On a daily basis, we are all confronted with many decisions: what project to work on, what strategy or lesson plan to adopt in teaching a particular topic, whom to ask for help, whom to help, what to do with an hour and a half that we have after returning from work and before dinner, and so on. Each of us has some set ways in which we decide–consulting with a spouse or a friend, in the shower, before going to bed, trusting Google Calendar, taking a walk, pacing a room, sitting quietly in one’s office, among others–and each of us has faced some decisions that always seem troublesome, for reasons that are often a mystery. Decisions play a major role in our lives, whether they are big, such as choosing a career, a life partner, a graduate degree to pursue, immigrating, taking on a challenging assignment; or whether they are decisions that we need to make every day. The decisions that we need to make daily, perhaps more than decisions that are big, determine how we spend our time, what gets done, what gets delayed, what we focus on, what we rush through, and so on. We have all known some people who are deft at making right choices and deciding precisely what needs their time and what is not so important. There are different versions of this person: someone who does not commit without looking at a calendar, a person who is focused on the big picture or outcome, a tireless workaholic, a master delegator. You wonder at times where these people find the knack to decide correctly, more often than others who surround them. You wonder about the magic formula, the right attitude, the right set of questions or criteria that they seem to use or ask.
One of the most celebrated decisions came during the Second World War. The person who made the decision led the Allied Forces: Dwight D. Eisenhower. If you read Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, you will come across a memorable scene that has Eisenhower sitting in a room full of generals and other advisers, including weathermen. The men are discussing whether to launch an attack on the French soil, under German occupation. Some of the men tell him that the conditions in the English Channel are rough, and that any invasion will be met with a failure. Some others believe, however, that the time is right and that the invasion can no longer be postponed. As one goes through the lines leading up to Eisenhower’s command to “go,” one can almost feel a rush of adrenaline. I felt it, even though I was about four decades and a few thousand miles removed from the action in Eisenhower’s room. In Ryan’s description of Eisenhower, a reader can sense the presence of a well-cultivated attitude of decision-making. Great leaders seem to have this knack more than others. A recent example of hard decision-making would be that of President Obama ordering the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s three-story home. Another good example of Obama’s decision-making abilities has to be his decision to run for president. I hear some readers say: But these decisions were not his alone; he had help. It is true that powerful leaders have able and experienced people helping them make important decisions, but despite all help, often these leaders have to make that one hard, life-changing decision themselves. How does an average person make better decisions?
A few years ago, Randy Pausch, a dying, cancer-stricken professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, gave a lecture about time management to an auditorium full of people at the University of Virginia. In his lecture, he mentioned Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant guide to decision-making (see below; the numbers indicate priority):
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One may fill these quadrants every month, every quarter, every semester, or every year. Alternatively, one may take a task-based approach and fill the quadrants with different tasks, perhaps by modifying the framework. What strategies or habits do you follow to make decisions?