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Stanford Decision Engineer Shares 5 Mistakes People Make When Facing Hard Choices

Stanford Engineer, Michelle Florendo, shares five key insights about the decision-making process based on her training in decision analysis and engineering.

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BY Sarah Peck - 11 May 2018

Stanford Decision Engineer Shares 5 Mistakes People Make When Facing Hard Choices

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Have you ever been paralyzed by a decision, worried you won't make the right choice, or want to feel better about making a decision?

Michelle Florendo is a decision analysis expert who studied decision engineering at Stanford and received an MBA from Berkeley. When found out she was pregnant with her first child, she faced what seemed like a daunting fork in the road: choosing between her professional life and her upcoming role as a new parent. But her wisdom in decision analysis reminded her that she probably had more options than she thought.

This led her to deepen her understanding decision-making. I talked with her about key reasons why people struggle with making decisions.

Here are five common mistakes people make in the decision-making process.

1. Spending too much time in the research phase.

Sometimes you spend too much time gathering data and stats, and shy away from actually making the decision.

At some point, the research has to end. While it can feel almost dangerous to make a choice when you are sure there is still more information is out there, remind yourself that's impossible to explore every minute detail and angle of an outcome.

Rather than let this paralyze you, remind yourself that each outcome provides a different angle and opportunity. One isn't better than the other. When the results are in, you will respond and react and move on. If you wait forever, fear remains in charge. Schedule an end-point to your stalling, fretting, and researching--and resolve to move forward.

2. Not giving yourself enough time to learn how to make great decisions.

Decision-making is not something you are always bad at or always good at--it is a skill learned over time and practice.

How can you know when you've made a good choice? People often dread making a final call because of many reasons: fear, doubt, uncertainty, or anxiety about making "the wrong decision." Florendo emphasizes that she regularly sees people who are afraid to make decisions in the present because they have made bad decisions in the past. But the truth is, everyone makes mistakes.

Making mistakes and learning from them is part of the decision-making journey. Just like batting averages in baseball, you're not trying to get a 100% perfect score on all of your decisions. The best way to get better at making decisions is to give yourself every opportunity to practice.

Evaluate how they worked out--not just the outcome, but also how the process worked for you. Adjust the dial and try a new method if you're not on board with the results.

3. Confusing the quality of the decision with the quality of the outcome.

It's possible to make a great decision with the given information at hand, and still be disappointed later on with the outcome.

It's important to separate the quality of the decision from the result. A great decision process can still be great even if the result does not end up working for you. You can gather all the data and do all the research in the time you have, and make the best possible decision.

If we could control every outcome, it would not be decision-making, it would be magic.

4. Mistaking your options as fixed and binary.

One of the traps of decision-making is seeing only a few (often two) options. Sometimes you have to think outside of the box to unpack what other options might exist.

For example, when thinking about quitting a corporate career or starting a new business, it can be hard to see the gray areas in between. But with further analysis, you might add a few options to the table, such as working a side hustle, negotiating a reduced work week, or telecommuting twice a week.

Before you get down to making the decision, expand your horizon of options. Ask:

  • What happens when you zoom out?
  • Will are some other, unusual possibilities? Does it have to be black-and-white?
  • Try a different approach, switching up from list-making, to consulting friends, or trying a new tool.

5. Getting stuck in a perfectionism trap.

Perfectionism can often be a hidden synonym for procrastination. You may poll your friends, cross-check experiences and even consult your own personal background without truly advancing the process.

Accept the fact that there will always be some unknowns. Some of these unknowns may even reveal themselves after the choice is made. These unknowns are largely not fatal.

Decision making can be hard, but you can learn and improve your process with deadlines, experimentation, and action.

Do any of these traps feel familiar? Which ones are you most prone to falling into?

Remember that recognizing your patterns is often the first step toward making a change.

The next time you are facing a decision, build in some structure to help you navigate your common pitfalls. Do some research and then move on. Create a timeline and stick to it. Look outside the obvious.

Remind yourself that making the "right choice" for every single decision you encounter is an unfair expectation of yourself--you can only commit to doing the best you can, with what you have, and learning from the results.

Disclosure: I originally interviewed Michelle Florendo as part of an ongoing podcast series with Startup Pregnant featuring women, parents, and work.