There are tried and tested ways to make smarter decisions
WHETHER it’s a career move or a relationship dilemma, we all face tough decisions from time to time. Decisions are hard because we fear making a mistake and living with the regret afterwards. What makes them even harder is our tendency to focus on the outcome rather than the process.
The next time you have a big decision on your hands, try spending some thinking about how you make your decisions rather than just dwelling on the decision you have to make.
π KNOW YOUR BLINDSPOTS
Even the most logical thinkers are vulnerable to cognitive bias — an umbrella term for the errors of judgement that distort our decision-making. There are more than one hundred of these biases, but the good news is that once we learn to spot them, we’re more likely to avoid them. For a deep dive on cognitive biases, try reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. For a quick reference guide, go for The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.
π CONNECT WITH THE PRESENT MOMENT
The practice of mindfulness meditation is another proven way to counteract cognitive biases. A study that appeared in the journal Psychological Science found that one 15-minute session of focused-breathing meditation can help people make more rational decisions.
π TRY THE 10/10/10 RULE
Business writer Suzy Welch’s ‘10-10-10 Rule’ is designed to help people consider their decisions from a forward-looking perspective, by asking:
How will I feel about my decision in ten minutes?
How will I feel about my decision in 10 months?
How will I feel about my decision in 10 years? If you tend to make decisions in the heat of the moment, this exercise will help you explore the compound benefits and long-term consequences of your choices.
π TAKE A THIRD-PERSON PERSPECTIVE
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who step back from their dilemmas and consider them from an outsider’s point of view are more likely to make logical decisions. So next time you have a big choice on your hands, try the self-distancing technique and imagine what kind of advice you’d give to a friend in the same situation.
π RECONSIDER THE VALUE
When weighing up the pros and cons of a decision, we often think in terms of tangible benefits. But as philosopher Ruth Chang points out in her TED Talk, ‘How to Make Hard Choices’, not all value is quantifiable. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t consider the tangibles when making a decision, rather that they should be balanced with the intangibles that we often overlook, such as wellbeing, quality of life and peace of mind.
π CREATE DEFAULTS
The more decisions we have to make in a day, the less astute our decision-making becomes. This phenomenon is known as ‘decision fatigue’, and it’s the reason Barack Obama rarely varied his clothing choices when he was in office. “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits,” he explained to a journalist at the time. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
There’s a takeaway here: if you have big decisions to make, don’t dwell on the smaller ones. Life is easier when we have a few defaults options in place — and our overall decision-making ability improves too.
π SEEK INFORMATION, NOT SUPPORT
Most of us run through our options with friends and family before we make a big decision, but as Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Decisive, explain, we often seek reassurance under the guise of advice.
“Sometimes we think we’re gathering information when we’re actually fishing for support,” they write. “Take the tradition of calling people’s references when you want to hire them. It’s an exercise in self-justification: We believe someone is worth hiring, and as a final ‘check’ on ourselves, we decide to gather more information about them from past colleagues. So far, so good. Then we allow the candidate to tell us whom we should call, and we dutifully interview those people, who say glowing things about the candidate, and then, absurdly, we feel more confident in our decision to hire the person.”
π WIDEN YOUR OPTIONS
Struggling to choose between two equally attractive options? The Decisive authors point out that it might not be such a dilemma after all. “Any time in life you’re tempted to think, ‘Should I do this OR that?’ instead, ask yourself, ‘Is there a way I can do this AND that?’” they write. “It’s surprisingly frequent that it’s feasible to do both things.”
π TRUST YOUR GUT
Decision-making largely takes place in our head, but it helps to listen to your gut too. Weigh up the options and crunch the numbers by all means, but take a moment to tune in to the subtle shifts that occur in your body when you consider each option. Bad decisions can make the body tighten up, while good decisions can trigger a relaxation response.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Like it or not, decision-making is a muscle that has to be exercised. If you’re chronically indecisive, the best way to break free from the self-doubt is to start small. Practise making snap decisions on matters that are ultimately inconsequential, whether it’s setting a limit on the amount of time you spend choosing what you’re going to cook for dinner or picking the first item that appeals on the menu. With time, you’ll become more confident at making small decisions, which will in turn make you better equipped to take on the big ones.