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How often do you focus on your decision-making process?

Today is January 10 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is: "How often do you focus on your decision-making process?" Making decisions is a daily occurrence for those who navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well.

In his 2013 book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life, cartoonist and author Scott Adams highlights two important aspects of his success: “Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas;” and “Goals are for losers. Focus on the process.”

One person who focused on her decision-making process and rose from a New York City housing project to one of the most powerful women in the business world was Ursula M. Burns.

In July 2009 Ursula M. Burns became the CEO of Xerox and in so doing became the first black-American woman CEO to head a Fortune 500 company. Raised by a single mother who was a Panamanian immigrant in the Baruch Houses, a New York City housing project, Burns’ mother “scraped together enough funds from doing domestic work to send her daughter to Catholic high school.”

There were several decisions that helped Burns navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well. First, Burns decided that the three career options available for her: nun, teacher, or nurse, failed to spark an interest in her so she “began to dream of becoming an engineer. Second, Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute offered her a spot in the freshmen class. Although she felt unprepared, and experienced self-doubt quite often, she decided to lean in and do the work that was necessary to succeed.

Third, Burns decided to switch her major at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering from chemical engineering, which she disliked, to mechanical engineering, which she loved. Fourth, she decided to take an internship with Xerox in upstate New York. Fifth, she decided to attend Columbia University, an Ivy league school, for her Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering. Finally, Burns decided to climb the ladder at Xerox and in 2014 Forbes rated her the 22nd most powerful woman in the world. Not bad for someone from a New York City housing project!

Burns figured out how to navigate the chaos of being an African American woman in a man’s world. As Thomas Edison observed "The successful person makes a habit of doing what the failing person doesn't like to do." Burns made one decision after another to do what so many others choose to avoid. She learned how to overcome self-doubt, traveled outside her comfort zone, and committed to a process of leaning in to make one decision after another to move forward.

Making decisions is difficult, however, and if you want to translate one dream after another into reality, it is important to have a process that you can rely on. This is especially true today where our choices keep increasingly exponentially.

As David Brooks wrote in The New York Times “We can choose between a broader array of foods, media sources, lifestyles and identities. We have more freedom to live out our own sexual identities and more religious and nonreligious options to express our spiritual natures.”

While new choices present exciting opportunities, the explosion of choice has also challenged the ability to make decisions. The research suggests that the explosion of choice does not always provide a positive experience.

For example, in their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, authors Chip and Dan Heath point out that 83 percent of corporate mergers and acquisitions do not increase shareholder value, 40 percent of senior hires do not last 18 months in their new position, and 44 percent of lawyers would recommend that a young person not follow them into the law.

As Brooks noted “It’s becoming incredibly important to learn to decide well, to develop the techniques of self-distancing to counteract the flaws in our own mental machinery.” Deciding well, can, in the words of Bruce Lee, help one “hack away at the inessentials.”

One person who developed an efficient decision-making model was Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a 1954 speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower said: "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Often referred to as the ‘Eisenhower Principle’ on organizing workload and priorities this decision-making process involves a 2x2 grid consisting of four categories:

  • Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately) DO IT

  • Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later) DEFER IT

  • Urgent, but not important (tasks delegated to someone else) DELEGATE IT

  • Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate) DELETE IT

Also known as the 4 D approach to decision making: do it, defer it, delegate it, or delete it, Eisenhower’s approach can help one understand that great time management means being effective as well as efficient. It is important on both the personal and professional levels to prioritize spending time on those tasks that fall into the important and urgent categories. Doing so can help you identify your essential tasks, improve your decision-making process, and help you navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well.

  • How often do you focus on your decision-making process?

  • Do you realize the value of using the 4 D approach to making decisions?

  • How often are you updating your Urgent and Important list?


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