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Understanding the psychology of making good decisions

Ask many men ‘how they are feeling’ and they'll tell you ‘how they are thinking’ - because they don't understand the question.

The problem we face traditionally as men is, ‘How you think determines how you make decisions, so what determines how you think has a more direct and measurable impact upon your business then you may first, well, ‘Think’.

So how do we improve the quality and speed of the decisions we’re making every day, while decreasing decision overload? How do we know if we’re building the right service or product? – Such questions fundamentally come down to the quality of our decisions.

In this article

How do you think about your thinking?

The Terminators Skynet became self-aware long before the bulk of men became self-aware. HR Manager talking about the frustration of working with resistant old-school male executives

Do your decisions stack up - or down?

Growing our ability to make habitually good decisions provides a powerful legacy because all our decisions stand on the shoulders of a past decision.

For example, you may have chosen to create a customer-facing training video for your business product. But that's because you have previously decided you want to help your ‘yet to be customers’ better understand the issues you work with, how you can solve their particular problems, so they can make better decisions about if your brand and service or product is right for them.

But that decision was built upon a past decision about the type of customer you want and the strategy you will use to connect with them.

All our decisions are stacked on top of one another.

Acknowledging your choice to turn left now prevents you from turning right

Every decision we make in some way inherently shapes the remaining available choices we have and usually removes or restrains your later options by forcing you to focus on a more defined ‘next decision.

This process is deliberate, if not invisible, and at some level unconscious to the decision-maker. So, it's worth pausing to consider what other unconscious decisions were made and now operating in our lives, and the lives of our high-performance teams.

Decisions usually stack upon each other

  • Your Peak Behaviour and performance - stands upon
  • Your Thinking - that then stands upon
  • Your Feelings - that then stands upon
  • Your Raw emotions

Watching yourself think

Have you ever considered how you feel is not how you think?

It's actually very different. The emotion you may be experiencing doesn't have to be the feeling you are allowing to dominate your physiology.

We can all see this distinction at work in a family trip to the rollercoaster park - where the emotional state of adrenaline seems to be interpreted (so I'm told) as a happy and joyous experience for a teenager, while a less than sparkling sense of dread for a parent like myself unconsciously questioning the structural integrity of the ride and wondering whether the complimentary travel insurance that came with the credit card I used to pay for the trip would specifically cover ride failure, whiplash, torn optic nerves and psychotic states (other than those triggered by receipt of the monthly credit card bill itself)?

But I digress.

Same inputs different outcomes

The same emotional inputs to two different people on the rollercoaster can produce two very different feelings: emotions are not our feelings.

The skill comes in the ability to recognise when it's just a feeling and not a thinking so we can choose not to respond but just to recognise the difference.

A staff member calls in sick right before the long weekend and just when we have a critical milestone to meet. While feelings of annoyance and initial disbelief might be the first thing in our mind (followed by the temptation to have a quick look at the employment website for people who ‘actually want a job), my thinking state is, ‘Ok, well we’ll have to adapt and manage the challenges this brings to the schedule (and acknowledge the feelings) and move on.’

Same emotional inputs to two different people - two very different feelings: feelings are not our thinking.

Which one comes first?

Emotions come first, then feelings come soon after as the emotion chemicals go to work in our bodies. Then moods develop from a combination of feelings. Then you have to think your way out of this cocktail or be trapped reacting to it. You could say emotions are responses to the chemicals released in response to our interpretation of a specific trigger.

The physiology of making good decisions and knowing yourself

As a business owner, if you want to improve your A-Game and the performance of your team, skills sets alone are not enough; you need to understand the physiology of good decisions.

If you want world-class performance, you will need to be able to identify and navigate through your feeling space - it's a requirement, not an option if you truly want to be world-class.

This is why fragile personalities, lovingly referred to as ‘control freaks,’ can never succeed in business because they paralyze their team, silence all creativity, and then deliberately blind themselves to all good advice to the contrary.

In the same way bullying and harassment hobbles performance, teams with control freaks in leadership positions are structurally flawed.

Recognising the difference between feeling and deciding

There are some things that business owners need to learn to recognise. In the same way success leaves fingerprints, so does failure, lack of preparedness and plain old stupidity.

While our own process may be compressed decision making, trusting your gut involves much more than a knee jerk response to a sensation.

  • Do you know what the signature appearance of anxiety looks like?
  • Do you know what its physiological response is compared to what is the feeling response and how does that affect your decisions?
  • Do you know how to recognise a panic attack and how to talk yourself off the ledge?
  • Do you know how to recognise this behavioral intelligence when it's apparently missing from a business partner, manager, adviser or a key supplier?

Commit to knowing yourself and your own triggers

If you want to be world-class in your performance, you will need to be able to identify and navigate through your feeling space – it's a requirement, not an option if you truly want to be world-class in whatever your chosen venture.

You need to get a healthy grip on every single level of your decision making stack.

It all starts with you understanding the interplay across your entire decision making stack.
Performance builds on Behaviours and habits that build on Thinking structures that build on feelings that build on an awareness of raw emotions that build on a basic awareness of the physiology of what's happening in your body.

What's adding unnecessary friction in your life?

Are you experiencing a carbohydrate brain fade after a big lunch, are you thirsty, are you particularly cold or tired, is the height of the table that you're forced to work on uncomfortable?

Whatever adds friction saps your cognitive resources.

Your raw emotions are the summary of your physical state and an indicator of your energetic state.

We all need to cultivate our own self-awareness (your business depends upon it).

