The Art of Decision Making

Understanding and tips for making important decisions

A picture of a woman trying to solve a problem with lines with arrows extending from her mind with ? and x or ? and ! marks.
Deciding — from Canva by Tsuji from Getty images Signature.

Choosing the best options

During our day-to-day lives, many choices and decisions need making or are made from when we are out of bed to when sleep comes at night. On some nights, there may be little sleep with tossing and turning, with a momentary escape into anxiety dreams or nightmares; the disturbing racing thoughts in the brain are often about an undecided quandary between two choices or worrying about the outcome of a decision already made.

Though we often seek to know the benefits or risks of any option, when crucial decisions or choices are required, it is impossible to know the best direction to take with certainty. Is it possible to have a system where a decision will always be right? Would a balance sheet show a preponderance of wise choices and helpful decisions if we use the best tools?

Reflecting on my own life experience, I realize that by nature, the culture I grew up in, my genetics, and my ways of processing information are perhaps more analytical, intellectual, and perfectionistic. There is always the possibility of gaining flexibility, at least I hope, to learn new ways and skills, especially for better decision-making. Of course, I’d like to believe that my natural propensities and decision-making skills have served me well in my professional work and in assisting others. Ultimately, there will never be an absolute judge of decisions other than what comes from one’s own experience, reflections, or response from others. But hopefully, whatever the outcome, one will move on with acceptance and grace. A choice brings a sense of success or accomplishment, with a boost in self-esteem.

A graphic made from words related to decision making as a split arrow going in two different directions

The challenge and opportunity in decision making. Designed with/from Canva.

Recently, with the aging and maturing of my body, important options had to be considered. The first was my eyes, which have slowly developed cataracts with diminishing vision. As it is a slowly progressive condition, there is much time to ponder what to do and when to act. With my research and analytic mind, I examined my medical professional years and remembered experiences. I realized how biased and tainted my consideration was from my judgments and formed opinions. The next step was to read everything I felt was from a reputable source and then consult with an optometrist and an ophthalmologist as my condition progressed over several years. Along the way, I discussed with family members and friends who had had corrective cataract surgery about their experience.

As things progressed, I moved ahead with further evaluation from my eye doctor, who had an excellent reputation in our area and whom I trusted and liked their “bedside manner.” So, many factors went into my decision to do the corrective surgery, including overcoming my fears about the outcome and costs and giving up my planned activities. For example, I had qualified this year to swim in the senior state games and next to swim in the national senior games, which I had been preparing for the previous year. Anyway, if I did swim, I might have with poor vision, literally “hit the wall,” not in the phrase’s sense, of getting past obstacles to reach peak performance. Nonetheless, I decided to get the correction done as good vision is vital to me regarding my well-being and performance in my day-to-day activities.

From the personal, let’s look at the political spectrum, where every day in the news is a discussion, sometimes heated, as how a prominent political figure such as a senator or supreme court justice could make such a profound decision to affect the lives of so many. Trying to figure out how they got to a place of authority and power over others is always a prominent issue. Then there is a look at what influenced their decision, as their affiliations and the needed support of their base, especially if re-election is an issue or who finances their campaigns. The type of education, family, and culture that influence them is always of interest on which to speculate. So, decision-making can be studied and viewed from many levels, from the mundane to the profound. Decisions can range from what to do in the next moment to what may affect your immediate life and safety. A choice may have global significance affecting large populations, as seen in the climate change issue.

The limitations in the quest for the perfect solution

We all are markedly limited in our human capabilities to know anything close to absolute truth or actual reality, so decision-making in most circumstances is complex, to say the least. Our brain somewhat processes incoming information and sensory data as a binary computer. Experiences and knowledge are registered and remembered as a plus or minus, yes or no, black or white, safe or dangerous, rewarding or punishing. Of course, the cognitive/mental system is much more complex and a sophisticated field of study for neuroscientists. But our brain and nervous system is built to compute and register the qualities and characteristic of external impression and is the critical tool in choice making. Unfortunately, the brain’s accumulated data over years of experience is from the limited exposure to things in a particular individual’s living space.

Some exceptional people appear to be brilliant in always making the correct choices. Usually, on closer examination, those who believe themselves to be clever in this way or others who claim that they are always right in their choice-making often fail to see the areas where they will frequently err. Their wisdom and perceptiveness often fall short in those who claim superior decision-making capability. Being fallible, gullible, and short-sighted is a part of human nature and our limitations. The norm for most is to have bias or opinions when it comes to most things. Much always depends on a person’s established database of knowledge and experience with a level of arrogance that often rejects others’ thoughts on any given subject.

The inclusive approach to decision making

An inclusive approach to decision-making occurs when an individual opens and accepts a broader array of information from the experience, perspectives, and knowledge of others, including the technologies available today. So common sense would make it clear that tapping into others’ experiences will give a larger field of information and perspective. Being discerning and careful in choosing a source of knowledge may help avoid incorrect, biased, misleading, or false information.

