We’re all called on to make “urgent” decisions. It’s stressful, and it’s an easy time to make a mistake we wouldn’t otherwise make. Here are four questions I ask myself when these come up.
1. Is this decision really “urgent” to me? I keep putting urgent in quotes because, most of the time, these decisions don’t involve life or death, something that’s truly and obviously urgent. They’re about much more pedestrian things, and their actual urgency is a matter of perspective. Before you do anything, you need to figure out if the urgency behind the decision is real, or if it’s imposed by you or someone else.
2. What happens if I do nothing? Inaction is also a decision, and sometimes it’s a good decision, sometimes even the best. Since urgent decisions often result in error, once you’ve decided that something might be urgent to you, the first things you need to think about are the consequences of inaction. If they are trivial, or even non-existent, inaction may well be the wisest choice.
3. What is the narrowest decision I can possibly make? You’ve come to the conclusion that this issue is urgent to you, and that action is better than inaction. Now you need to identify the narrowest possible decision space within which to work. This usually means redefining the context within which you’re making the decision. Most of us have a surprising surprising amount of detail in our brains, and urgent decisions stir up a lot of detail. It’s tempting to include all of that detail when making an urgent decision, but this means you’re actually making a big decision under poor circumstances. You need to consciously put that detail aside and make the minimum viable decision.
4. What are the impacts of the decision I’m making? Now that you’ve made a decision, stop and think for a minute about what the decision means over the slightly longer term once you’re outside of your current urgent context. Does it create future urgent issues that will need to be handled? Does it artificially constrain your future possibilities? If your decision boxes you into a corner or creates a cascade of urgent issues, you should revisit this checklist and see if you can easily improve your decision. You might not be able to. Or you might not be able to see how you can improve your decision because you need some mental and emotional distance from the issue in order to better understand it. You should make the time to get that distance and revisit this list.
I’m not perfect at making decisions, but I’m better at when I take time to think. Urgency isn’t a clear cut issue, and it’s important to think clearly about it when you are in the middle of it.