Decision-Making Tip: Put First Things First

Making decisions is hard for many of us, and I’ve often heard that it’s because in order to pick one thing, you have to rule out all the other things you could do.

That’s true, of course. And it’s a bummer.

But there’s another factor that I’ve seen trip people up when it comes to making a decision.

(I’m sure it trips me up, too, but you know how it is. It’s easier to spot when it’s someone else.)

Decide on First Things First

It’s hard to make a decision when it rests on another decision you have yet to make.

If you’re trying to decide what to eat right now, you must first decide whether you want to eat right now. If you’re not sure you’re hungry, it’s hard to figure out what you want.

I teach a goal-setting essentials class where we look at common traps that stymie decision-making.

The trap I want to talk about today is this: You focus on a decision that may be hard but seems easier than the one that really needs to be made first.

Let me give you an example.

A man attended my decision-making class in order to decide whether to build an addition on his home. It soon became clear that he and his wife hadn’t yet decided whether to stay in their home or downsize and move somewhere else. In fact, this was a point on which they couldn’t agree.

Until the stay-or-go decision was made, the man understandably had trouble deciding whether to put money and effort into building an addition.

Building would mean staying put … only they hadn’t decided that yet.

Whenever you find yourself grappling with a difficult decision, back up and ask yourself if there isn’t a different decision you need to tackle first.

Clear Those Muddy Waters

Some situations require a multitude of decisions, about career, relationship, kids, home — the whole tamale.

In this case, take some quiet time (if you’re an introvert) or get a friend to help you (if you’re an extrovert) and figure out the chronology of decisions that need to be made.

There’s a logical order that should reveal itself with careful attention. If not, order decisions according to your values, with the most important decision coming first.

Once you’ve figured out your priorities, you can deal with what’s directly in front of you.

This process won’t make a truly difficult decision easy — sometimes you have to decide between two perfectly equal options — but it will clear the muddy waters so you can put all your energy into the right decision at the right time.

Now you can decide whether to leave a comment on this post.

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0 thoughts on “Decision-Making Tip: Put First Things First”

  1. I read an article in the Times a year or so ago about decision making and “studies show” that it helps to time the actual big, important decision-making moment. Apparently, humans make better decisions in the first half of the day (between breakfast and lunch) and before they have made very many other decisions, i.e. don’t stack your big important decisions 12 deep, just do one or two at the best time of your day and leave the next for after your nap or the next day.

    Apparently that’s why there’s always impulse buying opportunites at cash-registers, part of the rationale being that you’ve already made so many decisions during the course of your shopping that you tend to make “worse and worse” decisions because your willpower and “good” judgement goes drastically downhill as the number of decisions you have to make goes up. Thereby you choose to purchase bacon-flavored floss just because it happens to be there.

    Also, good sleep and sated hunger apparently have a huge positive impact on decision making. Anyway, that’s a long comment . . . I’ll try to find and send you the link to the article.

  2. Tina, a man in your class thought “he and his wife hadn’t yet decided whether to stay in their home or downsize and move somewhere else.” If they’re even *considering* downsizing why would they be interested in an addition?? The decision, it seems to me, would be whether to stay put or relocate to a smaller space. Common sense is not a flower that grows in everyone’s garden!

    • I like the way you put that, Miss Maura — very cute. Sometimes decisions are so fraught with emotional implications that common sense can’t prevail. Part of us wants movement on the topic, another part is afraid to even approach it. So we try to please both sides, by avoiding the real issue but tackling related ones in order to feel like we’re getting somewhere. That’s how I conceive of it, anyway. I guess there’s also such a thing as having a garden without the “common sense flower,” too. Thanks for your amusing comment!


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