Don’t Know What to Do? How to Make Better Decisions

I used to think I was hot stuff when it came to making good decisions. I didn’t realize that in my closed little world of work, work, and more work, I was committed to just putting one foot in front of the other. There really weren’t that many decisions to be made. When I left my career, totally fried and exhausted, I made a bunch of bad decisions that cost me a lot, financially and emotionally. I needed to learn how to make better decisions.

How about you? Has your life felt full of big decisions lately? Thinking about whether you should stay or leave a relationship? Contemplating changing careers or retiring? Considering moving or maybe spending a lot of money? To make it easier for all of us to make better decisions, I’ve read the three best books on the subject, synthesized the information into seven steps, and summarized it all in a printable infographic at the end of this post. Ta da. Let’s get started.

Step #1: Beware Decision Fatigue

In an earlier post about willpower and self-control, I talked about the ego depletion theory. This theory posits that willpower comes from one part of your brain, so it can be used up. I gave the example of forcing yourself to exercise, only to have nothing left to resist the bag of Ruffles BBQ potato chips calling your name.

Apparently, the ego depletion theory also applies to decision-making. When you need to make a big decision, routinize the small decisions in your life. Stay with your current workout schedule, food and clothing choices. Save your decision-making energy so you can make better decisions about the big stuff.

Step #2: Use Your Head and Heart

Benjamin Franklin developed pro and con lists back in 1772. They are still the “go to” for many of us trying to make logical decisions. Unfortunately, pro and con lists, on their own, don’t and can’t work. Biases in our thinking lead us to rig the results to give us what we wanted in the first place. Besides, decision-making is actually impossible if we don’t take our emotions into account. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio proved that when he cut a tumour out of a patient’s brain. Damasio explains in this 3:22 minute video.

When making a decision, ask yourself, “Does this make sense for me?” AND “Does it feel right?” 

It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.

Roy E. Disney

Step #3: Clarify Your Priorities

Think about the pre-existing priorities and values that are going to be impacted by your decision. A simple example is that I was offered a great job that would have required a four hour daily commute. Since twenty hours a week of sitting on a train or driving in my car and sitting on a highway conflicts with the value I place on my time and life, the decision was an easy one to make.

If you are really struggling with a decision, chances are good that there’s a conflict of priorities and values. Get clear about your non-negotiables and you will make better decisions.6 identical doors in wall

Step #4: Quickly List Your Choices

Quickly list as many options as possible. Doing it fast means that you are less likely to lock in on your first choice, and compare all others to it. And multiple options will open up the possibilities. As a wise man (my dad) said, “When someone gives you two choices, look for a third.”

However, be careful walking this tightrope. While you definitely want to distrust “whether or not” decisions, too many choices can cause the decision fatigue we talked about in Step #1.

Step #5: Collect Information

At this stage in decision-making, you want to embrace uncertainty. The best way to do that is to collect information from others, whether family, friends, books, or the Internet. Collecting information from others will reduce the likelihood of confirmation bias, which means seeking out just the data that supports your preference. You will also gain useful insights when you hear opinions that conflict with what you want to do. Those opinions might change your mind, or they might confirm that you are committed to your choice. Finally, collecting information from others is absolutely vital if you need their buy-in.

The caveat is that you can’t feel pressured to take the advice of family and friends. If that’s going to be a problem, it’s better not to ask!

Step #6: Cool and Consider

Give yourself some distance from the decision by sleeping on it. This is especially important if you are feeling intense emotions, like anger or anxiety.

Consider how you will feel about your decision a year from now. This suggestion harkens back to Step #2. You want to take your future emotions into account just as much as your present emotions.

You might also want to consider whether there is a way to try out a small, inexpensive version of your decision. For example, I’ve long been captivated by the romantic notion of writing in a little cottage by the sea, listening to the waves and the gulls as I work. I could sell my home and buy a beach house, but I will make a better decision if I trial run my dream by renting a beach cottage for a couple of months.

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions.

Jim Rohn

Step #7: Commit

Once you have cooled and considered, commit. Make your most important decisions early in the day to avoid decision fatigue. Commit enthusiastically, no more waffling, and monitor how things are going over time. Remember that you are rarely stuck if things don’t turn out as you’d hoped. Life gives us many opportunities to make new and better decisions.

Here’s the infographic that summarizes the above. And here’s the printable version.

infographic 7 Steps to make better decisions

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Best Books to Help You Make Better Decisions

The three books I read and synthesized for this post are listed alphabetically by author’s name. They are all good, but if I had to choose a favourite, it would be the one by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Their writing is engaging, humorous, and always so helpful.


I have an extra hardcover copy of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The book sells on Amazon for $25.70 Canadian or $7.46 U.S. (It’s on sale at this price, but don’t even get me started on the difference between the cost of books in the United States versus Canada.) Anyway, I’m happy to send it out to anyone who is willing to reimburse me the cost of postage. If you’d like it, send me a quick private note  – If more than one person writes, I’ll do a draw at the end of the day (Thursday, June 15th, 2017).

Are you good at making decisions? Which of the seven steps are most helpful to you in making better future decisions? Please let us know in the comments below.

