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Two staples of decision-making are the pro-con list and flipping a coin. Pro-con lists focus on the rational advantages and disadvantages of the options; flipping a coin is effective because when it lands and prescribes a course of action, your immediate reaction will reveal if that feels right, and hence, what you really want to do.

Decision-making is about the head but also the gut. Instinct and emotions play a role. You need to be aware of that, and control it. Most of us don’t.

“Human beings are flawed decision-makers,” management trainer Jim Loehr and Sheila Ohlsson, a senior scientist at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University, write in their book Wise Decisions.

Among the classic organizational examples are the New Coke flop, Decca Records passing on the Beatles and Motorola deciding against smartphones. Bankruptcies, divorces and the bad health choices around us point to difficulties in personal decision-making.

Decision-making fatigue can play a role. We are decision-making machines, handling innumerable choices, large and small, through the day. But the two authors say we are also fiction-making machines. “The human brain is fully capable of duping itself, of hijacking the decision-making process so completely that the only choice you have left is the one you actually wanted in the first place,” they note. And maybe that’s not the right one.

Charlie Munger, as vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway the long-time chief lieutenant to financier Warren Buffett, in a 1994 speech recently highlighted by the Farnam Street blog outlined a two-step approach: Understand the forces at play and understand how your subconscious might be leading you astray. “One approach is rationality – the way you’d work out a bridge problem – by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions – many of which are wrong,” he said.

Mr. Loehr and Ms. Ohlsson recommend you get your intellectual and spiritual direction straight by at some point thinking about your best moral self, life purpose, core values and ultimate mission. What is your tombstone legacy: six words that will be carved onto your tombstone, reflecting how you want to be remembered after death? They view it as preloading your decision-making apparatus with the right information and wisdom.

They urge you to view most incoming data as partially or completely biased in some direction, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Become skillful at separating fact from opinion, and alert to when facts are being selectively used to form a narrative that supports a particular bias, by someone else or you.

Emotions can be seen as getting in the way. But the coin-flip trick, which is often recommended for decision-making, highlights your feelings about a course of action before taking it.

Mr. Loehr and Ms. Ohlsson stress the objective is not to silence emotion in decision-making. “Instead, the objective is to draw insight and understanding from whatever emotions and related feelings are bubbling up in the moment, listen to them, integrate the information with other relevant input, and discern both what is happening and how you feel about it. Then, using that information, you can more wisely choose either to act or not to act,” they state.

They advise you to avoid making decisions when you are tired, hungry, sleep-deprived or needy. When your emotions are stirred up, delay, postpone or defer any important decisions until those emotions, whether positive or negative, won’t cloud your rational thinking ability. Use exercise, movement, meditation and deep breathing to reset your emotional state. On the other hand, use nature and sunlight to activate emotional insights prior to making important choices.

“Remember, the best decisions are made when you combine emotional insights with rational insights. Balancing these two valued sources of information enhances wise decision-making,” Mr. Loehr and Ms. Ohlsson write.

Quick hits

  • Executive coach Scott Eblin recommends taking a few minutes early in the morning to scan the day’s schedule for key conversations and meetings, asking yourself: What am I trying to accomplish in that event? How do I need to show up to make that outcome likely?
  • If you were laid off tomorrow, would you be ready, asks Halifax-based executive recruiter Gerald Walsh. Make sure you establish a social media presence, develop a strong network of contacts you could immediately tap into, join professional or business associations that might allow networking and understand what transferable skills you have for other jobs.
  • Leadership blogger Michael McKinney stresses the importance of an inner locus of control, a belief you are responsible for and in control of your own success rather than feeling fate or external forces control your life’s outcomes. That means instead of asking in adverse situations, “Why is this happening to me?” ask, “Why is this happening for me?”
  • Similarly, self-help author Mark Manson asks: What behaviours and beliefs have you allowed the world to dictate to you? What behaviours and beliefs are you confident you chose for yourself? How difficult was that choice?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.