DECISION-MAKING AND PROBLEM-SOLVING

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STEP SIX: Select the best solution from among the alternatives you have considered.

 Usually you can eliminate poor solutions by recognizing they won't work or require skills and resources you don't now have. Other choices can be eliminated because they might involve too high a price--some kind of potential disaster. As with self-help plans, try to combine two or three of the best ideas.

 Two hundred years ago, Benjamin Franklin made this recommendation: write down the pros and cons for each alternative choice and assign a weight (0 to +10) to each pro and each con (0 to -10), indicating how important that factor is. By adding up the pros and cons (each weight) you get a total score for each alternative choice. Then, by comparing the totals for each alternative course of action, you can usually determine the best choice. This is a benefit/cost analysis . It should involve weighing the eventual effectiveness of the solution in solving the problem, your emotional well being during and after the solution, the time and effort required, and your overall personal and interpersonal well being in the end. This is a very complex process, mostly used with important decisions.

 In some ordinary circumstances, it is reasonable to select the first acceptable solution rather than continue searching for an ideal solution. Suppose at 9:00 P. M. your family needs a hotel or motel room for the night in a city filled with conventions. You had better take the first acceptable room you find. If you have time, say it's 4:00 P. M., you might be much better off exploring the area and looking at 3 or 4 rooms. In other instances, your intuition, as mentioned in the last step, can weigh the alternatives adequately. Watch for biases, however. Optimists tend to over-emphasize the opportunities in certain choices while pessimists exaggerate the possible dangers in certain choices. Usually, if the decision is a major one, you need to weigh the pros and cons, and get a second opinion to double check your judgments.

 Unfortunately, many decisions become exceedingly complex, either because there are several alternatives or many pros and cons to consider. Moreover, the weight you would assign a pro or a con will probably vary from time to time. Examples: if you are trying to decide among careers in psychology, medicine, chiropractic, social work, or high school guidance, there are many factors to consider, such as length and quality of training, employment outlook, probable income, work hours, satisfaction with the work, opportunities for private practice, status in the community, and many others. You would have to seek out many facts. Most importantly, you should talk to people in these fields and, if possible, have some work experience to help you get a "feel" for what the daily routine of each career would be like for 40 years. If you are trying to decide what sexual behavior to engage in, a very long list of pros and cons could be considered (but most of us don't). Unfortunately, you can't "try out" each sexual alternative as you might a career choice. However, you can use your imagination.

 Thus far, as is our American custom, I have been talking about the conscious processes involved in decision-making. The ability to decide to do something and then do it is what distinguishes us from other animals. Yet, there is evidence that many problems are solved in our sleep or in our unconscious. Moreover, Adams (1986) points out that many aspects of our decision-making are unconscious, e.g. deciding what to observe and how (which sense) is partly unconscious, the assignment of weights to the pros and cons is mostly unconscious (we aren't sure exactly how we do it), it frequently isn't clear why we select a certain solution and then see things differently a few days later, etc. Can the unconscious decision-making powers be used? Maybe (and we can become aware of some unconscious processes and make even better decisions).

 Some people claim to benefit from trying to dream about a problem they are trying to solve. They and you can do this by consciously thinking about the situation, the alternatives, their feelings about different choices, possible long-range outcomes, etc. as they are falling asleep. It is as if we are asking the unconscious to think about our problem. Sometimes, a new solution pops into our mind the next morning or comes to us the next day. It is worth a try.

STEP SEVEN: Accepting the best choice... Letting it sink in... Stop obsessing about the decision... Letting go of the unselected options.

 After making a decision, it takes a little time to reprogram your thinking, to fully commit yourself to the chosen course of action. It may be wise to give yourself a time limit to make a decision, say 5 minutes or one day, then review all the information and go with what seems like the best choice. Also, we must quickly give up the rejected alternatives; otherwise, we drag out the decision-making process much too long. It may be helpful, especially where the decision is hard to make, to remember that in many cases there is very little difference among the alternative solutions. All your options may work out about equally well. The task is to make a crisp, clear decision and get on with it with zeal. It must feel right.

