How to Be Better at Making Big Decisions
Every day we make decisions: what to eat, when to sleep, where to go and what to do. Most are easy and barely require any thought. But big decisions can make us sweat and keep us up at night. They somehow seem harder. We forget that many of these decisions are simply a step on a path to a goal (such as forwarding a career or improving a way of life) and one is not always measurably better than another. In a 2014 TED Talk, Ruth Chang explains, “What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.”
In an article on NPR Tania Lombrozo, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley writes, “Hard decisions should be easy, perhaps, but they certainly don't feel that way. That's due to the second reason hard decisions are hard: We perceive the choice to be consequential.”
Philosophers have long pondered the decision-making process. In the 1930s, Chester Barnard, author of “The Functions of the Executive,” introduced the term “decision making” to the business world and changed the ways managers think about what they do. Today, researchers use “Decision Science” (a combination of theories and methods from psychology, economics, statistics, philosophy, mathematics, sociology and political science) to determine the best methods of making decisions.
Advances in the capabilities of computers and artificial intelligence allow researchers to collect massive amounts of complex data that they then manipulate to generate possible scenarios. This helps identify the numerous risks, rewards and uncertainties associated with possible decisions. While this analysis is helpful (predictions based on scientific data tend to have a high level of accuracy), computers are not yet capable of making all decisions for us. For those times when a computer can’t help you, decision researchers have some helpful dos and don’ts that may help.
Tip No. 1
While some choices are simple and have no lasting effect either way, others can be life-changing, to you and/or others. Our personal values will and should influence our choices. Steven Johnson points out in his book, “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most,” “It’s easy to go with your heart when you are only calculating the impact on your emotional state. It’s much harder when your heart conflicts with your politics, or your community roots, or your financial needs — or all three.”
Benjamin Franklin referred to his decision-making process as “Moral Algebra.” He outlined his process in a letter to Joseph Priestly. His method included several days of careful deliberation of the pros and cons of an issue, after assigning “weights” to each, based on his motives in including each criterion.
Tip No. 2
While the pro/con list seems overly simple to many, Franklin’s method is useful. This encourages us to research and provides a visual that can help us see the bigger picture. Remember that items on these lists may differ in value, so the longer list will not necessarily be the better choice.
Sometimes we need to decide not between two choices but whether to take a chance or not. Johnson points out, “Complex decisions force us to predict the future.” When trying to decide whether to make a large investment, or move across the country for a potentially lucrative job, you need to decide how much risk you are willing to take — is the potential reward worth it?
Tip No. 3
Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard and author of “Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed and How We Can Stick to the Plan,” says in her book that emotions are important. Before coming to a conclusion, look at where they are coming from, they may be clouding your decisions.
"One of the things we know is that human beings are horrible in terms of relying on their emotions to make decisions, and yet almost all of our decisions are based on the emotions we feel about a situation," Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University tells the Chicago Tribune. The co-author of the book, “The Upside of Your Dark Side: While Being Your Whole Self — Not Just Your 'Good' Self — Drives Success and Fulfillment” expands on this, saying that new opportunities sometimes lead people to fixate on the "craving for newness" instead of looking ahead. While our emotions have a role, it is wise to not make big decisions based solely on how we feel.
Tip No. 4
Consider what the effects of your decision will be. One way to achieve this is to map out potential consequences. Influence diagrams, commonly used in environmental-impact studies, help visualize the impact of choices. These visual aids start with the proposed action and map out possible effects of that choice as well as the effects of the effects to forecast the most likely result.
Tip No. 5
Too many choices complicate the decision-making process. The more choices you have, the more likely you are to suffer decision fatigue, causing you to make impulsive choices or choose to not make a choice at all. The number of decisions you have to make also impacts your ability to make good choices. John Tierney, New York Times columnist and co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” writes about a study: “When there were fewer decisions, there was less decision fatigue. Today we feel overwhelmed because there are so many choices.”
Tip No. 6
Good leaders seek advice from others. The trick is to find good sources of advice. For personal matters it makes sense to seek the opinions of family and friends; for business decisions you may want to go to colleagues or experts in the field for advice. Remember that no matter the source, humans often have personal agendas that may influence the advice they provide.
