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6 steps to better decision making

Written by: ICAEW
Published on: 10 Aug 2023

Young man smiling

From deciding what to have for lunch to making major life choices, we make thousands of decisions every day. Here are our top tips to improving this key skill for personal and professional success.

1.    Gather all the facts

Decisions are only as good as the information they’re based on, so collect together all the relevant knowledge and data. Before you start, make sure you understand the goal, and keep it in mind as you go along. Consider a range of potential choices, and explore the consequences and impact of each. Involve others – whether colleagues, experts, or trusted friends and family members – and seek their opinions where appropriate, but remember that ultimately your decisions should be your own.

The more potential choices you have to explore, the better your final decision is likely to be, but it’s important to narrow them down as you go to avoid becoming overwhelmed. As soon as it becomes obvious that an option is not the right one, eliminate it and focus on those that are left. If your decision is an either/or situation a pros and cons list can help, but remember that each benefit and drawback will not necessarily have equal weighting.

2.    Trust your instincts

While it’s good practice to use facts and figures as the basis for decision making, intuition plays an important part too. Intuition is a combination of personal values, perceptions and previous experience – an instinctive or ‘gut’ feeling of the right course of action – and it’s worth taking it into account. One approach is to apply both reason and intuition in turn: gather all the information, settle on a potential choice and then see how you feel about it. It’s important to be emotionally invested in a decision, so make sure it feels right.

3.    Understand the psychology at play

We all have natural biases, whether we’re aware of them or not, and it can be difficult not to let them influence our judgement. We also use mental shortcuts, called heuristics, that allow us to solve problems and make decisions quickly and efficiently without expending too much mental energy. While useful, this type of decision making isn’t always based in reason and rationality, and can therefore also lead to bias. Once we’ve made a choice, we’re hard-wired to cling to and defend that position, even in the face of conflicting evidence – something known as confirmation bias. So try to be open-minded: don’t jump to conclusions, and consider all the possibilities – including the opposite of what you feel or ‘know’ to be the right choice.

4.    Know yourself

Do you think of yourself as an indecisive person? For those who struggle to make even the smallest everyday decisions – what to wear, what to eat – the best approach is simply to make more of them. Start small, and try a time limit: give yourself one minute to decide which film you’re going to watch this evening, for example. The more you practise making small decisions quickly and confidently, the easier the bigger ones should become. If you’re naturally risk-averse, you may also have a tendency to stick to ‘safe’ choices, so it can be good practice to go against your instincts and step out of your comfort zone.

If the flipside is true, and you consider yourself to be a good decision-maker, beware over-confidence. If you’re naturally decisive, you may have a tendency to make snap judgements without fully considering all the facts and alternatives. Are you sure you’re right, or is there a chance you may need to think about things differently? Seeking the opinions of others can help.

5.    Take your time

Rushed decisions are rarely the best ones, so use the time you have available – and use it effectively. If you’re not comfortable with the timeframe, don’t be afraid to ask for more, so that you can approach your decision making in a calm and considered way. Prioritise those decisions that need to be made first, and try not to expend valuable time and energy on small ones that won’t significantly affect your life – save your bandwidth for those that really matter. Once you’ve made your (sensible, informed) choice, act on it and move on. Every decision you make is a learning opportunity, so take time afterwards to look back and evaluate the experience, especially if it could have gone better.

6.    …But not too much

While having enough time to make a considered decision is important, conversely having too much of it can also be a problem. Overthinking things or spending too long analysing the pros and cons can stress you out and actually hinder your decision-making – known as ‘analysis paralysis’. If you feel that’s happening, take time out – go for a walk, do some exercise, lose yourself in a good Netflix series. Or best of all, take the age-old advice of sleeping on it and trust that things will look a little clearer in the morning.

Professional development is one of four parts of the ACA. Our professional development ladders prepare you to successfully handle different situations that you’ll encounter throughout your career. Find out more about our professional development ladders.