How do I break the emotional deadlock in decision-making?

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Have you ever had to make one of those big decisions that had a great impact on your future, and had higher opportunity costs? Did these also come with stronger emotions, like the fear of making the wrong call, or a sense of dread? Haven’t these slowed your decision making to a crawl? What did you do in these cases? Did you just simply bite the bullet and steeled your will? Or did you somehow try to get in touch with your emotions to work things out, only to get mired in more indecision? Well, if you have ever had to deal with these and still don’t know any the wiser how to deal with them in the future, this article is for you.

Impact of emotions on decisions

Emotions are a great tool to help us make the right decision. Emotions are derived from the amygdala which is part of our limbic brain (Paul MacLean, The Triune Brain in Evolution, 1990). According to MacLean, the three parts of the brain evolved sequentially over time and that the neocortex, responsible for reasoning, arrived last and much later than the previous two. This means that our brain is more receptive to emotional inputs than reason. MacLean argues that, as the amygdala controls the secretion of adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, sensory inputs arrive into our limbic brain a split second earlier than it does our neocortex, so that it can respond to threats before a conscious effort is required to determine the threat. It also means that sometimes, our decision-making abilities may be hijacked by our emotions, which direct our actions before we can think about them. (My wife confirms this after she accompanied me on a trip to the wine shop last week.)

The one thing that can override emotion is reason, which comes in a little slower. Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal work Thinking, Fast and Slow calls this System Two, which is much slower than the adrenaline-spiked System One. Yet, the classic standoff for us will happen when there is a tussle between the logic of System Two with the instincts of System 1. And indecision ensues. There is a therefore a need for us to separate emotions from reason, and here’s how:

1. Enter into the Clarity State

In her book, The Right Decision Every Time, Luda Kopeikina identifies the meditative state as the Clarity State, where our mental, physical and emotion states are aligned. To enter into the Clarity state, we must slow down our breathing, taking deep breaths and keeping our mind free of distraction. While it may be helpful for some to be in a quiet room, there is no requirement for that. Kahneman wrote about taking daily strolls in the hills as his Clarity State. If you are starting out, it might be helpful to be seated when you are getting into the Clarity State.

2. Identify the emotion

When your mind is sufficiently calm and focused on being in the moment, slowly bring your situation into mind. Without thinking deeply into the situation, identify the emotions that your situation brings about, naming them to yourself.

3. Identify the root cause of each emotion

While still remaining the Clarity State, ask yourself, “Why is this decision causing me to feel <emotion>?” Answer the question. Then continue, “Why is <your answer> causing you to feel <emotion>?” Answer that. Continue in like fashion until you arrive at the root cause of the emotion. (You will no doubt identify this as the Five Why’s methodology of identifying root cause.) When you’re done with this, go on to the next emotion and work on it in a similar way until you have completed with all of them.

4. Turn your emotional root cause into a constraint

A constraint is a necessary condition for a successful decision. For example, if you have a budget of only $5,000 for your decision, then the constraint for your decision is to work within $5,000 (as opposed to saying that you have a budget constraint and hence cannot do anything about it). In like manner, if you have identified the root cause of your anxiety is the fear of looking like a fool due to a lack of product knowledge, then the constraint is to overcome your limited product knowledge.

When you do that for all your emotions, you would have actively addressed them in your decision making process, giving them due credence by putting them as decision inputs, and you would have addressed the impasse.

So the next time you feel a tussle with your emotions, use this method to breach the impasse and lead you to the right decision every time.

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