How to Make Better Decisions

Decision Making Chart

Decision Making Chart (Photo credit: West Virginia Blue)

What can you do if you’re not good at making decisions?

We’ve written in the past about what happens when people can’t make decisions: the possible motivation behind being indecisive, the longterm consequences of indecision, and even pathological indecision. While we focused a lot on indecision itself, we could have done more.

How to make better decisions is a life skill many people wish they have. We are not generally taught how to make better decisions in school. While our parents, teachers and friends may be quick to judge the decisions we make and prescribe what they think would be improvements, the decision-making process itself isn’t necessarily obvious.

Even so, for some people, the ability to make better decisions comes easy. They don’t worry about doing the wrong thing. They come to conclusions quickly. They implement their decisions and keep moving. Who are these people and how can we be more like them?

1. Good decision-makers have a better foundation of belief.

Those who have strong personal values have built-in expectations of themselves. These internal rules make it easier to evaluate a potential decision as right or wrong. Without a values-based internal compass, we can be misled by perceiving short-term advantages that are at odds with a longer term outlook. Our friend, business ethics expert Mark Faris, writing about Why We Forget Our Values and Ethics stresses that, “Recognizing what the right things are and then making the correct choices, allows us to avoid mistakes which can turn catastrophic in our personal and business lives.”

Maxwell Tielman concurs: “Up until recently, I allowed people’s ideas of who I am and what I should be doing with my life inform many of my decisions. I followed advice given to me based on other people’s lives, on other people’s paths, and other people’s good fortunes. What I ultimately realized, though, is that other people’s advice, no matter how well-intentioned or clear-minded, can often have the same effect as an ill-prescribed medication: what might work for some people might not work for you. At all. Eventually, after more than a few ill-prescribed decisions and life-paths, I came to the rather simple (but nonetheless monumental) realization that it was I who knew myself best and I who knew what made me the happiest. In short: I learned to trust my gut.”

Your gut will sometimes tell you to take a step back before you make a decision you subconsciously know is wrong. This happens when you’re relying on the wrong factors. Holly Johnson, writing about her house-buying decision process: “…even though we had found what we were looking for, we were extremely hesitant to pull the trigger. Something was holding us back. Something was telling us to stop and really think about what we were doing. And one thing I’ve learned is that when that voice talks, I need to listen. What we wanted and what we needed were, as always, two entirely different things. So we started the entire process over. Except this time, we focused on what we need, not what we want.”

Failure-is-not-the-worst2. Good decision-makers are not as afraid of failure.

A healthy relationship with the idea of failure is critical to good decision-making. Those who can accept the possibility of a fail define failure itself in different terms. Failure doesn’t have to be a disaster; instead, good decision-makers know that failure is a more positive signal toward creative change. Tamara Russell, neuroscientist and visiting lecturer at King’s College London‘s Institute of Psychiatry, writes for CNN: “Those who are willing to fail, and can sit with the uncertainty of not knowing will be those who ultimately succeed because their mental resources have been freed up in a way that allows creativity and flexible thinking to emerge.”

3. Good decision-makers know when to stop gathering information.

Chronically indecisive people procrastinate decision-making by remaining in the information-gathering phase. They’re telling themselves a convenient little lie. The opposite of insufficient information isn’t infinite information; it’s enough information. This is where indecisive people just don’t know how to quit.

Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project, warns against this type of quicksand: “For instance, one of my Secrets of Adulthood is: Most decisions don’t require extensive research.” Trust your gut, use your intuition, and when you get to something that meets your requirements, stop looking! Indecisive “maximizers,” Rubin says, “spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they are, in fact, making the best choice.”

There’s even a neurological basis for the bad effects of too much information: Ray B. Williams, writing for Psychology Today, cites studies that conclude successful people develop stress-reducing habits. These routines enable them to make important decisions early in the process before fatigue affects their abilities. Interestingly, because rational and logical prefrontal cortex functioning declines with information overload, too much information can adversely affect the decisions people make. “Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, decision-making may be a process handled to a large extent by unconscious mental activity. . . [L]earn to switch off the information flow. Second, learn how to use your emotions productively in making your decisions.”

4. Good decision-makers realize the negative effects of indecision.

Indecision is just plain debilitating. The exhausting effects of what this author calls “Indecision Hell” are based in negativity:

  • loss or self-esteem and personal power
  • opportunity loss
  • progress delays
  • negative attention from others (“when can we place this order?”)
  • tension from anxiety and dread, and others.

The indecisive person incorrectly sees avoidance as a benefit, relieving them from responsibility or difficulty in some way. But this isn’t the truth. Instead, it’s masking the fact that you’re choosing to stay stuck. No decision is really a decision. Good decision-makers know the blissful feeling that results from making a decision and moving forward purposefully.

5. Good decision-makers rarely second guess themselves once the decision is made.

Know a shopaholic who continually agonizes in the store, buys things, gets them home and returns them? Uh-huh. What a hamster wheel! Brett Blumenthal contends “indecision stems from fear.” If we remain fearful that the decision is “wrong,” we’ll second guess it. This is because we’re uncomfortable with the possibility of an outcome we can’t predict. Even though we’ve pushed ourselves to make the decision, fear is still ruling our feelings about potential results. The shopaholic doesn’t trust that the dress looks as good as she thinks it does, or that the monthly budget will allow for yet another splurge.

Business expert Geoffrey James advises that we wait for real, rather than imagined, outcomes: “Once you’ve made a decision, you must not question it, or seriously listen to other people question it, until you’ve obtained the results of executing that decision. Doing so pollutes the execution of the decision with indecision, thereby creating inaction.”

Learning from mistakes is one the critical elements of personal growth. When we’re faced with a decision, as good decision-makers, we have an opportunity to learn. Instead keeping ourselves in a stressful indecisive state, why not make the decision and be optimistic about the potential outcome? Even if things don’t turn out as well as we hoped, reframing the outcome on the basis of its positive aspects lets us move forward using what we’ve learned. If we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn by deferring decision-making, we’ll never be as strong as we could be. If we accept the fact that we learn by experience, doesn’t it stand to reason that we need all the practice at making good decisions that we can get?

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3 Responses to How to Make Better Decisions

  1. Catherine October 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm #

    Thank you for this Betsy and Pete. It really has been a huge wake up call for me and I know I will be coming back and re-reading and also going to read your excellent resources.

    Although I thought I was making good decisions in some areas of my life, and I really thought I was on top of the game for a while, my history of major bad decisions ultimately fucked up everything for me. And it’s way too easy not to try to reverse the initial decision for many reasons – fear, worry about loss of what we’ve already invested be it money, time or whatever.

    I so agree with you on instinct. I’ve had powerful instincts sometimes. But if you ignore them – they fade or don’t work at all. And another thing I’ve found is that it is often difficult to distinguish instinct from fear. I so wish it wasn’t.

    Lol – I’m so not used to blog commenting now since Facebook, but I’m using Twitter a lot instead lately and I couldn’t fit all this on there. :)
    Catherine has an awesome blog post here: Shit I Learned About Fear of Change & Why It Screws Up Your Life So MuchMy Profile


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