A woman at a desk stares musingly into space
Decision-making requires both brains and gut instinct – but that instinct comes from the data you have gathered over time © Getty Images/iStockphoto

Faced with a tough decision, have you ever been told to “just trust your gut”? And, if you have, how did you respond? Did you go ahead and trust your gut — or did you try to get a steer on whether that would be the right thing to do?

According to behaviour experts, indecisiveness can afflict women more than men, who are often less concerned with seeking consensus.

“Women are conditioned to play nice and be likeable in order to succeed,” says Melody Wilding, executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work. “As a result, we tend to be less assertive.”

But this does not mean you cannot learn how to be more decisive. There are several habits of mind that can speed decision-making — even if none can guarantee the correct answer. One of them is, indeed, to trust your instinct — so long as you have experience in the area you are trying to decide about.

Melody Wilding
Melody Wilding: ‘If you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing nothing’ © Ilana Saltzman

“Intuition is only as good as our brain’s ability to recognise previous experience,” says Steve Peters, a consultant psychiatrist and author of A Path Through the Jungle and other books on mind management.

He says it comes from a part of the brain that manages emotional memories — the medial prefrontal cortex — which “spots patterns unconsciously and warns us it has spotted something”.

Wilding concurs. “Trusting your gut is shorthand for ‘listen to the pool of data you’ve gathered over time’,” she says. “Your mind is running through it at a fraction of a second when you’re presented with a new scenario. That’s your intuition at work.”

Intuition can be particularly useful in situations when there’s no clear-cut yes or no answer, only a decision that is right for you, she says. Many career decisions — “Do I take this promotion, or is it time to move on from this organisation?” — fall into this category.

She warns, however, that intuition can be biased. “We all develop stereotypes that help us make decisions quickly but not always more accurately,” she says. “We may have had one negative experience and that colours all experiences going forward.”

Peters, too, points out that gut instinct has limitations. To maximise the likelihood of a good outcome, “it’s best to add rational thinking to intuition”.

But deliberation, especially when it involves others, can sap decision-making momentum.

In Wilding’s work as an executive coach, she has noticed that women, in particular, will try to get everyone on board before they move forward with a decision.

She advises people to develop their own point of view before bringing in others, and to keep this to a maximum of three to five individuals. “Decide whose opinion really matters to you,” she says.

If you are getting stuck evaluating your options, it may also be that you are not following through far enough, Peters says. “When we are trying to make a decision, multiple areas of the brain are offering advice and information,” he explains. “What tends to happen is that we don’t address each possibility and the potential con­sequence and, therefor­e, keep returning to the same choices.”

Even if we do work through each choice and its possible outcome, our minds often will not accept that everything is about probabilities, and that there could be several viable choices, he adds.

Acknowledging this can offer a way forward. “We have to make a decision based on the fact that our decision will be our best choice at that moment,” Peters says, and then have a plan to manage any outcomes.

Wilding advises finding the “good enough” solution to avoid becoming hung up on perfectionism. She points to studies which show that people who look for the “good enough” option are often happier than people who are “maximisers” — those who minutely study every option in the belief that there is a definitive best.

It does not help that, in today’s world, there are “more options, more choices, more data to pull from than ever before”, Wilding says. “There’s always more research you can do.”

Overthinking expands to fill the time you allow it, she notes. It may therefore be sensible to put a limit on how many sources you consult about a decision and how much time you spend on it.

“Remember, if you try to do everything, you’ll end up doing nothing,” Wilding says. “Ask yourself: ‘what are my priorities here?’”

The chimp model

Steve Peters uses a mind management system called the “chimp model”, which puts neuroscience into simple terms to help people understand how they think and feel. In this model, there are three main parts of the mind: human, chimp and computer.

  • Human (in the frontal lobe) — the real person; this is you. A conscious thinking part of the brain, which is based on facts and logic.

  • Inner chimp (in the limbic area) — a primitive part of the brain, with thinking based on emotions.

  • Computer (many areas, especially the parietal lobe) — a reference source, which stores beliefs, memories and past experiences and can spot patterns.

Gaining some psychological distance can help clarify choices, she advises. One way to do this is to identify and name your “inner critic”.

“Sometimes, it is our internal dialogue that blocks us from making decisions,” Wilding says. “If you give that voice a name, it allows you to step back, pause and evaluate better.”

Another technique she recommends is simply to build some “unstructured time” into your schedule. Otherwise, the pressures of everyday life, with numerous competing demands, can lead to mental fatigue that makes even tiny decisions hard.

“We can’t hear our intuition or come up with our judgment on something if we’re constantly in reactive mode,” she says. “Being intentional about setting boundaries to protect that thinking time is crucial. Hold that as something that’s sacred.”

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