It’s time to reflect, to look back at the past year, to handle whatever our past selves have left us with. (There’s a fun inheritance!) It’s time to stare the consequences of our actions in the face and figure it out from here.

Too soon?

Yes, I know it’s only October, but this year has given us more than enough to think about, more decisions to wrestle with than we expected.

This can be an overwhelming process, I know. You’re probably inclined to not even touch it with a 10-foot pole, but my question is:

Can you afford not to? Can you bear letting things unfold however they may?

Many people are waiting for 2020 to be over, so they can start fresh. But the truth is that changing the date won’t change anything unless we change something in our mind.

If you have a strong desire to make one of your projects/plans/wishes happen in 2021 or meet the new decade with a renewed sense of purpose and direction, then this might help.

As a very, very early Xmas gift for you, I’m sharing my step-by-step decision-making system. I’ve been improving it a lot over the last 2 years and I know I can rely on it when I have to make important decisions or choices I’ve never tackled before.

Since I’m planning for the next year, trying to figure out how to approach multiple ambitious goals, I’ll be using it alongside you.

The benefits of having a system to make better decisions

One of the most important things I learned from James Clear’s Atomic Habits was this:

“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”

You’ve probably going to be bombarded with articles about goals. Your relatives may pester you with questions on the same topic: “when are you gonna settle down?”, “why don’t you get married?”, and the like. If you want to blow them off elegantly, just tell them that goals are not enough. You can even go as far as asking them how they approach their own goals. Even if we don’t spend the holidays physically next to them, I have no doubt they’ll ask the same questions over Zoom.

Joking aside, the highest performers I know and interview for the podcast have systems that help them in every aspect of their lives (at work, to keep active, to support their relationships, etc.).

Science backs up the value of systems too (also taken from James Clear’s Atomic Habits):

“When scientists analyze people who appear to have tremendous self-control, it turns out those individuals aren’t all that different from those who are struggling. Instead, “disciplined” people are structuring their lives in a way that does not require heroic willpower and self-control. In other words, they spend less time in tempting situations.”

While the fragment above is focused on habits, we can apply this principle for decision-making as well.

Since today’s environment requires more complex decision-making than ever before, we need all the help we can get. So here’s how you can use your resources to make better choices for your future self.

“To produce change, smooth the path or open a clear channel that links good decisions to effective action.” – Lee Ross and Thomas Gilovich – The Wisest One in the Room

3 pitfalls you can avoid by using a decision-making system:

  • the paralyzing effect of uncertainty
  • the demanding nature of guesswork
  • the deceiving impact of mental biases
  • lying to yourself (as humans, we excel at this!).

My decision-making system

1. Accept the responsibility that you’re making a difficult choice.

If you’re going to wish or believe it should be simpler to make decisions like this, you’re wasting energy on something you can’t control. The sooner you acknowledge that it’s not going to be easy and that the only way is through, the sooner you’ll get in a much better mental place to start.

Uncertainty drives cognitive effort, and people are very unhappy with that – this is what also found from our work in doing consumer behavior assessments. Whenever people don’t understand information, they don’t understand the context or the setting, they’re very unhappy.

So, that’s the first step: you need to accept that there’s going to be a lot of effort that you need to put into finding the way to go. Then, you have to be willing to adapt very fast. Meaning, what was right in the morning might not be right in the afternoon when you have new information showing you that it’s safe or not safe to go outside or whatever.

Then, you have to have a flexible mindset. So, you might change your behavior, you might change your habits, and you have to accept that and be willing to do that. Because if you’re rigid, you might be in trouble.

Dr. Ana Iorga, neuroscience expert – How do you know? podcast

2. Get out of your own head. Write it down.

To start gaining objectivity, you have to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Not a laptop, not a smartphone, not a tablet – on paper.

“Brain scans during the two activities also show that forming words by hand as opposed to on a keyboard leads to increased brain activity.” (Source.)

You can do a brain-dump, a pros and cons list, whatever works to get the questions, dilemmas, and ideas around the decision in front of your eyes.

3. Who is it for?

Once I’ve created some mental space by writing down my thoughts, I try to figure out who it will ultimately benefit from this decision.

Sometimes, I’ll catch myself trying to make a decision that’s skewed by my tendency to please people. In a situation like this, I’d make the decision for someone else, which is not wrong, provided you do it with intent and awareness.

