The tool you need when you face a tough decision

From the baby’s room to the bagel shop to the board room, we’re bombarded by thousands of decisions each day. And if we’re female and bear the brunt of the mental load, add at least another few hundred to that total.

With all of the choice-making that we’re doing, it’s no wonder that our brains are fried. We spend so much time deciding what to work on, how long to microwave our coffee, where to put their shoes so they can find them, what gift to buy our niece, and so on… that when it comes to the more significant decisions, we’re left feeling stuck.

Worse than stuck, even. Conflicted. Frustrated. Anxious. Overwhelmed. And no closer to the direction we want to take.

There is an important framework that I teach in our Elevate program for women leaders that help in times of tough decision-making, whether that’s about which next role to take or how to respond to a difficult person.

This is an idea developed by Annie Duke, cognitive scientist turned world-renowned poker champion. Let me share it with you…

Traditionally we think of decisions as a guess at a correct answer. “I hope I make the right decision,” we fret. We consider the decision to be almost a test of our ability to make decisions. Even when we know that our choices all have merit and that we various approaches could work out, we still want to find what we consider to be the best one.

This approach, unfortunately, just doesn’t fit most of the decision contexts that we’re in. If we’re told that there are two milk jugs, one of which is sour and the other of which is fresh, then there is a right answer. We want to use all of our powers of reasoning to figure out which is better.

But most of our decisions don’t have a right answer, or even a more right answer. Because we’ll never know the road not taken.

So instead of like taking a multiple choice test, our decision-making framework is more like placing a bet on a hand of poker. We’re putting our money on the hand we have, being completely unaware of what hands other people have or what’s coming up in the deck. In other words, there’s uncertainty and risk.

In the end, we bet on our hand based on some information, but we can never have all the information we would need if our goal was to make the perfect decision.

Most of our decisions in life are like this. We have some information available to us, but there are a million unknowns. We can’t peek into the future and there’s a ton of risk.

So there’s what we know and then, just like in poker, there is luck. As humans, we don’t like the concept of luck because our brains want things to be rational. They want things to add up and make sense, and the reality is that they don’t, because we could never account for every variable.

Thus, the formula is: our bet (our best guess based on the info we have) plus+ our luck = the outcome.

If we make a decision, let’s say to change preschools or to go with the bigger storefront for our business, and it doesn’t turn out, it’s not that it was a bad decision. It might have been an excellent bet. But we can’t control luck (the new administrator that takes over the school or who moves in next door to our shop). And that means, really good decisions can still have really disappointing outcomes. 

So how does this framework help with decision making?

First, it gives us a framework. We can acknowledge that there is a portion of the outcome that is within our control — the quality of our bet. We can focus our energy on enhancing the quality of our bet by gathering the right information and pressure testing our assumptions.

And second, it helps us recognize that even our best bets will sometimes be subject to bad luck. How does this help? Well, it takes some of the pressure off. When I can stop believing that the outcomes of my decisions always equate to how well I made the decision, it actually frees me up to make a better decision. Ironically, acknowledging the role of luck helps us become less tied up in anxiety and stress.  

So when you approach your next decision, look at it like you are placing a bet — because you are.

Like all the best gamblers, you’ll need to work on getting comfortable with uncertainty and risk and be willing to step into the arena even when you can be certain of the outcome.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

2 thoughts on “The tool you need when you face a tough decision”

  1. What luck for me that you would post this as I am having difficulty with some very big decisions I’ll need to make over the next 2 weeks. Love the perspective and hoping it’ll take some weight off my shoulders. ? Thanks!

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