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How to separate decision-making from problem-solving

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Recently, I was putting off some crucial decisions about how I wanted to move forward in my life. And it’s not that I haven’t been looking at the issues and contemplating what I wanted. But I felt stuck.  Then, I came across a question in Wendy Craig-Purcell’s book “Ask Yourself This“, and realised my dilemma. I was mixing up problem-solving with decision-making.  

The question she asked as “If I could solve the “how”, what would I do?”

And I realised that I’ve allowed myself to get lost in problem-solving instead of decision-making. I was holding back on making a decision because I was busy trying to solve the problems that I could foresee.

Now, my professional background taught me to be a problem-solver: identify the problem, consider all possible (legal) solutions, and then choose the best solution for the client. I would probably have told you that decision-making is the process of problem-solving. Once you have identified your problem and the solutions, then you need to choose which answer you will go with.

But that doesn’t always work in life. Sometimes in life, making a decision is not about solving a problem. Sometimes the decision is to walk away from a challenge and choose a new path, forge a new plan. As Stephen Covey would say – before you climb the ladder of success, make sure that your ladder is leaning against the right wall.

Can you think of a time when you wasted time trying to solve a problem rather than face a decision? Perhaps you were overlooking the true nature of the question before you.

Decision-making versus problem-solving

One way to look at the difference is this:

  • Problem-solving has its roots in the past, in an on-going process. Perhaps it is the implementation of a past decision that has now hit an obstacle.
  • Decision-making, on the other hand, looks to the future. How do I want to build my future? It is about committing to a  course of action.

In part, the question rests in do I want to look at the best possible solution to this problem or would I prefer to build a bigger box where there are options that don’t exist when I merely look at the problem?

How the process might differ

You might consider problem-solving to be a five-step process:

  1. analyse the problem
  2. get information and data that allows you to find the options
  3. brainstorm the solutions
  4. weigh the pros and cons of the various solutions
  5. decide which solution best suits the problem and your resources

moving forward, compassionate choice, values, what is important, the right choice, analysis, logic, think outside the boxDecision-making, on the other hand, starts from a different vision entirely.

  1. Is this a problem to solve or an opportunity to consider?
  2. What do I want? How does this meet my needs?
  3. What are the goals and objectives?
  4. How will I know that I was successful? What are the values that I will use to measure success?
  5. Brain-storming my available options and choices
  6. Gather information and data regarding the options before me
  7. What problems or obstacles might arise? How will I solve them? What information will I need to address those challenges?
  8. What will I choose or decide to do?

In some ways, you might say that problem-solving can be more logical and analytical than making decisions, where you include your compassion and creativity. An on-going situation which needs fixing requires that you look for solutions.

But if you are feeling dissatisfied in life, perhaps what you need is to look for a new direction. When you come back to your values – what do I hold to be important in my life or my work? How is what I am doing at the moment aligned with my purpose?

Solving a problem will look at a “how”. But perhaps the questions you should be answering is “what” and “why”.

Why is it so confusing?

As a lawyer, I would often describe myself as a professional problem-solver. That was an essential part of what I did. But the everyday reality was that I outlined the potential solutions to the client. I would list the pros and cons (and most likely, my preferred course of action), but ultimately the decision-making lay with the client. They would choose, not me.

And I realised that while I am good at holding decision-making as a part of problem-solving, I was failing to consider that problem-solving is simply one small part of decision-making. It’s not always the whole picture. Sometimes the best possible solution is not to solve the problem. Occasionally, the choice that truly aligns with your heart’s desires is to choose a new path.

Walk away from the problem. It doesn’t have to be solved, at least, not by me.

Can you accept the freedom of knowing you don’t have to resolve everything?

Wisdom to know the difference

What do you have before you: a problem to solve or a decision to make? Which hat do you need to don?

Often life presents us with possibilities – and we get stuck trying to solve the how, before we focus on “what” and “why”. The failure to choose our “what”, because we can’t get past the “how”, keeps us stuck.

And, unfortunately, you are still sitting on the fence — the whole time; stuck on some future “how”, without getting off the fence in one direction or the other.

While you sit, you take no steps to address the “how”. It’s just mental masturbation: replaying the same options and tapes over and over in your head. If you got off the fence and took a few steps in that direction, you could invest all of your time and energy into problem-solving. But you are still sitting on the fence, so there are still other options available to you. More accessible but less appealing.

Possibly the more comfortable options don’t align with your goals and dreams. While you don’t desire them, they are within your comfort zone. How long will you sit undecided? And you tell yourself you can’t move until you’ve worked out the “how”.

Time passes you by. And sometimes, time chooses for you, while you are busy sitting on the fence, trying to solve a problem, rather than making a decision.

Do you have the wisdom to know the difference?

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A heart-based decision-making process

What do you want – genuinely want? What is your heart’s desires for your life and work? As you look at your life with compassion, based on what is critical and valuable to you, what would you choose?

Are you stuck on trying to solve the problems before you decide? Because your choices should be realistic and achievable. Or are you ready to start thinking outside the box to bring your creativity, logic and analysis all to bear on the challenges before you?

I’ve known for about eighteen months what I wanted, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the how. So, while I’ve taken baby steps towards creating what I desire, I failed to throw myself into solving the challenges. Part of me feels I’ve wasted time. Another part of me says “thank you for this valuable life lesson”. Thank you for eighteen months learning to listen to my heart, and not merely being a head on a stick.

Making a wise decision requires all your intelligence centres – heart, head and gut. Start choosing what you want, preparing your plans and goals, and then identify the problems you have to solve along the way. Know that moving forward will require courageous action. It will, no doubt, be uncomfortable when the right option is beyond your comfort zone. You won’t necessarily understand how to get there.

Just because you don’t understand how you will do it, don’t let that stop you from choosing the more difficult option when you know it’s the right choice.

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5 thoughts on “How to separate decision-making from problem-solving

  1. Interesting contrast

  2. I’ve never thought about these two in comparison. Interesting!

    1. Thank you

  3. […] Make a decision: What do I want? […]

  4. […] written on this challenge before, how we often try to solve the problems and challenges that will arise if we make a certain choice and therefore fail to […]

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