Making Hard Decisions Easy

by Ben Holt on March 2, 2012

I was recently asked why I thought that many people are afraid to make hard decisions.

I replied with this email:

Speaking just from my own experiences, the fear comes mainly from the potential for irrecoverable loss. It could be real (opportunity cost) or just perceived (fear of failure, ridicule, scarcity, etc.). This seems to match up with what I hear others saying, so it may be fairly common.

I’ve found that I work best when I simply acknowledge the fear for what it is, clarify my purpose and thinking, then move forward. And it gets easier each time :-)

Does this fit with your experiences?

As much truth as I find in that, it brought my mind to a number of other reasons why we often fail to make and commit to innovative, provocative, or imaginative decisions.

Whenever I’ve found it difficult to commit to a decision, I find one of these factors at work:

  • Lack of imagination – I’m blind to new possibilities.
  • Lack of information – I’m blind to trends, my needs, or the needs of my audience.
  • Lack of clarity in purpose and thinking – the less clear I am about my purpose, the more paralyzed I feel.
  • The inertia; the status quo – “If it ain’t broke…”
  • Fear of irrecoverable loss – a far bigger motivator that we realize, but nearly always unfounded

Once I recognize which of these is at work in my particular situation, it gets much easier to deal with.

Think About Great Ideas

The first three – a lack of imagination, information, and clarity – are simple to remedy. It may take time and effort, but I think the solution is relatively simple: think about how you think. Called meta-cognition, thinking about thinking leads to interesting insights about our motivations, the clarity of our purpose and planning, and where the holes in our knowledge exist.

More and more, I try to expose myself to people who exemplify great ideas, great creativity, and great clarity of purpose. Here are two ways I’m doing this right now:

I’ve recently started a project to read through my collection of books – 56 or so volumes, mainly non-fiction – in about 28 weeks. The pile includes classic works, autobiographies, and best-sellers. (I had over 300 books, but in keeping with my ongoing work to declutter, I sold, donated, or recycled most of those.)
I’m finding examples of incredible people and emulating them. I don’t mean I’m seeking the exact results they get (e.g., owning a computer company or landing on the moon), but rather their ways of thinking and approaching situations.

I’ve also learned that abstract, big-pitcure thinking, while valuable, does lead to difficulty in making decisions and taking action. I now deliberately set aside time each week to do concrete work: plans, agendas, designs, outlines, etc. The resulting boost in my creative output has been astounding.

The last two – the inertia of the status quo and having a “scarcity” mindset – need a different approach to deal with.

The status quo is all about comfort zones.

There’s nothing wrong with staying in our comfort zones, but our options in life will be severely limited. For those who want to find more meaning in life, discomfort is the universal barrier to entry. It’s a major contributor to procrastination and a big – possibly the biggest – reason why most people don’t get what they want out of life.

Breaking free of our comfort zones is a topic that is both broad and deep. Other writers have already expounded on this far better than I could, so I’ll leave these thoughts that work for me:

  1. start small
  2. take gradual steps
  3. be deliberate and consistent
  4. celebrate every success

There’s the effective recipe for any personal change.

Dealing with the Fear of Irrecoverable Loss

Being human, we face a fairly universal mental block: we fear that we’ll lose what we have and not be able to gain it back again.

In some ways, this is true. Opportunity cost affects us with every passing minute. Every decision we make cuts off the possibility of doing something else at the same moment. Every dollar spent can’t be spent again. This is not a problem, just part of life – though it can present a challenge for those of us who want to do or have everything.

No, the real problem is our mind’s exaggerated expectation of potential loss. Studies show that human decisions are far more influenced by the expectation of loss or pain (fear) than by expectations of pleasure or gain (hope). This is simply part of the human condition and, once recognized and accepted, can be worked with.

I’ve found and used a number of techniques for trying to understand and pick apart this type of fear. The best that I’ve found, by far, is the one presented by Tim Ferriss in his best-selling book, The 4 Hour Workweek: fear-setting.

(A bit of trivia: Tim’s book has a bunch of “Comfort Challenges”, which were the original inspiration for the name of my first website, Simple Challenges. I still pick up and take on Tim’s challenges from time to time.)

Defining Your Fear = Conquering Your Fear

If you haven’t read the book (and I recommend that you do), here’s a quick summary of fear-setting:

Having in mind some action you fear taking, imagine the absolute worst possible negative outcome of taking it. Describe it in intense detail.
What steps could you take to recover from this worst-case scenario?
Now, on a 1-10 scale, how likely is that outcome? How permanent is it?
Now imagine the absolute best-case scenario. Describe it in delightful, colorful detail.
How would this outcome effect your life? Again, describe in extreme detail.
On a 1-10 scale, How likely and permanent is this outcome?

For most reasonably intelligent and capable people, the negative outcome is neither very likely nor permanent, while the exact inverse is true for the positive outcome. In addition, even if you only get 20% of your best-case, you’re still better off than you were before taking action.

I like this method. It appeals to my logical side on one hand, while the detailed, vivid imagery easily wins over my lizard brain. Imagining the potential for a positive outcome gets me excited and ready to move forward with taking action now.

And when else can we take action, but now?

Artists make hard decisions for the sake of the integrity of their work. I’ve made difficult decisions to break free from consumerism and the security of a paycheck for the sake of my happiness and integrity, not to mention my sanity. Sometimes, though, the decisions we get stuck on are not quite so dramatic. The size or scope of the decision is unimportant compared to the simple task of taking a stand and doing something.

What’s a decision you are stuck on? Why are you stuck, and how will you deal with it? Take a second and put the answer in a comment below. You’ll help yourself to articulate it, and you might help someone else with a similar sticking point.

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