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How Do You Make Decisions?


Chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Vacation in the mountains or by the ocean? Getting married or remaining single? We make numerous decisions in any given 24 hour period. Some seem inconsequential, like whether to have oatmeal or cold cereal for breakfast, while others are monumental, such as determining which college to attend or job to apply for.

There was a time when I was described as being like “a deer caught in the headlights when it came to making a decision.” The reason was that I was afraid of making the wrong choice that could have direct consequences on my life and those of others. As a result, at times, I did nothing and allowed for the chips to fall where they may and then felt powerless and ineffective in both personal and professional realms. Procrastination played a role as I delayed making choices until the last moment and then felt a sense of panic and “uh oh, now what?”

It was an endless loop tape that replayed a message of failure. It was when I took a symbolic sharp knife and sliced through it that I could record a new message. One that spoke of confidence and a sense of certainty that I had the capacity to choose wisely. Instead of thinking of myself as a go-to problem solver, I became a resolute solutions finder.

Standing at the Crossroads

There are times when we might feel like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, suspended on the pole at the intersection of the Yellow Brick Road, as Dorothy ponders which way to travel. He points to both directions as if he isn’t sure himself.  “Are you doing that on purpose or can’t you make up your mind?” He tells her that he can’t do so, because he doesn’t have a brain. The good news is that humans do have thinking and discerning equipment that when tapped can make positive and productive decisions.

Formulating a win-win

In their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath present this wisdom, “Any time in life you’re tempted to think, ‘Should I do this OR that?’ instead, ask yourself, ‘Is there a way I can do this AND that?’ It’s surprisingly frequent that it’s feasible to do both things.”

It is when we attempt to limit our choices that we often feel hesitant to step forward. What if we became possibilities thinkers? Beyond being an optimist, I refer to myself as an Opti-Mystic who views the world through the eyes of possibility.

When my now adult son was a child and was asked which of two flavors of ice cream he preferred, his honest response was, “I’ll have both of each.”

Step Back

Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo in Canada and Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan conducted a study in which they asked participants to imagine two scenarios; one in which their partner was having an affair and the other in which a friend’s partner was unfaithful. They were then asked to complete a questionnaire about choices involved. The outcome was predictable. The further the distance from the experience, the wiser the counsel.

10/10/10 Tool

One effective decision making tool was invented by Suzy Welch, a business writer for publications such as Bloomberg Businessweek and O magazine. She refers to it as  10/10/10, and highlights the technique in her book of the same name. To use 10/10/10, she suggests considering our decisions on three different time frames:

  • How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now?
  • How about 10 months from now?
  • How about 10 years from now?

Seven Generation Thinking

In many Native American traditions, the concept of Seven Generations is central. People are asked how their choices will impact the next seven generations and the sustainability of the planet for their benefit. Sadly, many people only consider how their decisions enhance their own lives.

Overcoming Cognitive Biases

In an article entitled “20 cognitive biases that screw up your decisions, authors Samantha Lee and Shana Lebowitz explain the impact of pre-conceived notions on the choices we make. Some of them include:

Bandwagon effect:  Believing in information because others do

Confirmation bias: Taking in data that validates what one already accepts as truth

Ostrich effect:  Burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring what is evident

Placebo effect: If someone believes something will work, then it has a greater likelihood of doing so

Determining decisions:

  • Do your homework so you can be an informed decision maker.
  • Get clear on your personal values.
  • Run through a pro-con list and cost-benefit analysis.
  • Ask yourself what the wisest part of yourself would do..
  • Fast forward in your imagination to see a possible outcome (best and worst).
  • Write about the options in a journal.
  • Know that not making a decision IS a decision.
  • Check in with trusted advisors and confidants.
  • Don’t overthink things, remembering that there comes a time when the cake is baked.
  • Sometimes you have to trust your gut and let your intuition and instincts lead.
  • Be willing tomake mistakes and learn from them.
  • What if you really couldn’t get it wrong?
  • Avoid analysis paralysis.
  • Let go of ineffective patterns that led decisions in your past.
  • What worked and what didn’t work back then?
  • Do your best not to second guess.
  • Forgive yourself for poor or ill advised choices.
  • No decision is cast in stone. Know that you can always change your mind.
  • Consider how your decisions will impact on you, those closest to you and the world in general.
  • Ask yourself if your choices are in alignment with your personal values or if you are selling out.
  • Think outside the box. Sometimes the most outrageous ideas turn out to be the most successful.
  • Take leaps of faith.
  • Set a deadline for decision making, rather than continuing to put it off.
  • Imagine the relief you will experience once the decision is made.
  • Take the action steps and follow through on your choices.

Alhtough it is not scientifically valid, when in doubt, you can always use the eenie meenie miny mo method.

How Do You Make Decisions?

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2016). How Do You Make Decisions?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Dec 2016
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