Take Action: How to Make Quick Decisions

Piles of paper on your desk, a full email inbox, clutter in your home, anything that’s piled up really, are all results of a lack of decisions. While indecision can have many costs, from lost revenue to a suffering reputation to hindering your career, one of the surest symptoms of indecision are piles of any kind.

On the other hand, an empty inbox and a clear desk are the results of quick decisions.

Quick decision-making can have many positive results: it can help you stay on top of a rising flow of information and communication, it can reduce stress, it can improve your productivity, and give you a reputation for being on top of your work.

But the habits of years of indecision can be hard to break. Let’s take a look at some tips that can help build the habit of quick decision-making, and clear the piles from your life.


1. Determine your criteria. Often the reason for indecision is that you don’t really know the basis for making a decision. Determine your criteria beforehand, and decisions will be a snap.

As an example, let’s look at the decisions required to clear your email inbox: you need to make a decision on the action needed for each email, and then take that action. So the criteria for each email should be: does this email need a reply, an action to be taken, info to be forwarded or action to be delegated to someone else, an appointment to be made on my calendar, info filed for future reference, or no action needed at all? And once you’ve determined which of the criteria the email meets, you should know what decision (or action) should be taken for each one.

It’s the same for any other decision-making process: determine the criteria and the action to be taken.

2. Know where things belong. Once you’ve determined the criteria, you should know where to put something based on that criteria. For example, if you decided that a document needs to be filed for future reference, do you know where to file it? If you decided that you need to take action on an email (but can’t take that action at this moment), do you know where to list that action? Do you have a to-do system where that action can go?

After each decision is made, the result of that decision should have a place to go. If it doesn’t, you need to designate it now. Where do appointments go? Where do actions go? Where does reference stuff go? Where does stuff you need to follow up on go? Where does stuff you don’t need at all go (in the trash, probably)?

3. If there’s still a pile, analyze why. If you’ve taken the first two steps above, and there’s still a pile, you should figure out what’s creating the pile. Is there a reason you’re putting off the decisions? If there’s a fear of making a decision, perhaps you should ask yourself what the worst possible outcome of making the decision. Whatever the reason for the pile, you’ll need to figure out how to address it. Usually it just means you need to create a system for preventing the piling (or modify an existing system), and teach yourself to stick to that system.

4. Know what matters. For decisions slightly more difficult than what to do with an email, you may want to decide how to get to the heart of the matter. What matters most with this decision? If you know that, you can eliminate all the other factors cluttering your mind and make a decision based on what matters the most.

5. See if you have the info you need. Sometimes you can’t make a good decision because you don’t have all the necessary information. In that case, make the decision to take action now: send an email requesting the info, look it up on the web, make a phone call. But don’t let the situation continue, with no decision made because of a lack of info. Make the decision and take action to get that info.

6. Ask yourself: What happens if I don’t act? Sometimes, the best action is no action. Especially if you have a million other actions to take. So if there’s no consequence for not acting, perhaps you can trash or file that email or document without taking action. If so, I heartily recommend doing so. It’ll save on the stress put on your life from too many pending actions.
7. Know your desired outcome. Again, this is for decisions more complicated than what to do with an email, but sometimes the problem with making a decision is that you don’t know where you want to be. What do you want to happen with a project? If you clearly define your desired outcome (write it down), you can easily make decisions, because it’s just a matter of figuring out how to get to that desired outcome.

8. Determine what’s next. Once you’ve made the decision, take the step to ensure that decision gets carried through. Now that you’ve made the decision, what needs to be done next? In the case of an email, you might need to file or trash it. In the case of a paper on your desk, you might need to file it, or fax it, or put it on someone’s desk. In other cases, it might be that you need to send out an email, call someone, file something, put something on your calendar, etc.

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