When you are traveling, particularly if traveling alone, you will need to make a constant stream of decisions, any one of which can royally screw up your day if you are wrong. What time do I need to leave for the airport? Should I check a bag or try to get by with just a carry on? Do I have time to eat before my flight? What is the first thing I should do when I land in Kathmandu? (Hint: Find a Nepali to help you through customs.)
The ability and willingness to make decisions is learned. We are not born with it, and it is doubtful that any of us are born better at it than others. When I say it is learned, I don’t mean you can take a class and become a great decision maker. There are certainly some techniques you can learn that way, but for the most part decision-making is learned in the school of hard knocks. You learn to make good decisions by making a whole lot of them. Some will be good and some not.
Experience greatly improves our ability to make decisions of a specific type. This might be due to subject-specific knowledge that we have, or it could be that our brains simply become accustomed to decision-making of that type. For example, in the cockpit a veteran airline pilot will generally make better decisions than a newcomer to the job, but that does not guarantee he is making better decisions than that newcomer in his personal life. An experienced traveler will move through a new airport or city more confident in his/her decisions than someone leaving their hometown for the first time.
Stress has a major negative impact on our decision making ability. Despite that, we can through experience, improve our ability to make decisions under stressful conditions. Rigorous military training, or hours in a flight simulator are examples of how this can be accomplished. Take actions to reduce your stress prior to the time when you will be making decisions.
The bottom line is, if you want your decisions to be good ones, you have to be willing to practice and that means you will make some bad ones along the way. Avoiding decisions just makes it harder the next time you need to make one.
One of the things you can learn is a process for decision-making. Use it over and over again, and it will become second nature before long. Lots of people have come up with lots of these step-by-step processes. I encourage you to develop your own process if you don’t find one that meets your needs. Most of these processes involve some type of preparation, some type of fact gathering, and then the weighing of the facts. Many of them seem to assume you have the time to sit down and plot out your decision. PDSA is one such process.
In the world of process improvement, PDSA (Plan – Do – Study – Act) is enjoying some popularity right now. This process is nothing more than a decision making system fine tuned for businesses to use for change management. All decision making is related to change management. You are deciding to change your mind, or your actions, or your next step. However, PDSA, as it is used in business is just not useful when making snap decisions as you stand on a busy street corner in Ho Chi Minh City. So, let me present CTTA.
Compose – Time check – Think – Act
This four step process might take an hour. It might take less than a second. You have to decide how much time you have, or are willing to spend, on making a decision.
Compose: This is where you compose yourself…get yourself ready to begin making a decision. This is the most important of the four steps. If you have 5 seconds to make a decision, you must make time for this. I do it by simply saying to myself “OK”. That brief pause, where you are not yet trying to make a decision, but are getting your head ready to do so, resets your brain. It inserts a boundary between what you were doing, and what you are about to do. Do not underestimate the importance of this step.
Time Check: Unless you have zero time, and you will know that without thinking about it, take a few moments to decide how much time you really have to make a decision. You only want to rush through a decision if you have no choice. If you really have 5 minutes to make your decision, and there is no downside to waiting 4 minutes and 59 seconds…then do it.
Think: Here is the meat of the process. Gather in your head (or on paper if you have time) the things that need to be considered in your decision. What are the reasonable choices available to you? What are the circumstances? What resources do you have available? If you believe there is only one choice, you are either in a very tight spot or you are missing a choice. Few decision-making opportunities present only one choice. Once you identify the reasonable choices, which one does your gut tell you is best? I won’t say you should go with your gut, but your gut is a good tie-breaker between two equally good (or equally bad) choices. Identify if any of the choices have a clearly unacceptable outcome or side-effect. One choice could solve the immediate problem, but result in an outcome that is unacceptable to you. If this process gives you one clear choice…great….take it. If it leaves you with two or more choices that appear to be equal, let your gut choose.
One final thing to consider. Can you actually carryout the choice you have made? If not, even if it is the right choice, you need to look for another option.
Act: Just making a decision is not enough. A decision made that does not result in action is no better than not making a decision at all. If you have gone through CTTA, and given it your best effort, you should have some confidence that you have made as good a decision as you can. Take that knowledge and act.
Watch the heros from The Princess Bride as they go through CTTA.
It may turn out that the decision you made, despite your best effort, was wrong. It happens. It may turn out that the decision you made was the best possible, and you still might have a bad outcome. That happens too. I am quite certain that many battles have been lost by a commander who made all the right decisions. Making the right choice does not guarantee success. Likewise, making the wrong decision does not guarantee failure. Quite often you get the desired outcome despite making a less than optimal decision. Also, in many situations a decision is not final. You can make a decision, start to act, and change your mind. Don’t be afraid to repeat CTTA if your decision is clearly not having the results you hoped for.
Remember, there is not always a good choice. Sometimes you have to choose between multiple bad choices. Do your best to pick the one that you think gives the best chance of success and then act on it. Don’t get caught in a cycle of second-guessing, but if a change of plan is called for, don’t be afraid to repeat CTTA.
In the third part of this series, we will talk about acting on our decisions. When should you repeat CTTA? How can you learn from your prior decisions..both the good ones and the bad one.