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.
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.
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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.
- Ariely, Dan (2008) Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions.
- Heath, Chip & Dan Heath (2013) Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.
- Kahneman, Daniel (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow.
WANT AN ALMOST FREE BOOK?
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.