Being inclusive in decision-making means getting past one’s biases and being open to outside sources of knowledge. A mind that has become timid, reluctant, inflexible, and stuck in its reasoning, loses its ability to be inclusive or open. There may be many contributors to a narrow and exclusive mindset in its decision-making process. Examples might be an individual living with the disadvantage of poverty and discrimination where there is no access or the ability to get needed information and resources. Exposure to trauma or abusive and neglectful early family life can likewise thwart development. Developmentally disadvantaged people or those with a more isolative nature can also be hindered in choices because of the lack of resources, resourcefulness, and prejudice.

The world of computers has been an excellent tool for modern people as an accumulator of knowledge and data processing. Even with all the advantages of computer technology and groups of people working together, we remain faced with the daunting reality that we cannot know or find absolute truth or wisdom to make a dependable and correct decision.

Decision-making when limitations and uncertainty prevail

So even with the most advanced tools available to individuals or groups, there must be an acceptance of uncertainty with the complexities and unknowns surrounding us. Therefore, decisions and life choices have always to be made with a certain degree of humility. A decision, at its best, will only approximate the ultimate, unknowable, perfect determination.

However, with the gained experience from individual life in harmony with others’ knowledge, wisdom, and experience, the opportunity always existed to gain the upper hand in making wise discernment and choices. Individuals with advanced tools and research skills can produce more favorable decisions, working alone or in a team effort.

Working together as a team or in a relationship has more significant potential for successful choices and constructive decisions. So, dialogue trumps monologue, where one is operating out of personal thinking and imagining. Working in a complementary relationship gives an advantage over being caught up in one’s isolative inner narrative, struggling to come up with suitable decisions. Making mistakes is an essential factor in learning. When less desirable or wrong choices happen, a learning opportunity is created, contributing to better future decision-making.

There is always a strong need for certainty and the truth in matters of choice. The need to not err is more potent for some than others. The requirement may be more significant in those with more fear of the unknown, fear of harm, or ending up in a worse situation. These fears may be more substantial if related to past trauma and losses. When the need or search for the correct understanding or choice is more significant, so is the pitfall more precarious for grabbing on to something that is misinformation, propaganda, or deceptive communications,

Getting uncaught from indecisiveness

Getting caught in the “double-blind” or “paralysis by analysis” or stuck in indecisiveness occurs with overdoing research or listening to too many people. A person in an abusive relationship can be frozen in the ambivalence of whether to stay or leave, even if life itself is at risk. As there are always consequences in any action, careful deliberation is necessary with oneself, significant others, and outside help when possible.

The timely essence of deciding and moving into action is influenced by the circumstance’s urgency, need, or degree of importance. A decision and action then occur, even if there are persistent doubts, trepidation, or uncertainty. Ideally, there is an acceptance of the choice and any resulting consequences. Or as well said by therapist and writer Rachael Varchetto of the Primum Non Nocere Substack newsletter, decision-making from a pragmatic therapist’s point of view “comes down to accepting a certain amount of risk and balancing prudence with experience, and living with what happens.”

When getting deeper into emotional or mental health issues and feeling stuck, hopeless, or helpless, seek necessary mental health services, such as a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.1,2

TIPS

  1. Remember to move from the inner mind’s experience, fears, opinions, and concerns to seeking outside information and perspective from trusted friends, family, and sources such as reading material, online research, and experts, for your decision-making process.
  2. Accept that even with the best approach to making a selection, your expectations or desired outcome may fall short or fail in terms of your expectations. Usually, failure is a part of learning and developing better ways of making future decisions.
  3. You can better step out of your self-imposed inner world of biases, conflicts, fears, and mental entrapment to experience a greater perspective and a more comprehensive range of possibilities. Develop your mindfulness skills and awareness capacity to better cope and find alternatives. Stay in touch with the larger perspective to help with your challenges.
  4. Learn skills to tap into your more profound inner truth and wisdom, as with mindfulness and meditation. Strive for more flexibility and openness to the help and guidance from experienced others.
  5. Tap into the wisdom of present or past wise teachers, guides from your religious heritage, and honored teachers from other cultures and traditions.1,2
  6. Never feel intimidated or inferior to anybody else when it comes to choosing, as everyone has their gifts and the right to make a personal decision. Anyone can be disadvantaged in certain situations, so always stay aware when this occurs and be prepared to make adjustments or changes to the extent possible.
  7. Get outside mental health help when stuck or possibly headed toward a mental or emotional breakdown.
  8. Be adaptable, loving, and helpful to yourself and others when challenging times arise.3

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Ron Parks

Ron Parks

Ron Parks, MD, is a physician, consultant, a writer in integrative psychiatry, holistic medicine, and healthcare.