7 Steps to Better Decisions

A handy guide to weighing your options.

1. Identify your goal.
As David Welch, PhD, professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and author of Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Effective Decision Making, explains, "People who aren't self-reflective are going to end up making bad decisions because they don't really know what they want in the first place." Before you switch jobs, ask yourself: Do I really want a different career? Or do I just want a different boss? Don't make a decision based on the wrong problem.

2. Eliminate choices by setting standards.
If you're trying to buy a digital camera, list the features you'll actually use. Any camera that has them is therefore good enough for you; ignore anything fancier. Speaking of which...

3. Don't worry about finding the "best."
How good you feel about your decisions is usually more important than how good they are objectively.

4. Be aware of biases.
They can lead smart people to make dumb decisions. For example: We hate to lose more than we like to win, which can result in behavior such as holding on to a tanking stock instead of accepting a loss. We remember vivid examples better than facts, which is why plane crashes stick in our heads more than statistics on air safety. And we're susceptible to how information is framed—a "cash discount" is more appealing than "no credit card surcharge." Keeping these biases in mind can help you think clearly.

5. Try not to rush.
People tend to make poorer choices when they're in a bad mood or under a lot of stress. When facing a complex decision, use your conscious brain to gather the information you need, and then take a break. Go for a walk. Spend a half hour meditating. Take a nap. Have a beer. The idea is to give your unconscious mind some time to do its work. The decision you make afterward is more likely to be the right (or at least a perfectly acceptable) one.

6. Don't sweat the small stuff.
When possible, eliminate the need for decisions by establishing rules for yourself. You will go to yoga every weekend. You will not have more than two glasses of wine. You will buy whatever toilet paper is on sale.

7. Do a postgame analysis.
After each decision you make, ask yourself how you felt afterward and what about the experience you can apply in the future.

Catherine Price is the author of 101 Places Not to See Before You Die (Harper Paperbacks).

Want to Make a Big Change?
From the May 2011 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.


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