The art of choosing: 5 keys to making better decisions

Faced with two paths, how do we make the choice between them?Pixabay

Leadership has been defined as the art of making great decisions. Indeed it could be argued that the measure of a well-lived life is the quality of the decisions we make. We are not talking about the outcomes of our decisions, over which we actually have little control. Character is demonstrated more clearly by how we make our decisions, rather than by their results. With this in mind let me offer you five ways to start making better decisions.

1. Get more options on the table

Dr Therese Huston is a psychologist who specialises in decision-making. She argues that often when we try and make a decision we think we have two options in front of us when in fact we only have one. She gives the example of a company trying to tackle a parking problem at the office:

DECISION: Shall we build a car park OR shall we not build a car park?

Huston argues that trying to get a minimum of three real options on the table means that higher quality decisions are made. So in the example above a better starting point for the decision could be:

DECISION: Shall we build a carpark OR shall we give employees a free bus pass OR shall we encourage people to work more from home? 

The Bible offers similar advice: Proverbs 15:22 says, "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed." I notice that sometimes when we seek counsel from others we limit the outcome by asking: "Shall I do this or not?" A better way of deploying the wisdom of our friends and mentors could be to ask them to help us generate more options to consider. When seeking wisdom from our friends we could ask "How would you solve this problem...?" For example:

DECISION: Should I allow my 15 year old to play 18 rated Xbox games OR not?

It may be better to phrase the question:

DECISION: How can I encourage my teenager to make good decisions about gaming?

Seeking the counsel of a number of people we consider wise but from different contexts may help to give a wider range of solutions. Our problem when trying to make a decision is that we are unaware of how narrow our view of the problem is. Huston gives the example of trying to get more creative about what you eat for breakfast. If you are standing in the cereal aisle of the supermarket, you might try out a new cereal, perhaps mixing cornflakes with rice crispies. But if you are in a farmers market, you might get inspired to try eggs with avocados, or bacon with maple syrup, or a vegetable smoothie. So getting a wider perspective can be helpful and another person can help us to achieve that. Another parent at church may well give you a yes/no recommendation to the first question. But ask around at work and church and among your child's peers and you may be surprised that a whole range of surprising options open up: "If your child is into gaming, then I could really use his help at my youth group on a Friday night"; " Did you know there are parental controls that limit certain downloads?" "I get my son to turn the volume off so he doesn't hear the swearing."

2. Clarify your priorities

Decision-making is often complicated because we are trying to reconcile different demands and various priorities:

DECISION: Should I apply for a new job?

Factors affecting the decision may be the following:

Is the disruption going to compromise my ability to care and provide for my family?
Is changing jobs going to take me away from my church ministries?
Is changing jobs going to damage the witness I have had to my colleagues?
Will the extra income from the new job allow me to be more generous?
Will the change in travel time affect my availability to friends?

You can see the number of competing priorities that a decision of this nature can have. But the decision-making becomes easier the clearer we are on what our life priorities are. If family and friends are our priorities, then the outcome of the decision may be different than if finances, or ministry opportunities, or leisure activities are prioritised. As Christians we are told to prioritise seeking first "his kingdom and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). So our first question must be: which job option is better for building God's kingdom and becoming more like Christ?

3. Get some distance

Most of us find it difficult to make decisions under pressure.

DECISION: Should I buy this state-of-the-art laptop on a limited special offer for the next 24 hours?


Time pressure can be particularly challenging for making good decisions. If I buy the laptop today without checking my bank account, then I may regret it tomorrow. But if I go home and think about it and decide I should buy it, tomorrow it could be way more expensive. It is common wisdom to try and sleep on a decision, but sometimes the delay makes the decision for us. We should also recognise that we have a proclivity to put off hard choices by procrastination. For example:

DECISION: Should I tell my father that he is beginning to repeat himself?

How can we strike the right balance between a snap decision and a slow decision?

The Bible says: "He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him" (Proverbs 18.15). Especially with more serious decisions in our lives, it does seem to be wise to try and carve out more time and space to get counsel and consider and weigh the consequences of our various options. But it may also be wise to learn the discipline of giving ourselves a timeframe or time limit to work through our decision-making. Getting this distance will prevent impulsive decisions. Buying the laptop may require you to take half an hour to phone a friend, or the bank. Suggesting to your father that he is tested for dementia may need a few days to find someone who has been on that journey before you and can point you to some helpful resources your father could access.

4. Look after yourself

Huston points to a recent study of parole boards in Israel. They are less likely to grant prisoners parole when their members needed food. Apparently hungry board members are less likely to show mercy than well-fed ones. It's easy to be critical of the injustice of this, but we have probably all made decisions based on when we last ate. It's common knowledge that we spend more money at the supermarket when we shop just before we are due a meal than when we shop just after. So perhaps we should consider taking snacks into the next meeting we attend where someone's future hangs in the balance. Self-care can feel self-indulgent and self-centred, but sometimes neglecting ourselves can make us less able to demonstrate the character of God and others may suffer as a result.

DECISION: Should I splash out on a foreign holiday with my family this year?

Of course you could donate the money, pay off a loan, or save up for your children's education instead, and I am sure your counsellors will have different views on this. I meet many Christians who don't even think twice about buying treats for themselves. Perhaps they need to be challenged on their generosity. I also meet many Christians who feel guilty about these sorts of luxuries. It's interesting that the Prophet Elijah, after the exhausting ordeal of dealing with the prophets of Baal, ends up in a very difficult emotional place. God feeds him and encourages him to rest to prepare him for the next stage in his life. Perhaps a holiday will refresh you to be even more effective for God.

5. Practise good decision-making

The better the decisions you make on small things, the better the decisions you make on big things. That is why helping our children to make good decisions from a young age is really important parental training. As proverbs reminds us: "Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6).

DECISION: Should I allow my child to attend a birthday party on a Sunday morning?

Many parents stress out over these invitations or impose their own views and decisions. At the end of the day it makes little difference for a child to miss a Sunday service every now and again. Perhaps a better way forward would be to ask the child to decide: is church a priority for you? How do you feel about telling your friends you go to church? Is this friendship worth making sacrifices for? how will the child feel if you miss their party?

As we said in the introduction, it is the process of decision-making that displays character more than the end result. Godly decision-making is a virtue which we need to practise. We all have plenty of opportunities to this on a daily basis. We make many decisions automatically – choosing to go to the gym on a Tuesday evening, deciding to finish that bottle of wine in the fridge, finding ourselves staying up late watching Netflix. But take time to think through those decisions today, and you will be better prepared when you have to decide something really significant.

Rev Dr Krish Kandiah is President of the London School of Theology and founder and director of Home for Good.