In this article, I discuss a systematic way to make effective decisions.


Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

In my work as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist, I sometimes have clients who have difficulty making decisions. These cases typically involve the person being torn between two or more alternative courses of action. Examples include deciding whether to remain in or leave a relationship, to remain in one’s current job or take a different one, and choosing among two or more university or college programs.

In these instances, I usually provide the client with a decision-making tool which helps them to consider all information relevant to each alternative in making the decision. Using this tool often makes the correct decision clearer for the client. It also typically leaves them feeling comfortable with the decision once they have made it. In the following sections, I will describe this decision-making tool and how you can use it to make your own decisions.

The first step in making a decision: Make a decision matrix

To get started on making a decision, it is often helpful to make a decision matrix. The entails listing the two or more alternatives you are considering along with the pros and cons of each alternative.

Listing all the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative ensures that you will not overlook any relevant information in making your decision. In contrast, trying to keep to keep track of this information in your head is very difficult. This can results in making an incorrect decision because you forgot to include one or more factors which should have been considered.

The second step: Assign importance ratings to each pro and con factor

Once you’ve listed the pros and cons of each alternative in your decision matrix, you should assign importance ratings to each pro and con. This ensures that you will take into account not only each pro and con but that you will give more weight to particular pros and cons which are more important. Therefore, these factors will receive greater consideration in making your decision.

For example, consider two factors listed as pros of remaining in a relationship with a partner such as ‘He’s a great listener’ and ‘We enjoy working out together’.  The first pro listed might receive an importance rating of 9 while the second pro might be assigned a 6.

As a second example, consider two factors listed as cons of remaining at one’s current job such as ‘My boss harasses me regularly’ and ‘The commute to and from work is longer than I would like’. In this case, the first con listed would likely be assigned a higher importance rating than the second one.

The third step: Analyze the information in the matrix

After listing the pros and cons of each alternative and assigning importance ratings, it is often helpful to analyze this information. Many times such analysis leads to observations and insights which lead you to become clearer on which course of action you should pursue. For example, sometimes viewing the information makes it apparent that one course of action features many high-importance pros while the other option does not.

Often I encourage clients who are viewing the matrix information to come to a tentative decision regarding the alternative they are leaning toward. Many times clients will indicate that they are favouring one of the options based on the matrix information in combination with their intuition.

If so, I then ask them if steps can be taken to remove any of the cons of their preferred alternative so that they are more confident in choosing that option. For example, consider a person who is leaning toward remaining in a relationship with their partner after viewing the matrix information who has listed a high-importance con such as ‘We struggle with communication’.  Going to counseling with their partner to work on communication could be a way to effectively remove that con and make the person more confident that staying in the relationship is the right decision.

Decision-making: An inherently uncertain process

Making decisions is a process with uncertainty built into it. The reason is that each alternative typically features both pros and cons. The result is that on many occasions we cannot be certain that the option we chose is the best one.

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that for many decisions there is unknown information—some of it based in the future–which may influence whether the option you chose will lead to good or bad results. The upshot is that it is a rare person who has a perfect record of making the correct decision based on analyzing the results of their chosen alternatives.

Having said that, you can improve your ‘batting average’ in making good decisions by using the most effective decision-making tools when choosing among alternatives. The decision matrix is one such tool with an excellent track record.

May you use effective decision-making tools when making decisions,

Dr. Pat