How to Make Decisions, an Expert’s Take

July 7, 2022

Never learned how to make decisions? You're in good company. Michelle Florendo breaks down the process so you can start choosing joy.

Amy Lattimore
WITH, Co-founder

If you know anything about me and Bryan, you know that we’re passionate about holistic wellness and collective care. For us, all that good stuff starts with choosing and cultivating joy. It sounds nice—and it is—but it also requires knowing how to make decisions.

The fact is that choosing joy requires intentional decision-making, a skill that many of us were never taught. While decision-making can be difficult, it’s by no means impossible. 

That’s why, on Episode 2 of Priorities, our health and wellness podcast, we’re going back to the basics with Michelle Florendo, Decision Engineer. 

Yes, that’s Michelle’s actual job title, and yes, she has the expertise to back it up. Florendo has spent the last 15 years working as a decision engineer and executive coach and has:

  • Logged 1,500+ hours coaching type-A leaders on the principles of decision science for growing their impact and finding fulfillment 
  • Taught a course on decision making for Stanford Continuing Studies
  • Helped redesign the decision-making module in Stanford’s famous Designing Your Life course

Florendo has an engineering degree from Stanford and earned her MBA from UC Berkeley. She currently hosts the podcast Ask a Decision Engineer. Florendo is passionate about teaching people how to make decisions with less stress and more clarity. 

All that to say, whatever decision you’re struggling with, Florendo’s the person who can help get you to the other side.

If you’re ready to dissect the decision-making process so you can start choosing with intention in your own life, check out the recap of our conversation below or listen to the full episode here

Let’s zoom out for a minute

Before we get started, we want to acknowledge that we’re in an incredibly perplexing time for decision making. 

From March of 2020 onwards, the pandemic turned minor decisions (order in/eat out, travel for the holidays/stay home) into much larger ethical questions of personal and public safety. 

Although restrictions are loosening, decisions aren’t getting much easier; the Supreme Court’s June decision reduced an already-complex decision to a question of legality that left many with very real limits on their personal right to choose. 

As leaders of an employee wellness company, we know how wrong this is. Agency over our whole selves—body, mind, and spirit—is a basic right and cornerstone of wellbeing.

While we can’t overturn the court’s decision, we can offer small comfort in Florendo’s practical advice. During a time when choice seems limited, Florendo’s strategies are useful for building a sense of agency over the decisions within our control. 

The first step is understanding the decision-making process.

What is a decision making process?

In her 15+ years of work as a decision engineer and executive coach, Florendo has found that decision-making produces a ton of stress in people. Why? Because few have been taught an actual decision making process.

While there’s lots of information about decision analysis and problem solving for engineering, finance, and other fields, only a handful of people know how to apply these methods to their individual decisions. That’s where Florendo comes in.

She bridges the gaps between a person’s scattered life data (financial, career, personal, etc.), and the decisions they are facing. 

This process can look different for every situation, but Florendo likes to hit on a few key points that can help anyone make better decisions :

  1. Making sophisticated decision analysis tools accessible to the general public
  2. Positioning emotions as important data 
  3. Challenging the fear of making a “bad decision”
A woman sits at a table writing in a notebook. Her open laptop and a mug sit beside her.
Photo by Arina Krasnikova

How to make decisions: The three-legged stool

One landmark decision analysis framework Florendo invites people to look at is the three-legged stool model.

Coined by long-time Stanford professor and one of the fathers of decision analysis, Ron Howard, the stool metaphor helps break decisions down into their most critical components:

  • Objectives
  • Options
  • Information

What is the first step in the decision making process? Identifying objectives.

Before making a decision or even considering your options, you need to establish your objectives. This could include answers to a series of questions, like:

  • What matters to me? 
  • What do I value? 
  • What am I trying to get in the outcome? 

This is the most applicable step to establishing priorities. After all, in order to prioritize well, you have to know what you want. 

