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Don’t Decide Until Decision Time

Ever sent an email you immediately wanted to take back? Agreed to do a project and later regretted it? Some pointers on how to avoid bad decisions.

Have you ever made a decision in haste and regretted it at leisure? Maybe you were too tired to realize you were too tired to think straight. Maybe you were rushing to complete your daily to-do list, and forgot that sometimes more haste equals less speed. Or maybe someone was pressuring you for a decision, and you gave them an answer to get them off your back.

Whichever, you ended up deciding without thinking through all the implications. Or you simply chose something that you didn’t really want.I have a personal rule that I don’t make important decisions after four o’clock in the afternoon. To my friends and family, this is just one more tick in the column labeled “eccentric.” But to me, it’s perfectly logical.

For one thing, all of us are subject to circadian rhythms of arousal and rest during the daily cycle. If you want to be truly productive, you need to know whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, and take advantage of the times when you are most alert to do your most important thinking. For me, that’s the morning.

I have a personal rule that I don’t make important decisions after four o’clock in the afternoon.

And for another, toward the end of a typical day I’ll have spent several hours doing mental and emotional heavy lifting – writing, planning, delivering coaching or training sessions, and dealing with all kinds of people facing all kinds of challenges. If the mental batteries aren’t running a little low by this time, then I probably haven’t been working hard enough. Your day is probably very similar.But the main reason I prefer to consider decisions in the morning is that a wise decision is based on emotions and intuition as well as logic. Toward the end of the day, especially when I’ve been using digital and social media intensively, I’m likely to be “in my head” and slightly out of touch with my body. Whereas in the mornings, having started the day with meditation, I’m much more centered in my body and aware of my gut feeling about an issue.

When I’ve made a decision based on logic alone, I’ve often made mistakes. But when I’ve combined reason and intuition, I’ve never made a decision I couldn’t live with. My friend John Eaton would say this is because I’m in touch with bodymind, the distributed intelligence of the body, incorporating the solar plexus, endocrine, and immune systems, as well as the neurons that happen to be located inside my skull.

When I’ve made a decision based on logic alone, I’ve often made mistakes.

And I often decide very quickly. I once made a snap decision to move to London, at a friend’s invitation one Sunday afternoon. The next day I handed in my notice at work and to my landlord, and the next month I was living in the capital. One of the best decisions I ever made.There’s nothing wrong with a quick decision, but decisions made in haste – i.e. rushed, and without considering your emotions as well as the logical pros and cons – can be dangerous. This is why the Vikings were reputed to make every important decision twice – once when sober, once when drunk.

So how can you decide when it’s time to decide?

1. Don’t stress about trivial decisions.

You’re probably safe to choose your paperclips or menu order whenever. I’m talking about the big decisions, like taking on a new project, changing job, booking the family holiday, or what you’re going to say to that tricky request from a client.

2. Get to know yourself.

Pay attention to your levels of energy and alertness during the daily cycle. When do you feel most clear-headed? When are you most aware of your body and emotions? As far as possible, make it a priority to consider important decisions during this time. If it’s not possible, especially if you’re in a high-pressure job where you need to make decisions at all times of the day and night, pay particular attention to the next three steps…

3. Get “out of your mind” and into your body

… as this will help you tap your feelings and intuition. I’m not suggesting you go for the full-on “Viking method,” although you may sometimes find that your feelings are clearer after talking to a friend over a beer. More “work friendly” ways to get centered in your body include yoga, meditation, exercise, going for a walk – or even just getting up from your desk, stretching, and walking around the office.

4. For each option, weigh up the pros and cons.

Write them down on two different columns if it helps. Ask yourself: (a) What’s the opportunity here? How will I feel if I succeed? How will I feel if I turn it down? and (b) What’s the risk? How will I feel in the worst-case scenario? Could I live with my decision?

5. Ask yourself: How do I feel about this?

Take the question literally. Pay attention to the physical sensations in your body. What does “YES!” feel like to you? Light, energized, animated? How about “NO!”? Tense, heavy, uncomfortable? Learn to tell the difference. And watch out for any mismatch between what your head tells you and your gut feeling – when this happens, slow down, take more time, and get more information.

How Do You Decide?

How do you avoid making bad decisions?

Have you ever made a great decision quickly? How?

Any tips for making good decisions?

Comments (22)
  • RiaanP

    Thanks for this article, Mark. I often find myself just saying yes because I want to get the person asking the question off my back so I can get back to work! This is good advice.
    I think that points 4 and 5 are very important but often vetoed by logic.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yep, logic has a lot to answer for. 😉

  • Michael

    Reminds me a lot at reading “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. Great book about the power of snap decisions.

  • Brn Skn

    Wish this came 4 days ago…I will keep this mind for the future. Really appreciated this article.

  • Brn Skn

    I agree. I just finished reading that book too and thought about it when he mentioned snap decisions.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, it looks a great book – haven’t read it myself yet, but it’s on the shelf waiting…

  • Mark McGuinness

    OK hope it helps for next time!

