Wouldn’t it be nice if the Magic 8 Ball actually gave us reliable answers? Instead of “outlook not so good” or “it is decidedly so,” our questions would reveal things like “based on the current data and your previous experience with this situation, the answer is no. Run away from this situation and don’t look back.” Decision-making would be so much easier wouldn’t it?
Sadly, that’s not the case. So the truth remains that one of the most challenging issues for all parents, all people really, is when we have a problem and we just can’t find a solution for it. The little voices inside our head go off, and at times, the problem becomes larger than life.
While we often don’t want to admit it, we get nervous. We get anxious. We feel overwhelmed. Our confidence plummets, and we can’t seem to get anything else done. In short, we feel terrible. Decision-making, especially when it’s an emotionally charged situation, is exhausting. But it doesn’t have to be.
Having made thousands of extraordinarily difficult decisions in my senior leadership career and as a father of four, I can personally tell you there is a relatively simple method that I and many successful leaders use to get to the heart of an issue quickly and make a decision that we can both live with and be proud of. It’s absolutely perfect for parents, too, as leaders of their family team.
The Four-Step Guide to Tough Decision Making
Step 1: Define the Problem by Writing It Down
Our brains tend to mix up all of our logic processes when we’re dealing with complex or emotionally charged decisions. Writing the problem down forces us to turn an abstract thought into a concrete statement, idea, or question. In that process, we can more precisely frame the problem. Writing the problem out ultimately causes you to downsize it from a larger-than-life issue to one that you can actually focus on and work through.
For example, here’s what it might look like in your brain if you’re one of the millions of parents dealing with school-aged kids and what to do about in-person versus distance-learning versus becoming an independent homeschool.
What the problem looks like in your head
Parents everywhere are battling what to do about their children’s education due to the risks and restrictions of COVID-19. The decision-making process is made difficult because of all the competing emotions.
However, when you try to write the problem you’re facing in one or two sentences, it may actually look like this:
What the problem looks like when you write it down
Writing the true essence of your problem down in one or two sentences helps you focus on the most important part.
Which of those two “problems” looks more approachable? You can spend all your time dealing with emotions, fears, and unknowns. Or, you can focus on the positive and productive opportunities.
A long time ago, it became clear that teams almost always come up with better solutions than individuals. While we can be sidetracked, if we don’t share our problems with others, we often miss out on the wisdom that they can bring to help find solutions.
Other perspectives, relevant data, and variables we may not have considered can make the decision-making process easier to swallow. Talking to others might also help us realize flaws in our assumptions and general approach.
When it comes to our children, there’s nothing new under the sun. Someone out there has had a similar problem. We can use technology to our advantage and tap into the wisdom of our family, expanded family circles, and friends.
Nearly every parent out there is processing what to do about school in the fall. Ask some trusted friends what they’re thinking. Join one or two Facebook groups, and search to see what other people are discussing. Share your concerns with your child’s teacher, and see if his or her plans for the school year help guide your thought process.
Step 3: Quiet Your Brain So You Can Reflect
Our conscious mind is easily overcome by emotions and any number of daily distractions. That makes it difficult to focus and process in a logical way. When we quiet our brain down, we let our subconscious go to work which makes decision-making much easier. Just as you start the activity, ask yourself a simple question about the problem.
In our example about school, the simple question is not, “How can I not worry about sending my kids to school?” or “How will I be able to work if they’re home with me?” The right simple question is a positive one, “What can I do to make sure my kids get the best education right now?”
Relax by doing something that doesn’t require much thought. Physical movement is key, so no more scrolling social media! Almost always, after the activity, your mind will deliver the right answer.
- Take a shower
- Go for a walk or run
- Take a long bicycle ride
- Go swimming
Using our bodies to play or do coordinated motions allows us to focus on our movements, not our thoughts.
Another great approach to relaxing the conscious brain is by going to sleep. Just before putting your head on the pillow, ask yourself the simple positive question. In the morning, the solution is ready. I’ve found that having a pad of paper and pencil by the bed helps, particularly when you want to remember something as you wake up from that groggy dreamland.
Step 4: Take Action
When a problem appears larger than life, we all struggle with how to move forward. When you define it, then share it, and reflect on it, solutions always become evident. Solutions provide the path and the plan. Your confidence in facing what was a larger-than-life issue soars, providing the best feeling of all—hope.
Though we may struggle with the murky future of public education, the good news is that nothing is permanent. You can reassess in a few months and make a different decision if necessary. Do the best you can with the information you have. Whatever decision you make will be okay. In this unprecedented set of circumstances, there is no one right answer.
Decision-Making Is Easier with a Strategy
- Define the problem by writing it down
- Share the problem with others
- Quiet your brain so you can reflect
- Take action
Every one of us has faced issues where decision-making seemed impossible. It is absolutely exhausting to replay all the worries in your mind over and over again. Pro-and-con lists may come out exactly equal and then you’re still not any closer to where you need to be. I’ve definitely been in that situation.
What made my career and business so successful and life as a father so rewarding is the ability to make a decision even in the toughest of circumstances and enjoy the rewards or manage the fallout either way. The state of being “undecided” is way worse than choosing to move forward with life one way or another.
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Rick Stephens is a co-founder of Raising Families. With 33 years of experience as a top-level executive at The Boeing Company and having raised four children of his own, he is able to support parents and grandparents by incorporating his knowledge of business, leadership, and complex systems into the family setting. In his “free time” Rick enjoys road biking, scuba diving, visiting his grandkids, and generally trying to figure out which time zone he’s in this week. Read full bio >>