Florendo has noticed that the pandemic has prompted people to examine what’s important to them more closely. She thinks this is a useful first step to making decisions that are more aligned with “what lights us up and drives our joy.”

If you’re finding yourself in this place, don’t be one of the many who skip step one of the decision-making process and plow straight ahead to the finish line. 

Instead, it’s a good idea to pause and consider your desires and long-term goals.

Woman smiles in upward dog yoga pose while her child sits on her back and gives her a hug.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

The decision-making process step 2: options.

Once you know what you want, the next step is to take stock of your options.

Not just what’s in front of you, but the full range of open paths. “Sometimes we don't spend enough time going beyond the obvious options to really explore what else  there may be,” Florendo says. But “once we can define our objectives, there's room to explore. Can we create more options that are aligned with those objectives?” Probably!

This is even true for small decisions. For example, shifting the objective of a takeout decision from “grabbing lunch” to “eating local, trying something new” can significantly alter your pool of options. This process-refining step can move a decision from overwhelming to exciting.  

Whether you’re making a life-altering decision or an everyday one, be sure to identify every possible option before making your pick.

The decision-making process step 3: information.

When objectives are pinned down and options are established, it’s time to investigate how these two fields complement each other.  

Florendo asks: “What information do you have on how various options fulfill the objectives that you have?”

This information isn’t just the obvious. It can take a few forms, including:

  • What you know 
  • What you know you can find out
  • What you know you don’t know (read: risk) 

Whatever you’ve got, Florendo recommends assessing it all before moving forward. You can play with variations of options, objectives, and information until you come up with the most optimal step forward for your life.  

Woman sits in a sunlit studio and paints a piece of pottery.
Photo by RF._.studio

How to make difficult decisions

But what if the objectives, options, and pieces of information are still leaving you ill-equipped to make tough decisions?

It’s time to include emotions in your process. 

We know you may be skeptical. Especially if you’re anything like me and somewhere along the way you internalized the idea that emotions need to get left completely out of any decision-making process. 

You can toss that notion right out the window. The liberating news from Florendo is this: “emotions are an extremely valuable source of data.”

She also shares that somatic information is useful for decision-making. 

In practice, this can look like asking yourself the following when you think about an impending decision:

  • How does this feel in my body?
  • How does this feel in my mind?
  • What emotions are coming up for me right now?
  • What sensations are coming up for me right now?
  • Where am I feeling this decision?

If the questions don’t work for you, meditating or walking might—whatever gets you in tune with how you’re feeling.

Still not sure about adding emotions to your decisions?

Florendo clarifies that she isn’t advocating for making snap decisions while in an elevated emotional state. The key to incorporating emotional data into your decision-making process is the approach. 

Picture it this way: if your thoughts and feelings are cars on a freeway, you can choose to be a driver, zooming along with them, never getting a look at the big picture. Or, you can turn off the engine, step out of the car, and watch the emotions and thoughts go by. 

That way you can give your emotions weight without giving them full control. 

If visualizing isn’t quite getting you from point A to point B, try putting pen to paper.

“There's a particular exercise that I use, where I just ask people to take 90 seconds and put on paper all of the thoughts, feelings, what ifs, and questions that they've been carrying,” Florendo says. “They may have never gone to therapy before. They may not even be able to name the emotions. But somehow, just shedding those things gives them a process by which they can get out of the car and look from the side of the road.”

Florendo strives to help people make decisions when their heads, hearts, and bodies are on the same page.

Child sits in their father’s lap while sibling smiles from beside the pair. Wooden train track pieces are spread over the floor.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

Accepting the decision-making outcome

Feelings can help your decision making, but they can also hold you back. We’re talking about one feeling in particular: fear. 

No one wants to make a choice that will cause something bad to happen. That’s why a fear of regret frequently comes up often in Florendo’s coaching sessions.

Unfortunately, all the decision analysis theory in the world can’t guarantee a perfect outcome. 