Here’s a quick reminder that keeps me grounded when I find myself in a pickle like this:

“Do no harm, but take no crap.” – Moïra Fowley-Doyle

4. What is it for?

Next, I strive to pinpoint to which fundamental human need the outcome answers:

  1. Certainty/ComfortAm I making this decision so I can get back to my comfort zone or to lull myself into a false sense of security?
  2. Uncertainty/VarietyAm I making this decision because I’m scared of the unknown? Am I choosing the option that brings me something new because I crave novelty? (And we all do! Otherwise we wouldn’t spend so much time on social media.)
  3. SignificanceAm I making this decision so I can feel important or influential? (Careful what your ego’s hungry for.)
  4. Love and connectionAm I making this decision because I long for affection and connection?
  5. GrowthAm I making this decision because I believe it will help me grow? In which ways do I expect it to help me grow?
  6. ContributionAm I deciding in favor of something that will give me the sense I’m generously contributing to something greater than myself?

Try to work with these questions and write down what you come up with. I promise they’ll help you get more clarity!
(Read more about these 6 needs and their role in the newsletter dedicated to them.)

5. What is within my control? What isn’t?

This is where I define what I know about making the decision and where I try to figure out what I don’t know.

This helps me define what’s within my circle of control and what’s outside of it. This helps me focus on the things where I can make a difference and avoid wasting resources on what I can’t do anything about.

circle of concern

For example: reading the news frequently makes me anxious. Can I control global events? No. So what can I control? I can control how often I check the news (less frequently > less anxiety). I can control my reaction to the bad stuff that happens (“it’s all going to shit” vs “I’m going to prepare for the worst case scenario”). I can vote so leaders will (hopefully) make better decisions. I can donate to causes I care about to help others and show them they’re not alone.

There’s much more you can do than you realize and how you look at these things has a deep influence over your decisions.

6. Spot the friction points

Mapping out what bothers me, what scares me is a great way to spot the difficult bits in the decision. It’s also a tactic to gain objectivity around them and figure out if they’re real or if I’ve just built them in my head.

Making this list is a great opportunity to weigh the risks and rewards of the decision at hand.

With each step, you gain clarity over what can happen as a consequence of your choice.

When I decided I’d go into freelancing, it was partly a choice based on being fed up with the way things worked at my job. But I also didn’t want to make a decision just to get rid of a bad situation. I wanted to choose to build towards a better way or working and living. So I listed the things that I wanted to create and see through to completion and that filled me with energy and strengthened my determination.

At the same time, I was scared I wouldn’t have what it takes to manage all the aspects of the business (accounting stuff, legal stuff, sales and negotiation). So I approached that by finding a great accounting company to work with, by learning from how other freelancers do it, and, guess what? – things started coming together in much better ways than I expected!

In hindsight, it may be easy to see that your choices were right, but it’s also important to know there’s a bit of luck involved as well. However, making room for luck to come in and do its thing is just as important.

7. Use curiosity

Another interesting and useful thing that happens during the decision-making process is that, sometimes, alternative options pop up.

This happens when I do these two things (which I wish I did A LOT more often until now):

  • Look at the decision from a place of curiosity – this helps create a bit of emotional distance and sets the mood for a constructive outlook (let your first reaction be: “Well that’s interesting!”)
  • Ask follow-up questions – because “being curious is better than being smart”, as James Clear writes.

Again, all the thoughts that go through my mind end up in writing because dealing with random ideas floating around in my head creates more issues than it solves.

8. Investigate how others approach it

If it’s an especially important decision, I’ll go out and read/listen to stories of people who’ve gone through similar situations.

As people, we’re inclined to seek out these direct experiences because they’re a lot more nuanced than what data can provide. If you think this is just you, it’s not.


Speaking of data-driven decisions, there’s a pitfall to avoid:

torture data

This is confirmation bias in action. Try to be aware of when choosing one option over the other. Careful how you pick your supportive arguments and try your best not to lie to yourself.

Here’s what neuroscience reveals about how we make choices depending on how we approach them:

“When focused on selection, people tend to think of things that warrant selection. When focused on rejection, in contrast, people tend to think of things that warrant rejection – on reasons for ruling out one or the other option.” Lee Ross and Thomas Gilovich – The Wisest One in the Room

Observe how you’re approaching the decision and remember:

“Data doesn’t make decisions for you. Data informs your decision making.” – Hiten Shah – 5 Habits to Building Better Products Faster

9. Ask for a trusted outsider’s perspective

This is where I turn to my closest friends for advice.

