Active Decision Making

I recently asked a very successful lawyer how he became so successful. His response surprised me: "I am quick at making decisions." This started me thinking. Lawyers are faced with hundreds, possibly even thousands, of decisions every day, ranging from breakfast choices to whether or not to settle a major file. Effective decision making is not only an essential skill required for the practice of law, it is crucial to a life of satisfaction and fulfillment.

Unfortunately, some of us struggle with it. There are no absolute formulas for effective decision making, but there are a number of factors that go into how we decide. Too much of a good thing is not always best. Staggering numbers of choices are possible. For example, according to The Wall Street Journal, in 2008, more than 412 brands of toothpaste were available in the United States. Logically, one would think that more choices are better-aren't they? Surprisingly, the opposite is true. Too many choices can overwhelm, lead to avoidance and even the failure to decide altogether. Too much choice can be a major decision blocker for many people.

In a recent study conducted in California, researchers tested the effect of multiple options on decision motivation. They set up display tables in a busy grocery store. On the first day of the study, shoppers were invited to sample up to 24 different flavours of jam. On a subsequent day, shoppers were offered only six. In return for participating in the taste test, shoppers were given a voucher to buy any of the sample jams at a significant discount.The researchers discovered that, when there were 24 jams on the table, many more shoppers stopped at the display. However, when it came to actually buying the jam, only 3 per cent of participants bought jam after stopping at the 24-jam table. Alternatively, that number jumped up to 30 per cent when the table contained only six jams. Researchers repeated this experiment using gourmet chocolate, and again with student essay topics. They discovered similar results.One explanation of choice hesitancy can be found in the way we choose.

According to American psychologist Barry Schwartz, there are two types of decision makers: satisficers and maximizers. Satisficers choose quickly. They prioritize an adequate choice over an optimal choice. This does not mean that satisficers settle on sub-par options. They can have very high standards. However, they simply take action and rule out other options once their basic criteria are met.Maximizers, on the other hand, pursue an optimal or ultimate choice sometimes to extremes. They will not decide unless they have analyzed all the available possibilities and are absolutely certain that their choice is best. As a result, maximizers are prone to analysis paralysis and anxiety over having to make decisions. They are often unsatisfied with their choices. They may become paralyzed by the "what ifs" and the opportunity costs of what they may be giving up. This is particularly true if a maximizer has made poor choices in the past and now suffers from a lack of confidence.

Too much maximizing leads to lack of focus, ambivalence, procrastination and "pseudo decision making" - for example, abdicating altogether by letting someone else choose. This is disempowering on an individual level and, when engaged in repeatedly, can have an emotional and psychological cost. A habit of maximizing can easily lead to an erosion of self-confidence in one's abilities, which can have a profoundly negative effect on a lawyer's ability to practise. Real decision making involves active commitment and an understanding that only rarely does the "perfect" choice exist. This means that we must refuse to indulge in mental ruminations of "what might have been" had we made a different choice.

Making real decisions is personally empowering. It is an active process, which involves assessing our personal values, deciding how we actually feel about a choice, making the decision and dismissing other options. When we commit to one option over another and invest in it emotionally, we subconsciously reinforce our self-esteem and self-confidence.Real decisions are action focused. Time pressure, perfectionism, fear of making a mistake, the need to be liked and the fear of what other people may think (this is by no means an exhaustive list) will inhibit and distort our ability to make decisions. Being aware of our personal tendencies to fall into these traps will limit their ability to block our decisions.

When faced with a challenging decision, a good place to begin is to identify our personal values (what is inherently important to us) and our priorities as they relate to the choice at hand. Once we know what is important to us, we can use the following eight-step process developed by Theodore Rubin, M.D., to resolve any challenging decision.

  1. Observe all the possibilities: create a list, if possible - it can be easier to think on paper.
  2. Allow and experience the flow of whatever feelings and thoughts may arise about each possible choice.
  3. Apply those feelings and thoughts to each possible option. Pay attention to intuitive sense or "gut" reactions when considering each option.
  4. Relate each choice to established priorities (e.g., if buying a house, location vs. affordability). Consider creating a pro vs. con list.
  5. Eliminate possible choices until you are left with the "best" choice. It may not be the "perfect" choice, but it fits. Discard those that don't "feel" right or fit with established values and priorities. At this stage it is vitally important to resist the temptation to engage in any kind of second-guessing or ruminating over discarded choices.
  6. Register and take ownership of the decision.
  7. Invest feelings, time, thoughts and energy into the decision. Allow yourself to become excited about it, and reconsider the positive aspects of the choice.
  8. Take action on the decision.

Some decisions require greater contemplation. Others are a snap. Regardless of whether one is a satisficer or a maximizer, in order to get ahead in life we inevitably have to take some calculated risks. None of us has a crystal ball. As long as we refuse to be paralyzed by fear, however, even if things do not turn out the way we had hoped, we will have gained both confidence and valuable experience from actively participating in the decision-making process.