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How To Be A Better Decision Maker

Being able to make decisions matters. In a society where there are eight hundred options for any decision we need to make, it can be hard to just pick something and get moving. It’s important to limit the amount of decisions we make, and be firm in the decisions we do make, rather than waffling back and forth. Using too much mental energy leaves us with decision fatigue which means we’ll make lower quality decisions later (late night snacking, anyone?). However, there are some strategies you can use to be better able to make decisions.

Flip a coin. I know this sounds obvious, but stick with me here. Stuck between two things? Flip a coin. If both options are truly equal, then the coin flip will make the decision for you, and you’re good to go.

More often though, you’ll find that you feel either relieved or distressed by the result of the coin flip. The coin gives us a definite answer, which forces us to evaluate how we really feel, instead of hanging out comfortably in “decision mode”. If you’re debating between two outfits, and the coin flip tells you to wear the black one instead of the blue one, and you aren’t thrilled about that, then wear the blue one. Even if you don’t end up listening to the coin, it will show you how you really feel about your options.

Give yourself a time limit. Are you a chronic researcher? A lot of us are. It takes my mom three months to decide which new vacuum to buy. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of endless research because we feel like we don’t know enough, or need to have every detail in order to move forward. This is often the case with bigger decisions, like deciding to leave your job, or pivot your company in a new direction. Making a big decision is scary, and we don’t want to make the wrong one due to lack of information. After a certain point, however, all this extra information isn’t doing you any good.

Set a timer. Trying to figure out what TV to buy? You’ve got one hour. Set a timer. Spend one hour doing all the research you want and learning all about all the fancy new TVs. But at the end of that one hour, you better be typing your credit card details in the checkout page, or you don’t get a TV.

This also works well with smaller decisions. There’s the classic “Where should we go for dinner?” that no girlfriend in the history of ever has apparently been able to answer. Set a time limit. You’ve got thirty seconds. When that timer goes off, whatever comes out of your mouth is where you’re getting dinner. End of discussion.

Make sure it isn’t a false dichotomy. It’s so easy to fall into a “decision” that doesn’t actually need to be decided. Most things aren’t mutually exclusive, even if we act like they are. You can hang out with your family and go to the gym. With a bit of time management and careful prioritization, we can fit way more into our days than we realize. Refuse to limit yourself unnecessarily.

Know that it probably doesn’t matter. Can you tell me what you had for dinner three weeks ago? Or what outfit you wore to your niece’s birthday party? Or what that other couch you were considering buying looked like? Nope, you probably can’t. The vast majority of our decisions really don’t matter. Our overall habits and the trends that pop up in our decision making matter, but each individual decision typically matters very little.

Realizing how unimportant most decisions are takes the pressure off. We love low pressure things around here. I’m not about intimidating anyone. If you know that your dinner tonight won’t matter in two days, it’s much easier to just pick something. You’ll probably end up enjoying whatever you choose more than you thought you would anyway.

Decide not to decide. This is a big one, especially when it comes to habit formation. You have the ability at pretty much any moment to make a decision once, and never make it again. People often use this strategy for things like going to the gym.

You could decide right now that you go to the gym four times a week at 8 a.m., and then when 8 a.m. rolls around, there’s no decision to be made. You no longer get to have that internal debate about whether or not you’re going to the gym, because already decided that this is what you do. I bet you don’t decide every day whether or not you’re going to brush your teeth. You decided long ago that you just do it. It’s not an option not to brush your teeth because you decided long ago not to decide. Turns out, you can do this with way more things than just brushing your teeth.

Simplify. I wear variations of the same outfit every day. I drink tea out of the same mug every morning. I do my hair the same way every day. Remove the extra options from you life. I know what clothes I like, and I know what mug I like, so I don’t bother with the rest. There’s no reason to own fifty-eight mugs. Keep the ones you like the most, donate the rest.

Maybe you love doing your hair every day, but couldn’t care less about breakfast. Then eat the same breakfast every day. Make your life easier by taking away all the extra options.

We overwhelm ourselves with all the options available. Even those little decisions like choosing which shoes to wear add up and create decision fatigue. Keep the decisions that you love to make, like choosing which nail polish to wear, and get rid of all the other options when it comes to all other decisions.

Let someone else decide. Put the decision in the hands of someone you trust and who knows you well, and they’ll almost definitely make the best decision for you, whether it’s big or small. If you don’t feel comfortable giving the decision away because you’re afraid that person won’t pick a certain option, then you have your answer. The option you want them to pick is the option you should choose. This is similar to flipping a coin.

If you are comfortable letting someone else make the decision, enjoy the freedom you’ve just given yourself. Trust that that person knows you well and will make a good decision. They may even make a better decision than you would have made for yourself.

I do this often when shopping for food with my fiance. I’ll see a display of chips, and thinking that I love chips, ask him, “Do I want chips?” And most of the time he answers no. Deep down, I know this is the right decision for me because I know I can’t limit myself around chips, and I’ll feel crappy later after downing the bag. But it’s not the decision I would make a lot of the time if left to my own devices. By outsourcing the decision, I go with the better option than I would have if I made the decision by myself.

Make a plan. It’s often much easier to think clearly before we’re faced with a decision than it is in that moment. I know that if something throws off my morning schedule, I often get distracted and end up wasting several hours doing nothing productive before I get back on schedule. Because of this, I made a plan. When I notice that something messed up my morning (thanks, mindfulness), I take a few moments to intentionally step back, get some tea, meditate, and get back on schedule. Stepping back allows me to reset my focus and get back to work, instead of spending three hours on Reddit.

For all my CS people out there, you’re essentially creating if statements for your life. If x happens, how will you handle it? Else, what will you do instead? Have a plan where different activities get executed depending on specific conditions. It will give you a direction forward when you aren’t sure what to do next.

Admittedly, I’m still not the best decision maker. Sometimes I still get stuck and take longer than I need to to figure out what I want. Decision making is a skill that you need to practice if you want to get better at it, just like anything else. I’ve gotten more decisive recently as I’ve grown into myself and found a confident and defiant grasp on the reins of life, but I still have work to do. Just keep practicing.

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