decision making

5 ways to amp up your decision-making instincts


Outstanding leadership is closely tied to decisiveness and good decision making ability.  Of all the traits that great leaders share,  decisiveness is at the top.               

Making decisions and taking action are keys to high performance in every aspect of our lives  —  at work, and even at home.  

Successful leaders have honed in on their self-awareness and can listen to that voice coming from within.  Think about how Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs worked.   Great leaders not only have knowledge about the facts, but they know that their intuition and how they feel about those facts makes all the difference.  They have honed their ability to feel, and to trust what they feel. In essence, they develop intuition, and they don’t hesitate to rely on it.  Steve Jobs called intuition “more powerful than intellect.”

The good news is that we don’t need to be born into decision making abilities.  We can cultivate and improve our intuitive sense and decision-making instincts, growing this superpower.

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The belief that prevents us from listening to our intuition

Somehow, though, we are all innately suspicious of intuitive thinking.  The main reason for this is that we are conditioned to think that we need complete data/information in order to decide — otherwise known as ‘analysis paralysis’.  This belief also leads to the fear that, without complete information, we will make the wrong decision.

And believe me, I get it – I am an analytical person and a perfectionist — the antithesis of swift decision making.  I love to look at all the facts and information until I feel like I have a solid foundation, rather than making a quick decision.  It’s something I still struggle with. But over the years I’ve also learned that in many situations, making a quick, decisive decision and not looking back actually helps my team and/or family move forward, and the world doesn’t end because I didn’t spend days analyzing all of the possible outcomes beforehand.


The evidence against needing complete information.

There is actually scientific research that shatters this false belief that we need complete information for effective decision making.  Check out the following fascinating examples from the Malcolm Gladwell book “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, (Amazon aff. link) that shatter this ‘full information’ belief.


decision making

Trust your intuition example #1.  Your subconscious is smart and trustable.  

Gladwell in his book “Blink” writes about a scientific experiment, where individuals were told to play a card game, which had two red decks and two blue decks.  They were told that each card either wins them some money or costs them some money. And their job was to turn over cards one at a time from any of the decks, in a way that maximizes their winnings.  

What they weren’t told at the start is that the red decks were skewed towards high cost — the rewards were high, but the costs were very high too.  And the blue decks offered a much more steady and stable scenario — most cards offered frequent $50 payouts and modest penalties.

The experiment was to see how long it took the individuals to figure out this skewed-ness and prefer the blue decks.

What the scientists found.

The scientists found that after turning over about 50 cards, most people started to develop a hunch about what was going on.  They didn’t know for sure why they preferred the blue decks, but they were pretty sure at that point that the blue decks were a better bet.

After about 80 cards, most of them figured out the game and could explain exactly why the red decks were such a bad idea.

This is our traditional learning / information gathering pattern.   We have some experiences, we think them through, we develop a theory, and then finally we put two and two together. 

Now the fun part.    

But the scientists also hooked up each individual to a machine that measured the sweat glands in the palms of their hands (which respond to both stress and temperature).   What the scientists found was that, by the 10th card, people started developing stress responses to the red decks.   In other words, 40 cards before they were able to say they had a hunch about what was going on.  

Also, right around the time their palms started sweating, they changed their behavior too — they started favoring the blue cards and taking fewer cards from the red decks.  In essence, they figured out the game before they realized they had figured it out.  

They began making adjustments in their decision making before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.  

The part of our brain that does this is called the adaptive unconscious — it operates quickly (after just 10 cards), and it picks up the problem with the red cards almost right away.  But it operates entirely below the level of consciousness — it sends messages through indirect channels like the sweat glands. It’s a system where our brain reaches conclusions without it telling us it has reached conclusions.  In other words, it provides us with very fast, intuitive answers, if we watch for it and learn to listen to it!


decision making with incomplete information

Trust your intuition example #2:  Slices of information can be just as useful as full information.

Another example from “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking(Amazon aff. link). This time an experiment with college students rating the effectiveness of their professors.  The experiment compared quick decision making with limited information to decision making over a longer time period with more complete information.  

In one scenario,  a set of students were given three 10-second videotapes of a professor, with the sound turned off, and they were asked to come up with a rating of the teacher’s effectiveness.  Another set of students was given video clips that were only 5 seconds long.  Another set of students was given video clips of just 2 seconds.  The ratings across these groups were all very consistent.  

The remarkable part is that when the psychologists compared the snap judgments from the video clips to the evaluations made by students after a full semester of classes with the professor, they found that the ratings were essentially the same.  In other words, the small slice of information ( two seconds of videotape without sound)  was just as effective as the full semester of interaction in decision making about the professor.   Small slices are ok!


decision making with limited choices

Trust your intution example #3: Limited choices get us to quick action.

The assertion here is that extra information isn’t actually an advantage at all.  You need to know very little to find the underlying pattern of a complex phenomenon. And in fact, the extra information confuses the issue.  

Another example experiment from “Blink”.  This experiment was done at an upscale grocery store called “Draeger’s” (an amazing store, btw) in Menlo Park, CA.   A tasting booth was set up with a variety of exotic gourmet jams. The experiment was to see whether the number of jams displayed made any difference in the number of jams sold.  The hypothesis was that the more choices customers had, the more likely they would be to buy, since they could find a jam that precisely met their preferences.

But the results showed that the opposite was true:   30% of those who stopped by the six-choice booth ended up buying jam, while only 3% who stopped by the 24-choice booth bought anything.

And this is because buying jam is a snap decision.  If you are given too many choices to consider, you get paralyzed in your decision making.  Snap judgments can best be made because they are frugal — limited information actually helps you to make a decision!


But how? 5 ways to amp-up your decision-making instincts.

How do you actually develop and cultivate using your inner voice, in ways to help you become more decisive? 5 things to repeat until it starts to become more natural:

1.  Find your inner voice.

‘Try on’ various answers/scenarios and observe how you feel.   Make your decision based on the one that ‘tries on’ the best. You can even do this literally.  Grab 3 blank index cards, think about a decision you are currently trying to make, and write down a different possible solution on each card.  Then try on each answer by envisioning this solution to be in place, and notice the feeling you get — is your chest constricted, are your shoulders tense, or does your body feel relaxed.  Notice the physical sensations. Do you feel queasy, tight, or nauseated? Or comfortable, exhilarated, and at ease?

2.  Pay attention to sudden feelings.

Notice times when your mood changes suddenly, or when you have a sudden change in how you feel (eg you walk into a room of people and feel uneasy).  Pay attention to these shifts in mood, and ask yourself why you are feeling this way. “What is this feeling telling me” — wait for an answer. It might not arrive immediately, but at some point you’ll have an insight into your mood change.  

3.  Ask a question, listen for the answer.

Ask yourself what you should do.  Then listen intently as though you are struggling to hear a very quiet voice.  Wait for a clear answer to come to you. Ignore the internal ‘chatter’ or outside distractions.  Wait for the clear voice.  You’ll begin to recognize it and trust it more and more.

4.  Flip a coin.

For decisions that have two possible directions.  Assign one decision to heads, and another decision to tails.  Flip the coin high in the air, and as you release the coin, pay attention to the side you hope it will land on.  Your internal voice is telling you what you really want in this situation.

5.  Capture your flashes.

Intuition usually comes to us in a flash of insight–an aha! moment, and these moments come (and go) very quickly.  When those moments hit, don’t let them go by —  write them down, and follow through.

What are your best ways to hear your intuitive voice?  Let me know!

Much success in your decision making,

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