STEP EIGHT: Throw yourself into carrying out the decision. Make a specific plan and schedule the work.

 There has really been no decision if there is no action. Solutions don't usually end with decisions; they begin there. It is an old military axiom that says "a poor decision well executed is better than a good decision poorly executed." You need plans, i.e. detailed, thoughtful plans for both (a) how to succeed and (b) how to deal with possible problems. Remember: if anything can go wrong, it will (Murphy's Law). You need energy, hope, time and dedication. Frequently evaluate the effectiveness of your action and make changes in your plans accordingly. Take pride in your decisiveness.

Time involved

 Naturally, careful decision-making takes more time than sloppy decisions. How much more time? In simple decisions involving two or three alternatives, it may take only a few minutes to systematically weigh the four or five pros and cons for each choice, assuming you already have the information you need. In complex decisions, like career choice or sexual choice, a great deal of time may be needed. For example, in choosing a life-long occupation, to get the facts and to know how you feel about specific careers, you may need to take a course or two in this area (150-300 hours), do some reading about the 3 to 5 occupations you are considering (20-30 hours), match your abilities and needs against the requirements for each career you are considering, take aptitude and interest tests (10 hours), talk to a career counselor (5-10 hours), observe and talk to practitioners in these fields (40-80 hours), talk to family and friends (4-5 hours) and have an internship in one or two of these occupational fields (100-1000 hours). You may be saying, "That's ridiculous, no one ever does that!" You may be right that few people do it, but that doesn't prove it is a bad idea. I think your grandchildren will do it. Considering you may spend 100,000 hours in your career, a 100 hours--and even 1500 hours--is not too high a price to pay for making a good decision. See books about career choice below.

Common problems

 Some people are just not patient and orderly enough to list the alternatives and weigh the pros and cons of each. Some take pride in making snap decisions. It must be granted that sometimes the choices are so equal that no amount of time and effort will produce a clear-cut advantage for one choice over the others. In those cases, you might have done just as well by flipping a coin in the beginning. But you can't be certain the choices are equal until you have carefully gone through the decision-making process and considered each option.

 Obviously, not every little decision, like what movie to see, warrants all these steps. Just use the process when you need it.

Effectiveness, advantages and dangers

 This method encourages careful consideration of several alternatives, awareness of emotional pitfalls and values, weighing the pros and cons, and developing a game plan. Surely, this is wiser than reacting impulsively. However, there may be an even wiser middle ground. Ellen Langer, the Harvard professor who champions "mindfulness," suggests a different mind-set to decision-making. For instance, she recommends avoiding detailed, lengthy cost/benefit analyses (there is always more and more contradictory information to be found) and giving up the notion of finding the one right answer for now and forever. She recommends, of course, assessing your options but recognizing the complexity of almost all decisions, even the one's that seem simple, like what shirt or blouse to buy. The situation is likely to change; your preferences may change; new facts may be discovered. Any new factor could change your mind. Therefore, the most important aspect of decision-making is to keep an active, open mind to new factors and new options. Sloan (1996) recommends a similar reflective approach which is very different from the typical weigh-the-pros-and-cons methods. Create your own options instead of passively accepting just the options someone else tells you, you have. Remain uncertain of your decisions; if you are certain you have made the right decision, your mind shuts down. That's bad. Guard against assuming the way things have always been done is the right way; that also closes our minds. Uncertainty keeps your mind active and flexible. Continued information seeking creates better ideas and wiser options.

 In both the decision-making process and in the keeping-the-mind-open process, one can take pride in his/her problem-solving.

 There are no other known disadvantages or dangers except getting excessively obsessed with the details of decision-making and insisting that you must always find the "right answer."

Recommended readings

Books for career choice:

Computer program for career choice:


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