That’s why, above all, Michelle Florendo wants to bust the myth that the quality of a decision is equal to the quality of the outcome. The truth is that a great decision can throw you a curveball. And bad decisions can sometimes lead to amazing surprises.

Rather than fixating on creating the perfect decision, Michelle helps people realize that “the quality of a decision is separate and equal from the quality of the outcome.”

Smiling African American man in casual clothes with wireless earbuds using laptop and smiling while sitting on green lawn and enjoying free time in quiet park.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

How to make better decisions

The great news is that we’re in a moment when tons of life decisions are within your control—from switching careers to moving cities, remote work and increased optionality are normalizing making big decisions later in life.

This moment has been coined the Great Resignation, the Great Reflection, The Great Reimagination, or—as one leader friend of ours put it—the Great Reconsideration. A 2021 Gartner survey of 3,500 employees found that the pandemic: 

  • Caused 65% to rethink the place work should hold in their life
  • Led 62% to change their perspective on their workplace location
  • Made 56% want to contribute more to society
  • Caused 50% to change what they expect of employers

The data is clear: the past two years have given individuals ample time to reflect and reconsider their priorities. It’s exciting. It’s also a lot.

“There's a huge opportunity here if people want to seize it,” Florendo says. “But there's also overwhelm.”

In Bryan’s words: “Realignment, thinking about my values, [considering] tons of options…There's excitement and paralysis all sort of connected in these things.”

So in the midst of this overwhelming and identity-shaping time, is it possible to separate ourselves from big decisions?

Florendo answers carefully. She acknowledges that “our identities are born out of the decisions that we make.” If you want to explore this further, she recommends a TED Talk by philosopher Ruth Chang that explores how the decisions we make over time produce our identity. In other words, complete separation is unrealistic. 

However, we can be intentional about divorcing ourselves from the outcomes of our decisions. This means putting the emphasis on our locus of control (choice), rather than outside of it (outcome). If you’re struggling with this, try asking yourself:

  • Where do I have agency?
  • Where are my opportunities to decide?

These are the places to focus your energy and your identity.

Two women next to a sewing table. Older woman points out something on the sewing pattern.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Identity, decision-making, and others

One last thing: your identity can change over time, just like your decision-making objectives. That’s fine. There’s no need to get stuck with one decision as you evolve. 

But how can you take the important people in your life along with you on that journey of shifting priorities?

Florendo suggests asking yourself two of her mentor’s favorite questions: 

  • Who is it for?
  • What is it for?

This will help you decide which people and what external factors actually matter when it comes to your personal evolution and how you make decisions.

For example, in Florendo’s current decision-making process, the ability to provide for her aging parents factors into her objectives. But that doesn’t mean she will make career decisions based on what they think of her work. There are clear lines between who influences what.

It’s all about establishing who and what has influence over your choices, and therefore, your priorities. 

Stay tuned for more

We’re figuring this out right along with you all. In fact, before we recorded this episode of Priorities, we had a coaching session with Michelle to help us walk through a big decision in our lives. We’re not yet decision experts, but after speaking with Florendo, we do feel much more comfortable with the decision-making process.

Building the life you want and actively pursuing your joy means getting serious about making decisions. Now that you’re equipped with the tools, we hope this process is a little less daunting. When in doubt, remember to:

  • Evaluate your objectives, options, and information
  • Follow your feelings
  • Separate the decision from the outcome
  • Focus on what’s within your control

If you found this episode helpful, we’ve got lots more in store for you. Future episodes of Priorities will cover topics including:

  • Hiring staff 
  • Beating burnout
  • Leading teams
  • Parenting well
  • Building wealth

We’re looking forward to walking WITH you as we learn more about what it takes to prioritize what matters.

P.S. Love the podcast? Want to get in touch with us? You can contact us here.

Featured photo by Arina Krasnikova from Pexels

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