De­ci­sions de­ci­sions

There are tried and tested ways to make smarter de­ci­sions

Irish Independent - Health & Living - - KIDS’ HEALTH SPECIAL -

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.


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.

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