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Decision paralysis!

Some time ago, I was attempting to help a young man to come up with a career plan. Simple, I thought, find a job he wants to do, explore how to get there, courses, finance, etc… and Robert is your mother’s favourite brother.

After a period of time, he had reached a point where he knew that he wished to work in healthcare for all the good reasons you would expect from a young idealist. He wanted to become a doctor, or an occupational therapist, or a registered mental health nurse, or a registered general nurse, or…

At this point, we tried to do a simple positive and negative comparison to lead him to a decision. All of the careers have very strong positive points in their favour, whether it be ethical, financial or work-life balance and would provide a realistic career path for a well qualified young man (academic ability was not a limiting factor as he could have entered medical school on the basis of his A levels).

This young man had obviously done his research and could produce factors both for and against each job in large numbers and at different levels of sophistication, from salary to the apparent status of each profession within the healthcare world. This had been going on for some time and was becoming a major issue in this young man’s life, not for the better.

The difficulty was not in identifying the factors for or against each career but their relative value when comparing them with each other. He had meticulously listed all possible pros and cons for each option and, when comparing them, found that he was still unable to come to a decision as every choice he made seemed to close the door on another and was loaded with negative connotations. A sound choice became impossible.

After discussion, we agreed that the issue wasn’t with identifying positive and risk factors with his possible choices, it was actually more that he wasn’t assigning a value for each so that the positive outcome of a career and moving on with his life became swamped with the negative/risk involved in making a decision. The negatives were beginning to become inflated to the point that all choices were poor.

Using a simple idea of giving a value between 1 and 4 for the likelihood and severity of potential harm/ good of each choice, we could work out a “value” for each career path, positive versus negative, and the choice of career became quite clear in his head. Even though the one he chose wasn’t the one with the most positive score, the simple fact of having a value allowed him to choose one route as he thought it was most interesting, which overcame the score factor.

In this case, the “decision environment” was large, and time was beginning to become an issue. The amount of information being churned around was very large and getting larger by the week as more and more research was done. The critical factor in allowing a decision to be made was assessing the risks more accurately and seeing them as a more realistic set of factors. Interestingly we decided on a score of 1 to 4 to break the “in the middle, not good, not bad” idea; every factor had to be either positive or negative, which allowed him, in the end, to come to a conclusion.

When dealing with financial decisions, it is usually relatively simple to come up with the profit or loss of a possible decision and go from there. When dealing with more “soft” or non-financial decisions, the weighting of positives or negatives still has a place.

For more on decision making, check out our article Facilitate rapid and effective decision-making

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