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​​ ​​The What of Decision Making

First published for Generator Talent Group

Are you under constant pressure to deliver, and have very little opportunity to pause and take a break in the day but still have a constant flow of decisions to make? However you define success in life, you can pretty much boil it down to a series of decisions. And you’re making one right now: should you continue reading this article? Check your phone? Call home? Finally focus on that tricky email?

As I’m sitting writing this article, looking out towards the ocean, I reflect that what brought me to this time and place is a cascade of decisions: relocating to Australia nine years ago; leaving a successful corporate career to build a new business supporting others in their own decision process, investing in on-going learning. For the last 12 months I have been creating my own products and have had the time to be there for my daughter thus achieving the lifestyle I craved. Every step along the way I have been making decisions; small ones, and big ones.

What constitutes decision-making? There is a lot of good writing on the how and why of decision-making but rarely on the what. The ’what’ is neuronal processing. People associate that to the brain, but our gut contains as many neurons as a cat’s brain, and our heart has 40,000 neurons with some similar to those in our brain. Neuronal processing is a holistic process.

More importantly, what constitutes good decision-making? Because neuronal processing is holistic, so is good decision-making. Good decision-making happens when you are able to align your brain’s powerful cognitive functions, your heart’s ability to acknowledge your or others’ emotional state and your gut’s instinct about what is the right or wrong decision (yes, that ‘gut feeling’).

How to go about good decision-making? As stated above, you should endeavour to align your head, your heart and your gut, which we call the Head / Heart / Core framework. If you can do that then job done, you can attend to other pressing matters. If you’re like most people, you prioritise one over the other two, or otherwise outright ignoring one or two of the three functions. The outcome of this approach can be sub-optimal or poor decision-making which you may end up paying a price for over the long term, including burn out, injury, or even emotional break-down. The good news is that Head / Heart / Core alignment can be influenced and improved through deliberate efforts on your part. In other words, the ball’s in your court if you want it there.

“You don’t just remember facts, whether the outcome was good or bad, but you remember whether what we felt was good or bad […]. That tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical: what we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them.”

Antonio Damasio

How can you improve decision making? There are various ways to improve your Head / Heart / Core alignment if you understand how you make decisions. Think about how you typically make decisions by answering two questions: When making decisions, do you balance your thoughts, feelings and instinct well? If not – of the three, which do you rely most on / least on?

If you prioritise Heart (emotions) and Core (instinct) to make decisions: you should use your Head (cognitive functions) more and be more deliberate about how you go about making decisions. Practical ways to do this are to carve out a space where you can think; simplify the choice set and break down the problem using techniques (frameworks; mind maps; doodles even); think through consequences. But mind your feelings as framing strongly influence decisions. The signals sent by our heart and gut can actually inhibit or facilitates brain activity: what comes up can’t be controlled. I recommend keeping a journal or writing things down to reflect and activate cognitive functions and reflect on emotions.

If you prioritise Head (cognition) and Core (instinct) to make decisions: you should use your Heart (emotions) more and get in tune with your emotions and others’ to arrive at a decision. Disturbance of the gut have been linked to a wide range of disorders and the ‘gut brain crosstalk’ have multiple effects on the higher cognitive functions. Deliberate breathing and meditation is the way to go. Meditation can train your mind to not get less distracted and become more connected and focused, preserving your energy to understand, decide and memorise. Listening to some selected tunes can also release some oxytocin, the love hormone, and increase your dopamine level, which boosts positive affect and creative problem solving.

“One sees clearly with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye”

The Fox in ‘The little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

If you prioritise Head (cognition) and Heart (emotions) to make decisions: you should use your Core (instinct) more. In the moment, ask yourself: what feels right? The answer is your instinctive response. You can test that answer using your Head by treating it like a hypothesis, and using your Heart by assessing how you feel about this answer, or how others would feel about it. Another way is by exercising: walking, running or swimming release endorphins that make you feel good. When you’re in the flow of your effort, you reach a state of flow where the mental chatter and your emotional state is subdued. That’s a good time to test your gut instinct about your decision. Breathing exercises and meditation discussed above are also effective to subdue heighted states of emotional arousal and mental chatter.

How can others help me make good decisions? As a general rule, getting a different perspective will help you make better decisions. You can and should bounce options with someone if the decisions have material consequences, and I’m not thinking about morning wardrobe dramas. After some practice and reflection you will be able to develop a trusted reliable ‘Head, Heart, Core’ decision-making process. To make good decisions that have material, personal or financial consequences, it’s worth spending a bit of your hard earned cash on expert advice. Depending on the decision, consider hiring an impartial professional with no vested interest, such as a counsellor, a lawyer or a coach.

Today, do yourself a favour: make the decision to improve how you make decisions. Adopt practices that will help you make better decision. It will change your life as it changed mine.

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