How to Make the Best Decisions (Once and for All)
For any one of the 70 decisions you make daily (especially the biggies), these 8 research-backed strategies take you way beyond the old pros-and-cons list.
Throw Yourself a Red Herring
Two minutes—that's how long to distract yourself when mulling over your options.
It worked for decision makers in a Carnegie Mellon study who went on to make better choices—picking the best car in a set, for instance—after being sidetracked by a brief number-sequence-memorizing exercise. (Any light two-minute diversion—poetry recitation, music, even Angry Birds—may do.) Brain scans revealed that while the conscious mind focuses on the distraction, the unconscious mind continues to weigh options. The tiny break may freshen your perspective and prevent overthinking, which leads to bad choices.
Remember Those Kegels
Drink five cups of water before making a big decision, then hold it in for at least 45 minutes. If you can resist a bathroom break, you might make better, less impulsive decisions than if you had an empty bladder
—just like the volunteers in a study at the University of Twente. The explanation: The effort triggers an "unintentional increase" in control in other areas, including impulse control, which leads to less-hasty decisions. (Oddly, even thinking about words such as urine
triggered the same impulse-inhibiting effect.)
Restrain Yourself to 7 Shades of Gray
Limit your options (for an apartment, toilet paper, anything) to seven
, tops—the average number of units most of us can juggle in working memory
. Add more and you'll feel paralyzed—like those now-famous study participants who were asked to choose between six types of jam versus 24 (30 versus 3 percent bought a jar), investment funds
(more options, less participation) and speed dates
(too many was a turnoff).
In choice-overload mode, decisions made are also riskier
, finds a gambling study at the University of Warwick
—because information-gathering skills weaken and we lose our sense of probability.
Let Out the Gas
Open a window. Go for a walk. Even a tiny increase in indoor levels of carbon dioxide gas (CO2)—exhaled by each of us in every breath—impairs decision making
, found a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives
. Volunteers in a role-playing exercise made moderately worse decisions when CO2 levels were 1,000 ppm (an average crowded room) and dramatically worse ones at 2,500 ppm (a stuffier room in which we might smell others), while outdoor levels are about 350 ppm. Note: The more people in a space, the higher the CO2, which casts some doubt on whether we make our best decisions in meeting rooms. (CO2 meters cost $200 or less online.
Do What You'd Do Before Buying a Blender
Base your decision (at least partly) on the opinions (and yes, wisdom) of in-the-know strangers—just as you would when Googling a sushi spot, say Chip and Dan Heath in their guide, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
. For instance, if you're deciding whether to accept a job, consult with people who have held that position there. Or, before you make a Great Gatsby
–inspired relocation, find out what locals say about life on Long Island. Most of us don't seek it, but the outside view—"how things generally unfold in situations like ours"—is usually more accurate than a gut feeling. (The rare exception: intuition based on lots of clear feedback in a predictable environment—like chess or a video game.)
Apply "One-Stop Shopping"
Consider all your options at once (simultaneously) rather than one by one (sequentially), says Sheena Iyengar in The Art of Choosing
. In one example, her research team asked judges to pick their favorite of five chocolates. Those who saw their options all at once were more satisfied with their choice than those who tasted them one at a time—they never knew what was coming and always hoped for better. The lesson (which applies to sandals, red wine, online-dating profiles, almost anything): Make a decision with all
your options in front of you—"one-stop shopping"—and, at least for now, don't dwell on what else could possibly trump them.
Push Your Fast-Forward Buttons
Think through each option and its consequences 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years down the road
. This way, says Suzy Welch in her book The 10-10-10 Rule
, you'll gain emotional distance, or "deliberation where there is only instinct." Stay in your flawed relationship or leave it? Have another baby? Eat a cheeseburger? Compare the implications with your innermost values, dreams and goals, Welch writes. Then ask yourself the burning question: "Which decision will best help me create a life of my own making?"
Allow Your Inner Scrooge to Weigh In
If you want good decisions to become default
decisions (to exercise, eat better, enlighten yourself, anything), consider "sunk costs"—money spent that you can't get back, advises the Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick in his book The Nature of Rationality
. For instance, buy a use-it-or-lose-it yoga class pack, prepaid weekly deliveries of organic veggies or—Nozick's example—season opera tickets. Your aversion to losing money helps you follow through on your best self's intentions—even on lazy, down days when you'd normally choose otherwise.
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