We all grow up to be decision-makers. Yet, somehow, there’s no well-established way to make high-stakes decisions well. That’s a problem, since throughout life, we’re faced with many of these decisions, which will have a long-term impact on our lives and on our companies but where the outcome is unknown and the price for making the wrong decision could be costly.

It’s one of those topics that has been hiding, in many ways, in plain sight. Imagine if we all learned decision-making before, say, turning 18 or joining the workforce? Is there anything we do more frequently that has higher stakes than making good choices? If we could master decision-making, the world might get along just a little bit better, and everyone would live happier lives.

Is there a system that can help us solve complex problems? And is there a way to do it that boosts our confidence in our decision-making capabilities and enables us to have conviction that our solution is likely to succeed?

AREA is an acronym that enables users to work with, and through, ambiguity to make decisions:

  • Absolute: primary, uninfluenced information from the source at the center of your research and decision-making process
  • Relative: the perspectives of outsiders around your research subject
  • Exploration and Exploitation: the twin engines of creativity, one focused on expanding your research breadth and the other on deepening your understanding of yourself as a decision-maker
  • Analysis: synthesizing and interpreting the information you collected

AREA can be boiled down to four simple steps that you can use immediately to help you make smarter, better decisions when you’re facing a complex problem:

1. Recognize that research is a fundamental part of decision-making.

In reality, your ability to make a thoughtful decision is dependent upon the quality of the information you have. Therefore, a good research process should be an integral part of a decision-making framework. But keep in mind: “Research” is an umbrella term for a whole series of tricky steps that needs to be carefully navigated and thoughtfully completed. Break down your research so it’s manageable and organized.

2. Be aware that we are all flawed thinkers.

Much has been written lately about how we are all prey to mental mistakes. Behavioral science research and books like Robert Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” explain that we rely on faulty intuition and are swayed by authority and public sentiment. This new research explores the many ways that we allow biases, snap judgments and assumptions to drive our decision-making. Having a heightened awareness that we don’t see the world as it is, but that rather we see it as we are, can help prevent mistakes.

3. Address the critical component of timing by resisting rushing to judgment.

High-stakes decisions deserve time and attention, but often, we’re in such a rush to reach a conclusion that we never really take the time for deep reflection. We’re already over-programmed, answering emails late at night and waking to urgent texts. We struggle with the need to react when we also need to really think.

We all need a way to have a check and balance for bias, and that’s why a thoughtful process focuses on alerting you to disconfirming data. The idea is that when it comes to making big decisions, we deserve the time needed for thoughtful reflection as well as tools for examining both our data and our thinking. Insight doesn’t come from collecting information alone; it comes from brainwork, so slow down and think about the meaning behind the information you are gathering and the work you are doing.

4. Recognize that good decision-making needs a repeatable process that works as a feedback loop.

Not all investigations are linear, nor should they be. At times, you need to be driven back into earlier steps to do more work, collect more data or conduct more analysis.

We can’t control our luck, but we can control our process and, in doing so, make smarter, better decisions.