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  1. Thank you Karen – this is a terrific post and it’s going to be really helpful going forward! I just wish I had read this 20 years ago. I’m a terrible decision maker. I make lists, then lists about lists and I dither about what ifs. I’m going to print this and put it where I can read it every day.

    1. Thanks, Anna. I too am at the point of referring to a printed copy of the infographic to see if it will help me with some decisions. Good luck to both of us!

  2. Great post! I’m in the middle of a decision making process right now (fortunately not a life-changing one) and I find myself having trouble committing. I’ll try your steps and see if they help.

  3. Hi, Karen –
    This is a very thought-provoking post, filled with solid information.
    So much of our decision-making takes places unconsciously. The unconscious mind works much more swiftly than the conscious mind and can override our conscious decisions when danger is sensed. This can cause us to be completely unaware of why we just made a decision that we did.
    Your steps and graphics offer great strategies to slow us down and help us be more aware, and more in control, of the decisions that we make.

    1. Thanks, Donna.
      I so agree that the unconscious mind can override the conscious mind, sometimes when danger is sensed and sometimes because we fear a danger that isn’t really there. Someone accurately, I think, described our brains as the final frontier for scientific knowledge.

  4. I love your info-graphic as well as your research, summary and topic, Karen. These steps are great and well-considered. Making decisions has always been hard for me, because I always want to do/see/experience everything. Usually, I follow my gut feeling and sometimes, I make a list of the pros and cons of each choice. Have a nice Thursday!

    1. Thanks, Liesbet. I’ll bet that when you follow your gut, things usually turn out well. They used to for me, but in the last few years I stopped trusting my gut, my instincts. I’d like to get back to a place of trust. I do believe that when we know ourselves well, our instincts or intuition offer us signs of whether we’re heading in the right direction or not.

  5. Hi Karen, sorry I am a little late to the party but Wednesday I had a major migraine which lingered into yesterday. Lack of sleep put me behind on everything so I am finally able to get to your post today. Also, our internet has been flaky at best… grrrr, don’t get me started on internet service in the country. Anyway, I am feeling much better now…onward!

    After being married to an abuser for a lot of years I lost my ability to make decisions so I am slowly learning how to make decisions and good ones at that. I must admit I do usually put my decisions through the filter of what is best for everyone (anyone) else but I think that is from being a people pleaser. I do want to make better decisions – for myself – for a change.

    Your infographic is great and each point gives me something new to think about that I hadn’t considered before. Like step 3 – thinking about your priorities/values and what is non-negotiable. Imagine – something can be non-negotiable! I never knew making lists could be biased like that either. Great information as always, Karen, thanks. Perhaps I will have to print this infographic out too to remind myself at a glance.

    1. HI Susan,
      I’m glad you’re feeling better. The crazy fluctuations in weather can’t be very good for people who suffer from migraines. Yikes! Anyway, very glad that you’re back. Even though you’re only one day after posting, the absence of your thoughtful comment yesterday was noted and missed!

      Before my burnout, I don’t think I’d realized that decision-making skills can be affected by life events. It only makes sense that, having been in an abusive relationship, confidence in your decisions would have taken a bath. I’m very glad to hear that you are recovering the skill. It does indeed sound as if step #3 with the establishment of some non-negotiables, is the perfect place for you to be focused right now.

      1. Aww, thanks for telling me I was missed. 🙂 You are so right about the weather playing a role in my migraines. Mine are very much from environmental triggers and one of them is changing weather when the barometer goes up and down like a yo-yo.

        Yes, thanks, Karen confidence in my decisions took a definite hit…I mean, after choosing that person geesh! Mostly though it was years and years of not being *allowed* to make a decision…you kind of get out of the practice. It took an occupational therapist a long time to get me to make a decision (I was afraid to). So your infographic is exactly what I need. 😉

        1. That makes me happy, Susan – the last sentence, not the whole second paragraph. I’m sorry you went through that. Onward to lots and lots of great decisions that honour your non-negotiables!

  6. This is a great summary, Karen. During my previous administrator position, I had to make many difficult decisions that impacted others. I experienced decision fatigue by the end of the day, and especially by the end of the week. Sometimes it was so bad that I couldn’t even decide which file folder to put an item in when I was clearing off my desk at the end of the day. Rob and I had a pattern of going out for dinner on Friday evenings. But he usually had to decide where because I was so decision fatigued that I felt like crying if he asked me where I wanted to go.

    In retrospect, I think that was also burnout, not just decision fatigue.

    As for writing in the cabin by the sea, I have that fantasy too, except my cabin is by a lake. I actually lived out that fantasy once, sort of. A writer friend of mine, and one of her writer friends and I rented a cabin by a river for a long weekend writing retreat. We talked our heads off, drank lots of wine, and had fun, but didn’t accomplish a lot of writing!


    1. HI Jude,
      I’m sure the same would happen to me if I were to try a writing retreat with friends. I think I’d have to have at least one long weekend with said friends BEFORE the writing retreat so that we could get the talking, wine, and fun out of our systems. But that would only work if the actual writing retreat was the very next weekend. More than one week in between and we’d have a whole new agenda of things to talk about!

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