  • I know not to make financial decisions for 24 hours after a significantly difficult emotional experience, because I know my thinking processes may be off and I don't want to risk adding fuel to the fire on a separate front.
  • I have a mental preset spending limit that requires a self-imposed 24-hour delay because it helps me maintain a protective awareness and behaviors that reduce my daily cognitive load.

Ignoring your emotional state changes you unconsciously

The danger of not recognising the feelings you're having about your emotional state is as dangerous as breathing in carbon monoxide from a car engine while in a confined space.

  • It changes how you make decisions, but you don't feel it
  • It changes what you think you see, but you don't feel it
  • It changes the hierarchy of value you're working with, but you don't feel it

Who is doing the thinking for you?

So who (or what) is really making decisions for you?

How much does that pasta carbonara for lunch after an argument with your business partner impact your afternoon creative reach? Is it possible that this physiological response also has the ability to then cloud your afternoon judgment about assessing a new business opportunity? To what degree does your amygdala - attempting to return you to the status quo - push you to focus more on the effort required for such a new venture than the new opportunity available?

Building a world-class attitude and supporting a world-class team needs you to be able to turn on all your body systems and be in control of them.

When you ignore your emotional state, one of the accompanying unconscious behaviors is that your own implicit bias is much more likely to intervene in the decision you are facing and will automatically attempt to return you to the status quo - rather than prompt you for your world-class best decision-making skills.

Improving your navigational capacity, one sticky note at a time

Many emotions have their own gravitational pull and some of them pull more than others, with the risk being they can quickly take control of something they shouldn't.

Some seemingly function like black holes sucking in all light, clarity, data and evidence to the contrary, and are particularly dangerous places in the galaxy of the business owner.

Runaway thinking (with a touch of catastrophising) is usually quick to follow.

The problem of an overactive amygdala on business decisions

Have you ever had an argument with your partner and suddenly realised you now can't remember anything good about them and now suddenly wonder why are you with them?

Perhaps you’ve had a morning confrontation with a grumpy teenager who finally exited the bathroom only after a threat of an Expecto Patronus spell to magically remove them from the sanctuary that is the bathroom?

It's like you suddenly took the stupid pills and the normal pathway to all rational thought has simply evaporated (perhaps your teenager has finally leaned the Obliviate spell after a weekend binge of Harry Potter).

Try objectifying it, with a yellow sticky note

Our brain's amygdala lobe is actually nature's smoke alarm, and when triggered is granted the unusual super power to shut off our long-term memory so it can present us with only one of two escape options: fight or flight.

So before your next amygdala interruption, why not take a more deliberate approach and be ready to try and name the emotion you’re actually facing and feeling (the more precise the better - there's actually 34,000 of them).

  • Write the name of the emotion you recognise on a yellow sticky note and attach it to your monitor, so you can see externally what you are aware of is happening internally.
  • By being able to later rearrange the placement of this now named sticky note from prominently displayed on your monitor, perhaps moved to a whiteboard of tasks for later in the week and then even to the wastepaper bin in the office, it can be a useful way to help see what needs to be managed, and its current hierarchy in your mind.
If you can objectify a feeling, you can get a grip on it.

Why bother learning to better navigate emotions and decision stacks?


Increasing your emotional navigation capacity helps you move faster between different mood states towards more effective and stable decisions. Some emotions are better distractions and antidotes to difficult feelings than others.

  • Some emotions have a stronger ‘gravitational pull’ that can if we're susceptible can actually keep us stuck in a particular emotional state for much longer than is good for us.
  • Still other, yet unnamed emotions can loom so large they threaten to capture anyone feeling them indefinitely, and seem to require the greatest effort to escape from their crushing gravitational pull.

Know which emotions to avoid, switch or quickly work through

Your ability to navigate between or through (and even avoid particular emotional states), directly affects how you make decisions in your business and how you allocate your limited cognitive resources.

The emotion of vendetta has a greater power to keep you trapped than does the emotion of mere annoyance. This is where the power of the yellow sticky note can come in very handy with the skill to clearly identify which particular emotion you’re facing.

The freedom that comes from uncoupling our emotions from our feelings

The emotion of victimhood brings with it a particularly powerful emotional gravitational pull that can drain the vision of the future of all hope for a change or improvement.

More than knowing how to not go shopping when your hungry, not arguing with your teenager when we’re tired, (or not declaring a public inquisition to find out who ate the last of the pistachio ice cream that you’d mentally earmarked for a weekend of binge-watching Netflix), increasing your ability to see emotions as actually separate from your feelings, is part of uncoupling yourself from victimhood.

When you can see it and name it, you can have more power over it

Choosing to navigate from the general emotion of anger and resentment to a less gravitationally aggressive state of more precisely sadness and disappointment is arguably more beneficial to you and those in your emotional universe.

Be careful who you let into your emotional universe, who you let talk into your life and business thinking because it affects your physiological state upon which all our decision stacks stand.

The wisdom of knowing who not to let into your emotional universe

Many people around us will use the gravitational pull of a particular emotion for their own selfish ends. Some people will invent new levels of drama, fain offense and affront, and distort events better than a Mexican Telenovela, just so they maintain the queen-bee centre of focus.

Others will outsource their daily mood regulation by tuning into talkback radio’s aging and questionably irrelevant ‘Shock Jocks’ to simply be told, ‘what should you be angry about today!’

Sadly, some people so habitually identify with public painful emotions they willingly graft them into their own lives as their own default identity, diluting who they are in the process and forgetting who they ever could become.

The last word

There will always be pain in both life and business.

In the end, there is always the pain of effort or the pain of regret.

Which one you choose to embrace, depends upon how you think about it.

Drew Browne Modern Small Business thought-provocateur
Enjoyed what you've read and want to work together?
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