Perhaps one of the most important things to learn when trying to achieve big goals is how to make good decisions.
If you endlessly procrastinate, or keep changing your mind, you will not only infuriate yourself, you will infuriate those around you and quickly lose their trust and respect.
Gavin Patterson is the chief executive of BT. He studied chemical engineering at Cambridge University and before joining BT worked for Procter and Gamble and Telewest.
“Making decisions is the single distinguishing characteristic that separates the good from the great. The people that are really outstanding are the ones who are great at making decisions,” he says. “It is an art more than a science.
“You don’t have to get every decision right; you have to get the majority right. If you can get two thirds of your decisions right, you are doing really well. With the best will in the world you are just not going to get them all right.”
Patterson himself used to make decisions in a purely logical, sequential way until he went on a course at his former workplace, Procter and Gamble, which opened his eyes to the idea of making decisions in a more instinctive way.
“Something clicked and I started making decisions in a much more holistic, 360‐degree way,” he says. “My decision‐making still has a strong logical basis but now it is also about relying on my gut and trusting my instincts a lot more. The more I have gone through my career, the less decisions are actually black and white.
“You find you are able to make the case both for something and against something, so it doesn’t help to just use logic to make decisions.”
Patterson says that knowing when to make a decision can be just as important as knowing what that decision should be: “It is about relying on your gut to say, I am not ready to make this decision, I need to wait. Or I have got to make this decision early because I can sense that if I don’t, there is going to be a consequence to it. The timeliness of decision‐making is just as important as the effectiveness.”
This is how to make good decisions:
1. Make sure you have all the information you need
It can be really hard to make a good decision if you are relying on assumptions or guesswork. Get the facts first.
2. Find out what your deadline is
That way you can prioritise the decisions you need to make, and make the crucial ones now while leaving the others for later. It may even be that making the most urgent decisions now simplifies the decision-making for the other ones, because it reduces the choices available to you.
3. Put your thinking down on paper
It doesn’t have to be neat; doodles and diagrams are fine. Just get it down. You will get a much clearer idea of the big picture if it is in front of you in black and white, not just inside your head. Plus you can refer back to it later.
4. Don't bow to pressure
Ensure that you are making your own decision and not the decision that someone else wants you to make. If you feel under pressure to make a particular choice, or even to make a choice at all, pause and reflect.
5. Assess the risks
Understand the risks of choosing each possible option – and the risks of not choosing it. You can’t avoid risk entirely, but you do need to ensure you are only taking risks you can live with.
6. Listen to your gut
In some situations tapping into your unguarded emotional response can be extremely useful, particularly when there is no automatic “right” or “wrong” decision.
7. Sleep on it
Your brain will continue to mull over the decision to be made even when you are not consciously thinking about it, so if possible give it time to whirr away while you are asleep. It may give you useful insights.
8. Never put off making decisions that need making
As soon as you have enough information to make a sensible, informed decision, do it and move on to the next one. Even a poor decision is usually better than no decision at all because at least it gives you something to work with.
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