Problem Solving and Decision-Making

Making Good Decisions

Many articles on making better decisions simply suggest that more time, more organisation and taking a balanced and systematic approach will make huge differences in the quality of outcomes you can expect. This may well be the case but the problem is that adult humans make 35,000 decisions every day, according to the authors Barbara Sahakian and Jamie LaBuzetta in their Book “Bad Moves: How decision making goes wrong”. 

Some of these decisions are tiny ones like ‘do you feel thirsty’? Some are significant ones like ‘what shall I focus on today’? They all need to be weighed up in the mind so the decision you end up with is the best one. 

Sahakian and LeBuzetta go on to say that making decisions is such a regular activity that it is mostly taken for granted, but mental biases can dramatically affect whether or not we get the decision-making right. In other words, the vast majority of our decisions occur at an almost sub-conscious and emotional level and we may therefore have decided or acted (rightly or wrongly) without even being aware of the extremely fast mental evaluation process. For example, in response to an individual cutting into the car lane in front of us we may automatically trigger a response decision like hitting the car horn, shouting or even driving your own vehicle aggressively which are not exactly the best decisions in the circumstances. This is quite different from the usually much slower and much more reflective decision-making process of weighing several alternatives and reflecting on the quality of the possible options. Deciding what colour to paint the walls of your living room is a quiet and considered decision-making process for most people. In this case our more biased and emotional response is present but moderated by the time to be reflective and any bias is thereby mitigated.

Although the authors spend the latter part of their book looking at brain bias under stress conditions, they usefully introduce the concept of ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ decision making based on the level of emotions involved, showing that various mental approaches can significantly alter the pattern of decision-making, especially in these “hot” decisions. In this classification system, the car lane example is a hot decision and the colour with which to paint the walls is a cold decision. The “trick” then for great decision-making is to pay more attention to the “hot” decisions in order to allow the slower and much more evaluative rational “cold” processes in our brain to kick in. The more that we can consciously try to do this, the more we will be able to make a wiser choice and know why we are choosing to act in the way that we do.

So what process can we try to use more of the time? In another book called “Decisive”, Chip and Dan Heath suggest that we use the WRAP acronym. This stands for:

  • Widen your options
  • Reality Test your Assumptions
  • Attain distance before deciding
  • Prepare to be wrong (or at least consider it before finally deciding)

While we may not be able to apply these steps to many of the 35,000 decisions we make each day, we can try to apply them to the ones that are most important to us.

 Related Resources

Problem Solving & Decision Making Profile (PDF)

Problem Solving: Skill Builder Booklet  (PDF)

Problem Solving Storyboard (PDF)

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