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Decision problem? Ask the right questions

Identifying, exploring, and executing are the three stages of the decision-making process.


The identifying stage has four steps:

  • Identify the decision problem
  • Reflect on principles and values
  • Identify your goals and objectives
  • Exclude choice outliers

Before making a decision you need to ask the right questions

identifying the decision problem
identifying the decision-making problem

1. Identify the decision problem

A good decision-making process starts with identifying the decision problem.

For example, imagine you are moving to a new city and need to find a new home. You are deciding whether to buy a house or an apartment. Instead, the question may be: do I buy a house or rent it?

Not asking the right question will ultimately lead to the wrong answer and waste your time.

After asking the right question, you start to ask the second question, which house to buy or rent.

The first question answer is based on your personal statement. For example, are you moving for good to this new city? For how long are you expecting to stay? What about your job, long term financial plan, your partner? There are many things to consider while making such big decisions.

You will make your life much easier if you have a personal statement.

So, before you go the next level of questions, in that case which new house to buy or rent is to reflect on your principles and values.

If you didn’t write your personal statement, check out this article. If you already know your vision, mission, core values, then continue.

2. Reflect on your principles and values

Whenever you face a decision-making problem, you need to go back to your principles and values and ensure you are clear on your goals and objectives.

Remember, big life decisions are based on your vision, mission, goals, and objectives in life.

Small daily decisions are based on your goals and objectives.

An example of a big life decision, you got accepted to a state university and a higher ranked university in a different state. Which one should you go to?

The question should be: which is more important to you—better education or being near the family home?

Only you can make this decision, by exploring the options and laying the pros and cons in front of you can ask yourself the right questions.

3. Identify your goals and objectives

The process of decision-making requires knowledge of where you are going in a more detailed description than a vision and mission. This where objectives and goals come.

Objectives are small steps to achieve a goal

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Rewarding
  • Timed
Examples of goals:
Having a healthy lifestyle
Be an authoritative scientist in my field of expertise
Be a professional soccer player
Examples of objectives:
Exercising regularly
Publishing research papers in high impact journals
Join a soccer team
Goals vs Objectives

Next step is to exclude choices.

4. Exclude choice outliers

If the decision problem violates your core objectives and principles, you may eliminate that choice.

For example. you are bored with your job and thinking of making a career shift. A friend of yours offers you a new position in a new startup that requires a different skill set. This is a huge decision to make.

Knowing your personal statement will make answering your friend much easier.

Remember, you can always revisit your personal statement and adjust as you change. At least you will have a draft, in that case, your old personal statement.

Another example, Say you need to decide whether to visit your parents or go on a road trip with your friends. The problem is that you promised your parents you’d spend this vacation with them. Breaking your promise is against your principles, so you choose to exclude this choice, and this resolves the problem.

Sometimes we focus only on our objectives and goals, forgetting our underlying core values and the other factors.

When you’re making a decision, don’t focus solely on a cost-benefit analysis of objectives and goals. Instead, always look at the social aspect, people affected by your decision, and your core values.

For example, you are having marital problems and considering a divorce. Always look at how your separation will affect your children.

Or maybe you want to renovate your house and you’re calculating the expenses. It’s not only about the money, as renovating the house requires prior consultation with your wife and kids, who love their old living room. Also, you have to consider the noise of the work, which might annoy your neighbors.

Beware that exclusions might hinder your creativity and freedom.

Choosing the wrong principles, objectives, and goals will kill the decision-making process at its start.

Take care not to exclude decisions because of social norms, peer pressure, and limited resources. It’s sometimes a good idea in such cases, to skip the identifying stage and jump to the exploration stage to get maximum creativity.


Identifying the decision problem is the first stage in the decision-making process. Doing your homework at this stage will save you a lot of time, effort, and pain in the future.

A. I. Shoukry is the founder of The Decisions Academy and a bestselling author.

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