Tip No. 7
Big decisions deserve time to mull over the options. Terry Connollly, professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona and co-author of “The Psychology of Decision Making: People in Organizations,” told the New York Times that when we don’t look into a subject deeply enough or consider enough options, we tend to regret those decisions. It is important to not only research related information but also to analyze the sources.
Once we have collected the facts and possible repercussions, we need to evaluate how they mesh with our values. We sometimes find that there are other options previously not considered. Allen Klein, author of “You Can’t Ruin My Day: 52 Wake-Up Calls to Turn Anything Around,” suggests you “Spend as much time as you need, anywhere from a few minutes to a few days, writing down positive or negative thoughts related to the decision.”
Tip No. 8
It’s not always necessary to” beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better,” said Chang. “There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be?” She points out that we all create reasons for our choices during the decision making process. “When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option,” she said. We can declare: “Here's where I stand.”
Tip No. 9
We often fall into the trap of believing that we can use logic and quantitative reasoning to make all decisions. While some choices are definitively better than others, sometimes the choice comes down to a question of values that cannot be quantified. Choosing a job that does not meet your expectations can serve a purpose — it teaches you what you don’t want to do. Even if it does not check all the boxes, it can still be a step on the path to your dream career.
Tip No. 10
A recent study indicates that those who make gut-based decisions are more confident with the results. Lead researcher Sam Maglio, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto Scarborough said, “Focusing on feelings as opposed to logic in the decision-making process led participants to hold more certain attitudes toward and advocate more strongly for their choices.”
If something about a choice makes you uneasy, (or even nauseous) there’s usually a reason. If one choice scares you, dig deeper to find out why. Is it because you will be taking a risk (stepping outside your comfort zone, for instance) or doing something foolhardy? Are your butterflies due to excitement or dread? It’s fully appropriate to go against your gut feelings, for the right reasons.
Tip No. 11
Avoid making big decisions when you are in a vulnerable state, such as hungry or tired. Roy F. Baumeister, co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength” suggests that self-control is important to decision making. “Even the wisest people won’t make good choices when they’re not rested and their glucose is low,” according to Baumeister. “The best decision makers,” he writes, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.”
Tip No. 12
Be aware of the ripple effects of your decisions. There may be negative consequences that do not outweigh the positive. Big life changes create stress. A cross-country move may be an adventure to you but if your partner hates it, life will be less than idyllic. "Because our relationships form such a critical fabric of our lives, it's not only impossible to make a big decision without thinking of others, but it can be downright unhealthy," Holly Parker, a lecturer of psychology at Harvard University, told the Chicago Tribune. She suggests asking yourself how you would feel if it were your partner making the decision.
Tip No. 13
While confirmation bias (the human tendency to find research that confirms our own biases) can convince you a bad decision is good, external biases can also have undue influence. Current events, social media and other’s opinions can talk you out of what is otherwise a good decision. A list of “profitable” careers can steer you into options that are not right for you. Trends can influence major purchases.
“Once you identify what you really want, you’ll need to quiet the voices in your head — or of skeptical people in your life — that tell you that you should want something else,” writes decision coach Nell McShane Wulfhart. “So, if you’re feeling pressured into making the decision that looks good, step back and examine your reasoning. If you can’t come up with a good answer, you know it’s not for you.”
Tip No. 14
What is right for one person is not necessarily right for everyone. While it is helpful to seek the advice of others, “groupthink” can sometimes lead us to make decisions contrary to our own wants and needs. Experts are not necessarily better at predicting the future and may not be privy to all pertinent information.
Tip No. 15
Big choices can be scary. Listen to your fears and ask if they are reasonable. Remember that everyone makes bad decisions and not all bad decisions lead to failure. After considering all aspects, you may not have a single best option but the choice to not make a choice is potentially the worst one. You don’t want to be like Buridan’s ass, the donkey that starves when, being both hungry and thirsty, it cannot choose between moving toward hay or water, despite being equidistant from both.
Tip No. 16
Good Judgement Project researchers Pavel Atanasov and Angela Minster found a “willingness to change their minds in response to new evidence” was a common trait found in their super forecasters, a group of individuals with a proven record of predicting global events. Few decisions in life are permanent. If you made the wrong choice, you can go back and make another one. If a career change is not what you expected, you can try another. If you discover you hate snow after moving to Buffalo, you can move again. Maybe your choice wasn’t a bad one, but changed circumstances mean your needs are no longer met.