Careers and Employability Service

Decision-making Skills


What is the secret of success?
Right decisions.
How do you make right decisions?
How do you gain experience?
Wrong decisions
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (former President of India)

Decision making skills can be very important in a careers context: Which career should I choose? Which university should I go to? Which course should I study? Of course they are also valuable in many other contexts in life.

The key steps in decision making are:

1. Clarify the nature of the problem before deciding action.

What is the purpose of the decision?
What is the expected outcome?
What are the key priorities: time, money, quality? Will a quick, cheap and cheerful solution do or do you need to invest time and cash to get things absolutely right?

2. Collect and summarise the data systematically.

Decisions can't be made in a vacuum! Gather, collate, classify and organise the information you need to make a decision. You need to analyse and evaluate all the important factors in making the decision. Analyse the various factors involved in the problem and identify the key ones.
Highlight any critical factors upon which the success on the decision will hinge.
Sound out the views and opinions of others: they may see something you have missed.

3. Use creativity/initiative in the generation of alternative solutions to the problem.

Produce a list of all the courses of action you can think of without trying to narrow these down. At this stage just produce a list of possible courses of action without trying to evaluate these. Brainstorming may help here (see below)
Think outside the box: don't just look at the obvious and tried and tested options. Don't be afraid to challenge the status quo.
See our pages on lateral thinking and on the creative careers search

How to brainstorm

  • The purpose of brainstorming is to produce as many possible options as possible without evaluating them.
  • Get a blank sheet of paper and write down any idea or possible solution which may help.
  • Don't censor your ideas. Write down everything, no matter how silly or insignificant to keep the flow going as once idea might lead to another.
  • Only once all the ideas have dried up, cross out or adapt all the weaker ideas: this should still leave you with a number of possible solutions.
  • Brainstorming can be done in a group, in which case no comments should be made about the decisions proposed or group members put down for proposing unusual ideas.

4. Produce a SHORT list of the best options.

Remove any obviously poorer choices. Don't have too many options in your final list or it will be too confusing.
Differentiate between practical and impractical solutions.

5. Make your decision

For each of your shortlist of options consider its advantages and disadvantagesTry to recognise any inconsistencies in your reasoning and question any assumptions you have made.
Evaluate each option against the key factors
 to consider the combined effect of all the factors. Weight each factor in terms of importance paying particular attention to any critical factors. See the decision matrix below to help you do this.
Sometimes you may get so immersed that you may not be able to see the wood for the trees: if this happens sleep on it and postpone the decision until the next day. This may give you a fresh perspective.

Using a DECISION MATRIX to help you to decide between alternatives:

Make a short list of your key options and look at the positives and negatives for each item. Below is a very simple example. You could include many more factors.

Which career would be most appropriate for me: teacher, youth worker or sales executive?

Factors important to me in my career choice


Job security
high (x 3)
9 (x3=27)
7 (x3=21)
4 (x3=12)
Informal working environment
medium (x2)
4 (x2=8)
9 (x2=18)
3 (x2=6)
9 to 5 work
low (x1)
6 (x1=6)
1 (x1=1)
5 (x1=5)
Good salary
low (x1)
4 (x1=4)
3 (x1=3)
8 (x1=8)
Job satisfaction
low (x1)
6 (x1=6)
7 (x1=7)
5 (x1=5)

This suggests that for this particular person teaching and youth work would both be good alternatives, but a career in sales probably wouldn't suit them. Of course intuition (gut reaction) can also play a major part in making decisions, but a decision matrix may at least give you an idea of which is the most logical choice.

Stay committed to your decisions, but stay flexible in your approach. Tom Robbins

In a moment of decision, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Theodore Roosevelt

A peacefulness follows any decision, even the wrong one. Rita Mae Brown

When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice.William James

Some persons are very decisive when it comes to avoiding decisions. Brendan Francis

You've got a lot of choices. If getting out of bed in the morning is a chore and you're not smiling on a regular basis, try another choice. Steven Woodhull

Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight; indecision, a dull one that hacks and tears and leaves ragged edges behind it. Gordon Graham

Whether you decide you can or you can't, you're right!

Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions.

When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it! Yogi Berra 

6. Implement your decision

See our page on action planning
Try to have a backup (contingency) plan in case your first option doesn't work out.

Learn to argue your solution if there is opposition from others

If it is a group decision, consider the implications for the other members of the team.
Communicate your ideas to the other team members, explain your reasoning and make sure they understand the logic behind it and get their commitment to carry it out.
See our page on effective group work

7. Evaluate how well things went

Learn from the experience especially if your solution does not prove successful!

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT analysis is a subjective method used to evaluate the STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, OPPORTUNITIESand THREATS involved in trying to attain an objective. It involves specifying the objective and identifying the internal and external factors that are favourable and unfavourable to achieving the objective. It can be used as a business tool or on a personal level where it can help you take advantage of your talents, abilities and opportunities. It can help to clarify and summarise the key issues and opportunities facing you and thereby to set objectives and develop new strategies. It should help you to to maximise strengths and minimise weaknesses in order to take advantage of opportunities and reduce threats.

SWOT Analysis for an unemployed graduate looking to gain employment






Attributes that help you to achieve your objective.
  • What skills do you have that others don't have? Our Skills Inventory with help here.
  • What skills have you gained in your degree?
  • Have you any contacts who may be able to help you?
  • What personal resources do you have access to?
  • Is where you live an advantage or disadvantage?
  • What do you do better than most other people?
  • How can you utilise each strength?
  • What do other people see as your strengths?

