Four Steps to Better Decision Making

Everything runs on models. We model things in order to achieve clarity in the picture we see, filter the signal from the noise and understand the principles that govern a particular phenomenon.

The elevation in your heartbeat when you feel a tinge of fear? We have a model for that. The rain that comes down from the sky each winter? Yep, we model that too. What happens when you’re asked a question? As you might have guessed there’s a model for that too.

The point to all this is that what we take to be the defining moment in our decision making, the moment when we become aware of the decision we’ve taken is actually way past the point of no return. In order for us to understand this consider that every decision you make is guided by motivation and motivation is shaped by feelings and driven by emotions.

Feelings and emotions run constantly in the background of our consciousness. They determine the frame of mind through which we filter a given set of facts. They’re behind our moods. They power our ‘gut instincts’ and they color our reactions to everything. Both feelings and emotions arise out of a complex neurobiological interplay between the sensory input received by our body and the mental assessment of that input inside our brain.

When we are faced with a particularly tricky decision the mental space where we assess it, decide its importance, assign it priority and then begin to deal with it is already crowded with processes that now add their own noise to the signal we must pay attention to. The brain doesn’t have redundancies where particular parts of it are reserved for critically important, life-changing decisions and the mundane stuff uses lower parts of its neural networks. The centers of the brain that come into play during all this are the same ones that have already been activated by other sensory data.

This is why sometimes smart people make stupid choices and some decisions are easy while others seem to require so much mental and psychological effort that they almost break us. It also explains why when we are faced with the same decisions we can make different choices depending on seemingly meaningless external factors such as the sun shining brightly outside or the coffee being fresh and hot.

Decision Making Made Easy

The Sniper Mind, by David AmerlandWe know, of course, that the brain is the one organ in the body that can change its mode of operation from the outside in. While decision making engages many different centers of the brain and starts a chain of events long before we become conscious of it, there are things we can do which can make a significant impact on how the decision-making process inside our head, works.

Using fMRI techniques that allow scientists to see the thinking brain in action neuroscientists have demonstrated that there is a direct, neurobiological link between what we think and what our body does. This link activates specific enzymes and hormones in our system which trigger physiological response sin our body which then affect our brain.

The trick to better decision making is to approach each critical decision-making moment primed to short-circuit the mind/body connection and better direct the neurobiological responses that grip us so that we can benefit the most from them.

There are four steps that help attain this super-calm, focused, state of mind:

Step 1: Stay present. The moment we face any critical decision our blood pressure will rise and our heartbeats will accelerate. Every possible mental association related to the decision we are about to make will flit through our head. We shall feel the stakes of the moment. All this takes mental energy that distracts us. By focusing on how we breathe and how we feel we take attention away from all this. We begin to calm down.

Step 2: Let go of the past. Every time we come up to a critical point of our lives, every other similar moment in the past during we tried and failed, comes up. We become aware of our own deficiencies. The voice in our head begins to tell us just how we are destined to fail yet again. We begin to go weak at the knees. Forget the past. It really doesn’t matter. What’s important is the moment we’re in and the issues we’re dealing with. By forgetting the past we approach each moment, each critical decision with fresh eyes and our capabilities, intact.

Step 3: Focus on the body. We are unique in our ability to bring our awareness to bear upon ourselves and then change as a result. By focusing on the sensations reported by our body we establish a direct feedback loop with something we can actually sense and feel. That tends to crowd out mental distractions that undermine our sense of control of the moment.

Step 4: Breathe deep. Take deep, slow, measured breaths. Hold each one to a slow count of five and then exhale slowly. While the amount of oxygen we get in our lungs is the same regardless whether we breathe in through the mouth or the nose studies have shown that if we breathe in through the nose and exhale through the mouth we activate centers of the brain associated with strategic thinking.

By going through this process each time we make a decision that will decide the direction of our life, we succeed in calming down our body and mind. We are then able to approach the moment fully aware of our capabilities, calm and confident. Ready to face the challenge presented to us in complete control of ourselves.