There are two things that are sure-fire tinder for stress: Facing a tough decision and needing to make it quickly.

Leaders often are put in impossible decision-making positions. Fire a misbehaving employee or just give them a stern warning? Throw all your marketing dollars at one product and hope it soars, or spread the budget and see what wins? Make it home in time for family night or finish up the investor report that's due in the morning?

The problem with these decisions is twofold: They seldom can command our full, undivided attention, and we spiral out of control with worry about consequences, regardless of what decision we make.

As with most major life decisions, I have found it exceedingly helpful to concretize the facts in a written format that's easy to digest and is as objective as possible.

Here's how I use the simple "ladder rule" to climb, one rung at a time, to a resolution:

First rung: Ask yourself 2 simple questions that frame the decision clearly.

  • Will this decision have a measurable or noticeable impact on my people, my company, or society?
  • Is this decision time-sensitive?

If the answer to both is "no," take a deep breath. This decision is not as mission-critical as you thought, and you can take some time to consider it. Come back to this exercise later. If the answer to either is "yes" or "maybe," move up to the second rung.

Second rung: Give yourself space and time to focus on the decision.

  • Set aside five minutes to concentrate solely on the decision you need to make.
  • Remove distractions by closing the door to your room or office.

With an opportunity to focus, you can now turn to the actual decision-making.

Third rung: Define all options and outcomes by writing them down.

  • On a piece of paper, define each option in one sentence. Keep it brief and stick to what you know (facts and verified observations).
  • Next to each option, write a single sentence describing the likely outcome. Again, stick to what you know is true, likely, or proven based on fact or observation.

This is a key step because it allows you to map real outcomes to real decisions. It also highlights options and outcomes that are unclear and require more definition before you can make an informed decision. If time allows, make sure both are as clear as possible.

Fourth rung (top of the ladder): Once you have options and outcomes defined, highlight the ones you see as the most desirable.

  • Circle the best possible outcome. Highlight the decision that corresponds to it. This is your #1 choice.
  • Circle the next best outcome and highlight the corresponding option. If, for whatever reason, your first choice is not possible, this is your backup.

This may seem like a silly exercise, but it does two things remarkably well:

First, it forces you to think about the knowable details and facts of your decisions so you're not swayed by emotion or external stressors.

Second, it trains your mind to approach decision-making in a very objective, considered way. You may even find that after several of these exercises, you can climb the "ladder rule" in your head without needing to write your options down.