaluate each option is invaluable. This knowledge can be combined with experience and weighed against previous decisions to assist in making the right choice. In some cases, I’ve already made a choice, and this exercise is purely for validation, to reassure myself that I have indeed made the right decision.

Minimize decisions

It takes time and energy to make decisions and being forced to make too many of them can be exhausting. And when I’m exhausted, the last thing I want to do is make a choice.

For example, after a long bicycle ride, I nearly always end up at Chipotle and order my standard post-ride meal. I usually pick it up on the way home to avoid reaching for whatever I have on hand (which is often M&M’s, or ice cream, or both). Why the routine? Because it is easy, it’s consistent, it’s quick, and I rarely have to wait in line, which means I don’t have time to think about options (like their new queso, yuck).

Okay, so there is a dark consequence of this lifestyle. It can cause endless confusion when presented with a menu at an unfamiliar restaurant, leading to a complete inability to decide what to eat which annoys the hell out of the people around you. Particularly in line at the counter. At lunchtime.


I hope you found this useful; I spent a lot of time editing it, removing sections, rewriting paragraphs, and eliminating topics entirely. In fact, I probably made way too many decisions putting it together, the last of which was whether or not even to post it once I finished it. Apparently, if you’re reading it now, I chose to post it. Duh.