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Updated: May 8, 2021

Making Choices

There is a strong case for saying we are all adapt at making choices, since right from our earliest age, we have grown up naturally making choices, often without given them much thought. What is probably most important is whether or not the outcomes of the choice we made are the ones we anticipated: did we make a good or bad decision.

So the better question to ask is not ‘how to make a choice’, but ‘how to make a good choice’, which essentially boils down to decision making?

Given the enormous breadth of context in which decisions are made on a daily basis, from commerce, health care, career progressions, marriage, finance, personal relationships, investments, etc, the topic predictably has been extensively researched and published. In addition, is it not surprising that decision making skills are always high on the list of qualities sort by employers when recruiting for staff.

From a personal development perspective John Hammond, author of Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions, makes clear the importance of a consistent approach to decision making…

“Despite the importance of decision making to our lives, few of us ever receive any training in it. So we are left to learn from experience. But experience is a costly, inefficient teacher that teaches us bad habits along with good ones.”

Whilst John Hammond’s PrOACT approach is recognised as a sound and solid approach, other models offer additional insights about how to develop other decision making processes that effectively meet a range of practical needs.

“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions.”

— Jim Rohn

Decide to Decide

The irony is that sometimes you need to make a decision to make the decision. Make the choice to sit down and resolve the problem you are thinking about: be clear that the end goal will be that you have made a decision!

This is different from sitting and thinking about the problem – since if you were able to solve the problem, you probably would have by now. But you haven’t, so decide to stop, sit down and go through the decision making process in order to make a decision.

Be clear about what you are trying to decide: define the problem

The start point to the process is often trying to define the actual problem,

‘If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.’ — Albert Einstein

Whether or not you agree with his ratios, the point is well made that at the start of the process, time and attention needs to be devoted to actually defining what the problem, as opposed to rushing off and finding solutions. The quality of the resulting solution will be directly related to the quality of the definition of the problem that is being solved. This often where working with a performance coach can make a significant difference. They know that exploring the intended outcome and the currently reality in sufficient depth is an invaluable part of the process associated with coming up with possible ways forward.

This is often easier than it sounds, but it is well worth getting right, particularly in the context of managing a difficult conversation, where time might be an issue – and cannot be wasted! There are various ways to make this process easier:

Consider reframing the problem to make it more applicable and accessible

The question, “How can you make yourself happy?” is very broad and hard to quantify. However, “What do you most enjoy doing? is not only more specific, it is emotionally more engaging. By being creative and rewording the actual problem statement to include attractive, engaging and potentially more motivational words of phrases, it is possible to increase the likelihood of the outcomes being the ones you want.

We view problems in our own unique way and in doing so make a considerable number of assumptions that are probably inaccurate, invalid or not relevant. As a consequence we end writing problem statements that are inaccurate or misleading. Writing these assumptions down and challenging them, not only clarifies the actual problem, they enable you to complete a reality check so that many are crossed off, leaving you with a clearer understanding of what you are trying to achieve.

From a teaching point of view, you might assume that you have to meet the challenge of setting differentiated homework: asking students what they would find challenging will offer a different perspective on the problem.

Take the holistic view

Consider a problem as part of a jigsaw; it is part of the whole. Moving away from a very narrow focus on detail, can help you consider it from a wider more general perspective

Apply a focus

Reverse the jigsaw idea, especially if the overall situation is overwhelming. Each problem is usually part of a larger issue, so examining individual pieces can provide insight into what the problem is all about.

Think about how others would view the problem

Before finding a solution, consider the problem from an alternative and wider set of perspectives. This not only presents new and unique aspects, but it will probably present issues that have been overlooked. So how would a parent view this, a work colleague, a manager, a student, or an external agency?

Consider how the problem is being constructed.

Our use of language presents many challenges, so consider the actual words used in the framing of the problem in order to open up more possibilities. Start the problem statement with

“What are the different ways that I could…”

Which offers more potential solutions than: “How could I…”

The question format also serves to stimulate the mind.

Emphasise the positive. Negative expressions produce negative thinking. Positive statements help more investigative thinking and improve motivation. E.g. not, I want to lose weight, but I want to look my best.

Apply the other side of the ‘construct’

Simply consider the problem the other way round.

If you want improve your personal effectiveness when managing time, sit down and identify what you do to waste time. The answers you get may be self-evident, however, they suddenly become obvious allowing us to see the wood from the trees.

Find the unknown unknowns

Often there are clear reasons why we haven’t solved a problem – we might simply not know enough about it. So go digging for details, investigate causes, histories, so that you understand the problem better – which is probably more productive than trying to solve it. Find out what you don’t know about it by being curious, ask others about what they think, both the people who are related to the problem and those who are not.

Investigate causes and circumstances of the problem. Probe details about it — such as its origins and causes. Especially if you have a problem that’s too vague, investigating facts is usually more productive than trying to solve it right away.

A problem identified (properly) is problem half solved

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