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In 2004, I shelled out $12,500 for a business mentor, expecting him to guide me towards entrepreneurial stardom. Twelve months later, I teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy.
Did I make a poor investment decision?
Maybe, but consider this. A month after my business failed, that same mentor coached me into getting a job I was grossly unqualified for. The income from that job totaled well over two million dollars the next decade.
Monumental decisions like those often yield unpredictable life-changing effects. But small, seemingly insignificant decisions can also shape our futures in ways we cannot foresee.
Nineteen years ago, one September night at around 9 PM, I made a last-minute decision to meet a friend at a bar, despite my fatigue. On that night, I began a relationship with my future wife.
Just like my decision to go out that night, many of life’s most impactful decisions go unnoticed. They’re barely conscious choices we make from the moment we wake up. Do you hit snooze half a dozen times, or do you jump out of bed to write 1,000 words or code a new product idea?
On any given day, the result of these decisions yields no discernable benefit or detriment. But those choices, when done repeatedly for months and years, can mean the difference between achieving a life goal or merely dreaming about it.
For all the stories you read about making money, finding love, achieving anything of value, you rarely read about the boring nuts and bolts of decision-making. It’s the superpower nobody takes seriously. Here’s how to hone that skill.
The five steps to make empowering decisions
When I think back on my worst decisions, they all share one common trait — the decision-making occurred on auto-pilot, relegated to a tucked-away corner of my brain free to operate without supervision or accountability.
To master decision-making, you must first reclaim that authority.
Good decisions result from the conscious effort of recognizing you’re choosing one option over another and identifying the consequences of each choice.
For significant decisions, it’s helpful to grab a pen and paper and write down the consequences. Benjamin Franklin once described a similar process in a letter he wrote to a peer. He made a list of pros and cons, weighed them, canceled the pros and cons of equal weight, and then after several days, he came to a conclusion.
That’s overkill for most decisions, but by identifying the pros and cons or consequences, you’re slowing down the process, disrupting the autopilot mechanism.
Awareness of the advantages and disadvantages is a solid first step, but it lacks persuasive power when the right choice seems risky or unappealing.
Fight your desire to avoid short-term pain.
When I worked in sales, a mentor shared a one-sentence lesson that proved so profound, it not only impacted my sales career but also fueled a decade of personal growth.
When someone decides to buy, the primary motivating factor is the desire to avoid pain — a pain they feel right now.
Until then, I believed that pleasure motivated us. But when I put this lesson into practice, it became clear: the desire to avoid pain (pain we’re feeling right now) dominates our decision-making process.
Consider this. In which scenario would you more likely decide to see a doctor?
- Receiving a postcard in the mail reminding you that your yearly physical will prevent future health problems.
- Experiencing an unrelenting sharp pain in your stomach.
It’s not just physical pain we seek to avoid, but emotional too. Getting out of bed seems more painful than hitting snooze, so we react accordingly. Rejection, setbacks, failure, and struggle also register as painful experiences. If we can avoid them, we will choose to do so.
Take a second look at your list of consequences or cons. Which ones are fantom consequences, short-term emotional pain with no permanent damage? Once you identify these, you can take steps to neutralize the impact.
Exploit the pain avoidance motivation.
When we evaluate our options, two dynamics influence our interpretation of pain: certainty and safety.
In Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he recounts the classic experiment on risk and certainty. Consider these two choices:
- The gamble: An 80% chance to win $100 and a 20% chance to win $10.
- The certainty: $80 for sure.
The experiments show that most people would choose the sure thing. We crave certainty. As my former sales mentor explained, we also prefer safety — options without pain.
We use this reasoning when we evaluate whether we should call that prospect — the one who might reject our overtures — or choose the safer and more certain option, making an excuse to avoid that call.
That was the path I took nineteen years ago when I dove into entrepreneurship. I couldn’t bring myself to call on prospects. Only when I faced bankruptcy did I finally overcome that blockage. That’s when the fear and uncertainty of being broke overpowered my fear of rejection.
You can use that same trick to overcome irrational fear. Find a way to expose the potential pain of the safe choice so that it seems more dangerous than the seemingly riskier choice.
Think of every decision as a crossroad.
To assess your options appropriately, think in terms of the big picture instead of the immediate aftermath.
Imagine yourself at a crossroads. To your left lies a path that appears safe. To your right, one littered with roadblocks.
Look further down the road to your left. Identify where that path will eventually take you. Will it be continued safety and security, or will it result in a more painful outcome?
Next, look to your right. Just down the road, you’ll find uncertainty, perhaps even pain. Look further down. Where will it eventually lead you?
Visualizing the bigger picture forces you to consider the long-term benefits versus short-term pain. I’ve found that I can latch onto the long-term win and use it to neutralize any mental resistance.
Focus on one tiny step.
Making a decision is easy. It’s an intellectual exercise until you put it into effect. At some point, you must act on your decision. Once you commit, you put yourself at a critical juncture — act or weasel your way out of it.
When your decision involves risk or fear, there’s only one reliable way to move forward.
Take one small step.
Focus on the mechanical aspects: throw the blanket off of you, splash water on your face, write one sentence, call one person. Don’t think about points of resistance. What if he hangs up on me? That kind of thinking enables overwhelm and fear to shock you into inertia. Instead, focus on one tiny step at a time.