Go with the gut or start a spreadsheet? How to become more decisive

Have you ever been told to “just go with your gut” before making a difficult decision? And if so, how did you react to it? Did you go ahead and trust your gut — or were you trying to know if that would be the right thing to do?

According to behavioral experts, indecisiveness can weigh more on women than men, who are often less concerned with seeking consensus.

“Women are trained to be nice and personable in order to be successful,” says Melody Wilding, executive coach and author of Trust yourself: stop overthinking and channel your emotions for success at work. “As a result, we tend to be less assertive.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be more decisive. There are several thinking habits that can speed up decision-making—although none can guarantee the right answer. Indeed, one of them is to trust your instincts – as long as you have experience in the area you are about to make a decision for.

Melody Wilding

Melody Wilding: “If you try to do everything, you will end up doing nothing” © Ilana Saltzman

“Intuition is only as good as our brain’s ability to recognize past experiences,” says Steve Peters, consultant psychiatrist and author of A path through the jungle and other books on mind management.

He says it comes from a part of the brain that manages emotional memories — the medial prefrontal cortex — that “subconsciously recognizes patterns and warns us that it’s spotted something.”

Wilding agrees. “Trusting your gut is shorthand for ‘listen to the pool of data you’ve collected over time,'” she says. “Your mind spins in a split second when you are presented with a new scenario. Your intuition is at work there.”

Intuition can be particularly useful in situations where there isn’t a definite yes or no answer, just a decision that’s right for you, she says. Many career decisions — “Do I accept this promotion or is it time to leave this organization?” — fall into this category.

However, she warns that intuition can be biased. “We all develop clichés that help us make decisions quickly, but not always more accurately,” she says. “We may have had a negative experience, and that colors all future experiences.”

Peters also points out that gut feelings have limits. To maximize the likelihood of a good outcome, “it is best to add rational thinking to intuition”.

But counseling, especially when it involves others, can interfere with decision-making dynamics.

In Wilding’s work as an executive coach, she has found that women in particular try to get everyone involved before moving forward with a decision.

She advises developing your own point of view before consulting others and limiting this to a maximum of three to five people. “Choose whose opinion you really care about,” she says.

If you’re getting stuck evaluating your options, it’s also possible that you’re not going far enough, says Peters. “When we’re trying to make a decision, several areas of the brain offer advice and information,” he explains. “What happens is that we don’t address every possibility and the possible consequences and so we keep coming back to the same decisions.”

Even as we work through each choice and its possible outcome, our minds often fail to accept that it’s all about probabilities and that there could be multiple viable possibilities, he adds.

Acknowledging this can offer a way forward. “We need to make a decision based on the fact that our decision is our best choice in that moment,” Peters says, and then have a plan to manage any outcomes.

Wilding advises finding the “good enough” solution to avoid getting stuck in perfectionism. She points to studies showing that people who look for the option that’s “good enough” are often happier than people who are “maximizers” — those who study each option closely, believing that there is definitely the best.

It doesn’t help that in today’s world, there are “more options, more choices, more data than ever before,” says Wilding. “There’s still more investigation to be done.”

Overthinking expands to fill in the time you allow it, she notes. It can therefore be useful to limit how many sources you consult for a decision and how much time you spend on it.

“Remember, if you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing nothing,” says Wilding. “Ask yourself, ‘What are my priorities here?'”

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The chimpanzee model

Steve Peters uses a mind management system called the “chimpanzee model” that puts neuroscience into simple terms to help people understand how they think and feel. In this model, there are three main parts of the mind: human, chimp, and computer.

  • human (in the frontal lobe) — the real person; that’s you. A conscious thinking part of the brain based on facts and logic.

  • Inner chimpanzee (in the limbic area) – a primitive part of the brain that bases its thinking on emotions.

  • Computer (many areas, especially the parietal lobe) — a reference source that stores beliefs, memories, and past experiences and can recognize patterns.

Gaining some psychological distance can help clarify decisions, she advises. One way to do this is to identify and name your “inner critic.”

“Sometimes it’s our internal dialogue that prevents us from making decisions,” says Wilding. “By naming that voice, you can step back, pause, and better evaluate.”

Another technique she recommends is to simply fit some “unstructured time” into your schedule. Otherwise, the daily pressures of competing demands can lead to mental fatigue that makes even the smallest of decisions difficult.

“We can’t hear our intuition or make judgments about something when we’re constantly in reaction mode,” she says. “It is crucial to consciously set boundaries to protect this reflection period. Consider that sacred.”

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