How To Make Important Decisions

When confronted with important dilemmas, most human beings labor to follow one of two paths:
avoidance or decision-making.

The path of avoidance consists of bad thinking and bad behavior such as postponing, procrastinating, looking away, pretending, obfuscating, and generally running away from confronting the issue and making a decision. In some cases, the individual literally gets sick (at least temporarily) in order to avoid making a decision. The path comes to a dead-end and an impasse that can last hours, days, or even years, with bad consequences.

The path of decision-making follows a predictable pattern that is remarkably consistent across cultures and situations. Its scaffolding is made of three component parts: antecedents – behavior – consequences. Our performance in decision-making can be functional (our decision-making is timely and effective), mixed (in some situations we are more decisive than in others), or dysfunctional (poor analysis, bad decisions).




It’s what happened in the past or just before

It’s also the context in which the decision is being made, i.e., the situation, the location, the people involved. The antecedents are the events that prompt or surround the decision at this time. An example may illustrate what I mean by antecedents.

The decision to get married is arrived at within the context of a relationship between two people. The quality of the relationship is made of antecedents (good or bad events, breakups or smooth sailing, with or without family approval, etc.) The two parties are aware of these antecedents, and these will play a role by either facilitating the decision to marry (if the antecedents are good, they are good “motives” or reasons to go forward) or making the decision more difficult (if things haven’t gone too well).

Sometimes, antecedents are immediately preceding the event, i.e., the decision of whether to bail out your teenager from jail or not, with little time to consider the options. Sometimes the antecedents go back to childhood and even more remotely, such as the decision to take a phone call from the father you never met, or to invest in a low-lying area where the last flood was eighty years ago.

It’s the decision-making process and actions taken

It can be functional or dysfunctional. Substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, abuse of medications) negatively impacts our decision-making abilities, as bad decisions are usually made when under the influence.

To travel on this path, the following skills are needed:

1. The ability to understand the impact of antecedents, because they may affect motives (the reasons why I would choose A vs. B) and performance (the enthusiasm or lack thereof in arriving at a decision). Dysfunctional: ignoring antecedents.
2. The ability to manage timing and negative emotions (fear, guilt, shame, anger, etc.) Dysfunctional: avoiding, getting too emotional, and procrastinating.
3. The ability to work up and evaluate the options (and the pros and cons of each). Dysfunctional: catastrophizing, getting fixated on a single option, not being able to think of pros and cons.
4. The courage to select the best option (which may not always be the easiest or most comfortable) and move forward. Dysfunctional: being afraid, passive, uncaring, risk averse.
5. The ability to anticipate and prepare for the consequences. Dysfunctional: being distracted, uncaring, uninformed, careless.
6. The ability to act/decide with firmness and the resolve to carry on. Dysfunctional: being afraid, wishy-washy, reluctant, irresolute.

It’s what happens after the decision has been made

Realistically, not all consequences can be anticipated, even by the most skilled decider. Few consequences can actually be prevented, as they are out of the decider’s control. Nonetheless, many consequences can be correctly predicted based on our experience and knowledge of human nature.

To travel on this path, the following skills are needed:

1. The ability to deal with the consequences as they occur. Dysfunctional: resorting to avoidance or substance abuse.
2. The ability to revise/modify/change the decision to mitigate its consequences, especially if unanticipated, as necessary. Dysfunctional: becoming paralyzed by fear, too emotional, unable to analyze the situation, stuck, refusing to change.
3. The ability to learn from the outcome (which is helpful in improving our skills for future decision-making). Dysfunctional: being distracted, uncaring, unable to analyze the outcome, neglectful.


How do you make consistently good decisions in important matters? The short answer is you learn. Learning takes time, adequate intelligence, and emotional stability.

The longer answer is that your decision-making skills can be decreased or improved by many factors:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help improve decision-making and greatly improve your ability to fight avoidance. Plan to discuss this issue with Dr. Z by filling out the appointment request form.