  • 55 Hi's

    I can really relate to #5. I find there are so many factors to consider when making decisions, especially with what projects and ideas to invest time and energy into, that I find myself always going with instinct and intuition. If it’s exciting and feels right to me, there has to be at least two and half other people who feel the same.

  • Stephen Boswell

    This month I have been tackling the system in which I work, write, and create. This definitely makes me want to consider the time that I do things as well as part of this process.
    It takes lots of thinking over for me. Most advice on time use seems to focus “get up earlier!” For me though, I’m one of those night owl people. I appreciate the permission to go along with how my body naturally wants to work, and not feel pressured to make myself work earlier in the day.

  • Mark McGuinness

    In which case, ‘stay up later’ might work better for you! The biggest challenge a lot of night owls find is getting their boss/colleagues/customers to accept that they’re working in a different time zone. 🙂

  • Mia

    What if you listen to your body (#5) and it’s screaming no? Could that be fear talking instead? I think I ignore what my gut tells me…although “I told you so” doesn’t feel any better further down the road.

  • Mark McGuinness

    If your body’s screaming ‘no’ then don’t do it!

    It could well be fear talking – and that would be a good thing. No fear = eaten by the sabre-tooth, remember? 🙂

    And beware of confusing fear (healthy, useful emotion) with anxiety (unproductive worrying).

  • Carpe Diem

    I was always for making decisions or solving problems logically. But last year I was facing a tough choice impacting my future. Wanted to have both things, but the timing could not allow for it. Logics did not help. But I went to party, had fun and while visiting ministry of private affairs (restroom, da) a brilliant idea came to me. After that, all was simple. I guess vikings were right in their approach

  • Mark McGuinness

    Brilliant. Sounds like the perfect excuse for a party to me. 😉

  • João Pedro Pereira

    Loved this post, really. This is one of the topics I’ve most in my mind lately because lots of jobs are coming straight to me and it’s so hard to decide, even more when I’m still at college !

    Thank you !

  • Michael LaRocca

    Great suggestions, all of them. One thing I’ve been known to do is grab a coin and say, “Heads is X, tails is Y.” Then disagree with the coin toss results. Sometimes that gut-wrenching, “Here’s what you’ve gotta do” slams it home that nope, that’s not what I want to do. So I don’t. Knowing is the key.

  • Zabette

    An example of a very significant but fairly unplanned decision I made was to buy a house in the country. I rent an apartment in a suburb, but had bought property in the country to build on some day. One day coming back from this property, I saw a “For Sale” sign in front of a cute house. I said, “Stop the car!” I thought to myself, well, I need a house to live in while I build the other house. I looked at the house, it was just right and adorable, then called the realtor. He did show us other properties, but I ended up with this one and never regretted it for a moment. It was quite cheap. I now rent it out on some weekends to supplement the mortgage, and plan to retire there. The house on the property may never get built, but who knows! What probably fueled this seemingly out of the blue decision was that I had read an article about how people of average means were still able to buy affordable houses in this area. This must have been in the back of my mind, but I didn’t consciously act on it. My unconscious did, though.

  • Mark Snape

    I always remember something said to me by a now retired senior exec. He said, Managers would call me late in the afternoon and say can I come and see you about an urgent problem I have? ( this was pre email).

    My friend would say, no, we’ll meet first thing over coffee. In his words: “I don’t want to go home thinking about their problem!” – selfish attitude or self-preservation?

  • shanleyknox

    Thanks for this – I’ve been going back on forth on a decision about moving to Washington DC, or waiting six months and going to Uganda first. Uganda would mean focusing more on an initiative I began there, without also starting a career in DC at the same time. DC would mean jumping in to the other part of my professional life right away (aside from the freelancing I’m already doing). Every day, I feel this pressure to decide. I feel this pressure from one side, then another. This helped me realize I can wait for the job interviews to come back around. I can take more time. I can wait.

  • John Paul Nettles

    “This is why the Vikings were reputed to make every important decision twice – once when sober, once when drunk.”

    Whole article was worth reading just for this gem. I now have a new life strategy. Well, maybe I should think about it first after I’ve had a few.

  • shawn s

    Very good. I’ve been wondering about this because morning, I want to move and at night I become worried about what might happen if I move. We are comfortable where we live but do not enjoy the weather. Am I moving for purely selfish motives, or will it be better for the family. Those are my concerns.

  • Noelle Lake

    Love these! I’m definitely adopting the 4 pm rule – sounds totally centric to me.

    I recently had a major case of indecision that was really occupying all my time and energy. I’m talking majorly stuck in a kind of complex, multifaceted way. Happily, my stuckness resolved when I dropped my negative storyline (which was telling me what to get far far away from) and I identified what I was moving toward. Made all the difference and my energy is back. Peace to all.

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