  • I have a good degree from a good university
  • I have good team working and organising skills
  • I have good support from my family, friends & the Careers Service


Limitations that are harmful to achieving your objective.
  • What skills could you improve?
  • What can you avoid?

  • I have no significant employment experience
  • My computing skills are weak: take a course to improve this
  • Not much money to do things.
  • Have to live  at home with my parents: can't afford to move away because of lack of money.



Favourable situations that help you achieve your objective.
  • Where opportunities are available to you?
  • How can you exploit these?
  • What opportunities do your strengths give you?
  • What trends might help you?

  • I have lots of free time to pursue things I haven't had time for before
  • I can do voluntary work & learn new skills to enhance my CV
  • It's a good chance to reevaluate where I'm heading in life


External conditions which could create problems.
  • What obstacles do you face?
  • How can you lessen these?
  • Could any of your weaknesses create problems? 

  • If I stay unemployed for too long it could be difficult to get a job
  • Tough job market at present


Having said all the above, you also need to take into account your subconscious - your gut reaction will often make better decisions than any amount of analysis:

We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it...We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. The first task of Blink is to convince you of a simple fact: decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

Malcolm Gladwell from his book "Blink"

Imagine a very hungry donkey that is standing exactly midway between two equally tempting stacks of hay. Unable to decide between these equally appealing choices, the donkey dies of hunger. This is called Buridan's Ass paradox, named so after a 14th Century French Philosopher but in fact can be originally found in Aristotle's "On the Heavens". Although this is obviously apocryphal it does emphasise the point that the more choices you have, the harder it is to make a decision! See When Choice is Demotivating

The theory behind making decisions

There are big differences between the decisions we make by intuition, and those we make by logical analysis.

The logical part of your mind (the part you are aware of) can analyse problems and come up with rational answers. It's excellent at solving problems, but it is slow and needs a lot of energy. If you have to solve a demanding problem while walking, you will probably stop because your analytical mind can't focus on both tasks simultaneously. 

Your intuitive mind on the other hand is fast and automatic. It's very powerful, but hidden and is responsible for most of the things that you do, think and believe but you have no idea this is happening. It is your hidden auto-pilot, and has a mind of its own.

Your intuitive mind is normally in control, efficiently dealing with the myriads of decisions we have to make each day. Mistakes occur when we allow our intuitive system to make decisions that we should allow our logical mind to deal with.

These mistakes are called cognitive biases. They make us spend impulsively, be influenced too much by what others think and affect our beliefs, opinions, and decisions.

Here are some common cognitive biases.

  • Present bias causes us to pay attention to what is happening now, but not to worry about the future. Read and van Leeuwen found that when making choices of food for the following week, 74% of participants chose fruit. But when choosing for today, 70% chose chocolate. This is one of the most important biases and causes overeating, smoking and drinking too much alcohol.
  • Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that confirms what we already know. It's why we tend to buy a newspaper that agrees with our views.
  • Negativity bias means that we remember negative events much better than positive ones. For every argument you have in a relationship, you need to have five positive memories just to maintain a balance.
  • Familiarity Bias. We tend to buy from a well advertised company rather than a less well known company. This works partly because we like what we know. We even choose familiar things even when there is evidence that it’s not the best choice (Richter & Spath).
  • Loss aversion. We have a natural desire to avoid losses. We feel the pain of a loss much more than we feel the pleasure of a gain. People tend to sell shares when they go up in price, but hold on to them when they go down. This can be catastrophic.  Daniel Kahneman invented a new branch of economics called behavioural economics based on these cognitive biases.

Also see


At an outdoor restaurant, a cockroach flew in and landed on a woman. She started screaming out of fear; with a panic stricken face and trembling voice, she started jumping, with both her hands desperately trying to get rid of the cockroach. Her reaction was contagious, as everyone in her group also got panicky. The woman finally managed to flick the cockroach away but it landed on a man in the group who continued the drama.

In the relay of throwing, the cockroach next fell upon a waitress who had rushed to their rescue.

The waitress stood firm, composed herself and observed the behaviour of the cockroach on her blouse. When she was confident enough, she grabbed it and threw it out of the restaurant.

Sipping my coffee and watching the amusement, I started wondering: was the cockroach responsible for their histrionic behaviour? If so, then why was the waitress not disturbed? She handled the situation to near perfection, without panic.

It was not the cockroach, but the inability of the customers to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach that disturbed them. I realised that it's not the shouting of my children or my boss or my wife that disturbs me, but my inability to handle the disturbances caused by their shouting.

It’s not the traffic jams on the road that disturb me, but my inability to handle the disturbance caused by the traffic jam. More than the problem, it’s my reaction to the problem that creates chaos in my life.

I understood, I should not react in life. I should always respond. The customers reacted, whereas the waitress responded.

Reactions are always instinctive whereas responses tend to be well thought out: to save a situation from getting out of hand, to avoid cracks in a relationship or to avoid taking decisions in anger, anxiety, stress or hurry.

Careers and Employability Service - © University of Kent

The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7ND, T: +44 (0)1227 764000 ext. 3299

Last Updated: 08/09/2017