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The Art of Decision Making: It's About the Journey, Not Just the Destination

· 7 min read
Yiyang Hibner

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Guest post author: Yogi Sharma, PhD

Two days after deciding to leave a job that promised to pay over a million dollars a year, I woke up panicked and in sweats in the middle of the night. This is the first time I experienced a panic attack. I knew right there that I had made a blunder to decline such a seemingly great job and decide to “follow my passion”. I knew I was going crazy. In the moment, I could not see the thoughtfulness and discussions that had gone into making that decision.

Making hard decisions is hard. If our decisions go against the grain of what everyone else seems to be doing, that adds to sticking with it when we are not sure about its soundness.

Decisions are the bread and butter of a conscious living. In the intricate labyrinth of life, we stand at crossroads everytime we're faced with making decisions. This job or that job? Staying or quitting a job? Stick with the relationship or call it quits? And on and on.

And then, we have to deal with the outcomes of our decisions, of course. Outcomes are not deterministic. Just because you make a good decision does not mean a good outcome is guaranteed.

Good decisions vs. good outcomes

It's crucial to understand that our decisions are the choices we control, while outcomes often fall prey to unpredictable factors. This forms the peculiar paradox of decision making: sometimes, well-informed decisions lead to unfavorable outcomes, and vice versa. The key is not to judge your decision-making process solely based on the outcome, particularly when the aftermath is less than pleasant.

One approach to understanding this concept better is through a decision-outcome matrix:

  1. Good Process, Bad Outcome: You've followed a sound decision-making process, but the result isn't as expected. Consider this as a learning curve, a chance to persevere, and a test of your patience.

  2. Bad Process, Good Outcome: Your process was flawed, yet you landed on your feet. Don't be complacent here; ensure to change your process for the future before you forget that the outcome was caused by a bad decision.

  3. Bad Process, Bad Outcome: This is a call for introspection and a dire need for process correction. This is a good and cheap learning experience though, as you are less likely to be fooled by a bad decision just because it gave a good outcome.

  4. Good Process, Good Outcome: You've hit the bullseye! When you land here, aim to replicate your strategy.

Faith in the process, coupled with verification of its effectiveness, plays a critical role. This faith can be built from scientific data, others' experiences, your own past experiences, or even anecdotes.

Making right decision vs. making decision right

An essential aspect of decision-making is patience. We often rush to conclusions and expect immediate gratification. However, the unfolding of a decision and its outcomes takes time. A perfect example comes from renowned religious studies scholar Huston Smith and his experience with Vipassana, a form of mindfulness meditation (told in his book The World's Religions). When he arrived at the course, he wanted to study the effects of Vipassana on his consciousness and mind. And he was going to follow the scientific process to do that. The teacher told him to not analyze anything during the 10 days of the course, but rather collect data, as an objective observer during those 10 days. And then analyze, slice and dice in whatever way he wished after the course was over. That is the patience in action. Many times, we are impatient about analyzing our experiences, and that leads to less than sound decision making. Smith trusted the process and remained patient, meticulously noting his experiences and, over time, appreciating the benefits.

The decision-making process isn't solely about external considerations; it's equally about your internal state post-decision. Good decisions should make you feel light and empowered, while unfruitful ones may leave you feeling confused and heavy.

And that leads me to the story of leaving my job. I had thought about leaving my job for a while, and had analyzed various angles of it. I had found it to be a sound decision, but it was still hard to make the move. I found myself unsure and overwhelmed with the numbers and spreadsheets and pros and cons. And then the moment of clarity happened while I was sitting in a large conference room with wall-sized glass windows overlooking a beautiful garden and blue skies. Then, this question popped into my mind: "Would I do this if I had 5 years left in my life?" The answer was instantly clear, and it was a resounding 'no.' This query, a balance between long-term retirement plans and the often-used "what if today was your last day," provided the clarity I needed. I felt light, I felt empowered, and I felt ready to take the plunge.

This experience taught me that effective decision-making often hinges less on finding the right answers but more on discovering the right questions. Once the right question appears, the decision often makes itself.

When you find yourself at a crossroads next time, trust the process, find the right questions, and remember: you're not just making the right decision, you're also making the decision right. Decision making is just the starting point of living the decision with conviction and trust. This involves committing to your decision, refraining from second-guessing your choices (unless new data shows up, not just old thought recycling in our heads), and showing patience, perseverance, and tenacity.

When it comes to decisions and outcomes, consider them as leading and lagging metrics respectively. Leading metrics are the inputs that you can control, whereas lagging metrics pertain to outcomes, mostly out of your direct control. The crux of the matter lies in whether we are measuring the right leading metrics.

It's invariably easier to discuss the concept of sticking with a decision than to actually commit to it, especially when facing undesirable outcomes that cause fear or discomfort to arise. The natural response is to question our decisions, but one strategy I've found helpful to manage this doubt is borrowed from computer science. It's a concept called memoization used in dynamic programming.

Once you have figured something out, you want to write it down, and not do the expensive recomputation over and over again, every time your mind fancies contemplating it. When I decided to leave my lucrative corporate job mentioned in the opening, even though the decision was sound, thoughtful and had taken years to crystallize, it did not stop me from breaking into sweats at night and waking up anxious. My written reasons for making the decision was the only solace during that time… which I could easily access, instead of having to go through the years-long decision process again and try to convince my freaked out amygdala.

Another critical strategy to stick with a sound decision is introducing a pause between doubt about the decision and the decision to revoke it. Market downturns are classic examples of situations where many hastily doubt their carefully planned investment decisions and pull out before allowing for a pause between the doubt and action.

However, mastering the art of pausing is no easy task, particularly when experiencing emotional turmoil. Yet, habituating this skill is crucial in preventing us from hastily reversing a sound decision in moments of panic. This pause can be achieved through mindfulness, a process cultivated through formal practice that teaches us to observe our body sensations.

Enjoy the journey of decision-making, understanding it's not just about the destination, but the path you take to reach there.

In the days following my decision to quit, the panic attacks and anxiety turned to calm reflection on my long process that had led to this thoughtful decision. I went again and again to my written reasons to make the decision, which kept me calm and centered. I took regular pauses of mindfulness when the feelings were too strong. And after a few weeks, the confusion blossomed into a new way of life, where I was looking forward to a new career in the making.