I know there’s not going to support me if I’m about to steer off track. They’re also going to ask uncomfortable, probing questions and won’t let me off the hook until I dig deep enough for answers. This is something I’m very appreciative of.

10. Sit with it

One of the most difficult things we can do is sit with uncertainty. Let it sink in. Stop trying to just get out of an uncomfortable situation and just get it over with. Sleep on it.

But, like all truly valuable things, it’s worth it precisely because it’s not easy.

Watch what happens when you don’t rush through it but rather force yourself a bit to let it steep for a while, like a good cup of white tea.

11. Spot any obvious biases

I’ve mentioned this before, because the list is long and full of horrors. (Please allow my exaggeration for dramatic effect. 😀 )

Here’s a snippet I found especially helpful from a report I encourage you to read on the future we’re all heading towards:

“Knowledge is social. We unconsciously prefer ideas that affirm our identity — that remind us we’re part of a larger community, and that are accepted by our group. We suffer from availability cascades, the tendency to remember and accept ideas that we’ve heard before, and have heard recently. We orient toward fears and threats, tending to adopt information that addresses our anxieties. And we drift towards confirmation bias: the tendency to notice and accept information that fits with the things we already believe, and to ignore or dismiss ideas that don’t quite accord. None of which means that human beings are inherently irrational or dishonest; merely that we’re all misled by our own minds, at least some of the time.

Our cognitive systems were built for a very different world than the one we now inhabit—a world of smaller, tighter-knit communities. And their functions remain intact; social sharing and reinforcement can help small groups become more cohesive and more close-knit, and can spread useful information quickly. But it’s hard to imagine a more problematic set of tools for navigating post-modern life. The search and social networks that we use to find and share information are a near-perfect mirror to our biases. Our machines echo our minds.” – Atlas of the decade – Geographies of transition

12. Pay attention to your instinct

I bet you know what it’s like to feel that pit in your stomach when you’ve done something wrong. It happens almost immediately when you’ve gone in the wrong direction.

Cultivating objectivity is essential for good decision-making, but so it is to balance it with intuition. Here’s why:

“Neurologists have discovered that when emotions and feelings are impaired, we actually lose the ability to make decisions. We have no signal of what to pursue and what to avoid.

It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.” – James Clear – Atomic Habits

Like the Atlas of the decade mentions, we’re wired for emotion and social inclusion, but we’ve also evolved to “metabolize” experiences in a way that can be perfectly explained through language, concepts, or data.

That’s why trusting your gut is something you should try more often. (Even visionary designer Karim Rashid recommends the same.)

13. Leave room for negotiation

An interesting addition I made this year to the process was to see if there’s anything I can negotiate at a later time, once I’ve had more time to gather some real-world data.

This is a way to accommodate my need for freedom, to adapt and stay nimble.

For example, sometimes clients change the scope of a project. Knowing that, we agree to include a clause in our contract that basically says that additional costs may happen as a result of these changes. We also agree not to go over, say, 10% of the value of the entire contract, so they’ll have budget visibility. Simple, clear, and flexible.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

14. Test it out

Borrowing the experimentation mindset from the world of startups and innovation, I try to see if there’s any way to test if the decision to engage could work.

Whether it’s working on a smaller project with a potential long-term client or trying a new way to deliver my services (say, through a content marketing training), I try not to go at it one step at a time. My reason for this is not that I’m unsure of the work itself, but rather of how the relationship might evolve. Plus, it gives both me and the client predictability over budget, duration, and outcomes.

What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It can be a “let’s try to see if this could be what we need/want.”

“Your actions reveal how badly you want something.” – James Clear – Atomic Habits

Is your mind buzzing?

If this seems like a long list for the decision you’re facing, it could mean that the decision is not that important for you. That’s also a signal you can take into account for the choice you’re about to make.

If you’re going into your 2021 planning set on improving your health, your relationships, and your work, here’s something helpful to keep in mind:

“Standardize before you optimize. You can’t improve a habit* that doesn’t exist.” – James Clear – Atomic Habits

*or a system you don’t have (yet!)

Did this work for you? Let me know!

What do you think of this system? Did it help you in any way with your current challenges?

I’m always eager to share experiences and figure out a better path forward.