How to Become a Better Decision Maker

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
— from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

(This is a four part post that I condensed into one.)

Part 1:

Every American knows “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. It’s a poem that we wear like a badge on our chest that expresses our uniqueness and individuality.

The poem finishes with the famous line, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” We love this poem because it makes us feel special, different, and in control.

But notice how the poem starts. The narrator is left with a decision. A fork in the road. He stands there for a long time, looking down each path and trying to decide. Then, trusting his instincts and never looking back, he picks a path and starts walking.

This post is about making decisions. Making them quicker and easier. Making them confidently. Taking the road less traveled, or more traveled, but making it work out either way. Being better at making decisions will make you a better, more content person. It will make you a better leader, employee, friend, husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend.

I have a lot to say on decision making, so I’ll be splitting into multiple parts.

Here we go.

There are so many decisions to make every day in life… Where should we go for dinner?  What should I wear to this wedding?  Should I take this exit or stay on the highway?  Should I go for a walk or stay on the couch?  Which item on my To Do list should I tackle first?

The task of deciding is mentally occupying, is it not? 

Decisions occupy space in your brain, they occupy time in your day, and most importantly, they occupy a space in your life that is competing for happiness and peace.

The questions we all battle, when faced with multiple options to decide from, is: “is this the right decision, or the wrong decision?” and “will I regret this or be happy with this?” For some, this what-if mental gymnastics can be debilitating. The truth is, however, that although we may not want to admit it, most of the time there is really no right or wrong decision. 

No, it is not the outcome itself that matters, but rather it is the doing and the experiencing of life that makes these decisions important. For example, most times it really does not matter where you eat, what you wear, or which route you take. Whether you sit on the couch or go for a walk, wear the red dress or the black dress, or confront your spouse or let it go… Despite our ingrained belief from Robert Frost, we can afford to pick the wrong path in a forest and still make the best out of it.

These daily decisions are a vehicle to “do life” and keep moving forward, not a road that decides where we end up, no matter how much we believe it in the moment. The question you can ask yourself to test this is, “will this matter in five years?” If the answer is, “most likely not,” then flip a coin or do some roe- sham-boe, make the call, and move on.

Life will be more enjoyable if you make decisions promptly and confidently and move forward with those decisions, rather than belaboring and deliberating over each and every piece of minutia. 

So how do I solve this problem? How do I stop tossing options around endlessly in my head like a baton twirler during halftime at high school football game? How do I make decisions faster and have more confidence in my choices? How do I stop worrying about decisions, or stop being so mentally occupied by them? How do I make better decisions overall?

The answer is in three steps, which I will outline in Part 2 of this post. But first, we must understand two critical concepts of decision making: Decision Fatigue and Decision Units

#1, Decision Fatigue

Decision Fatigue is the idea that people tend to make worse decisions after having made a lot of decisions. You may not realize this is happening, but all of those petty little decisions that you spend time thinking about are really making you worse at making good decisions on the important things. (More in this article on LifeHacker). 

Decision Fatigue may not literally exhaust your body like going for a five-mile-run would, but it will exhaust your brainpower whether you realize it or not.

To recover and defend against Decision Fatigue, Lifehacker recommends proactively organizing and controlling your tough decisions to come earlier in the day, and your easier ones to come later when your energy and cognitive ability is lower. I will discuss more tips on how to mitigate Decision Fatigue in Part 2, but let’s move on for now to concept #2, Decision Units.

#2, Decision Units 

Decision Units are our currency for decision making power which we all have stored in our brains. Picture these units like paper money in your wallet that you can spend each day until you are low or run out completely. Once you’ve spent your units, you will experience some mental fatigue, making you “decision poor.”

So how many units do we have each day? Well, we can first assume that each of us probably has a different level of decision units as our baseline. Whether that number is 10 or 10,000, there is no way to measure them, but it is likely that not every person’s number of units are of the same quantity or quality. For example, President Obama probably has many more units than I do. And Elon Musk, for instance, probably has not only more units than me, but those units are probably of higher quality also. You get the picture. But, for the sake of understanding this concept, we will assume that we all have 100 decision units per day. (This concept is borrowed from The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.)

In summary, we must realize each of us only has a select number of decision units per day, and as those decision units get lower, like a gas tank fuel gauge pointing towards E, our units might also become lower in quality because of the Decision Fatigue that occurs throughout each day.


Part 2:

In Part 1, I explained the following details, outlining some key concepts about decision making:

  • Decisions are mentally occupying and can be exhausting
  • Too many decisions can lead to Decision Fatigue
  • Decision Fatigue can cause poor decision making and less happiness
  • We all have a number of Decision Units to spend and protect (i.e.: 100 units per day)
  • We can improve our decision making by following the three steps which I will split up into three separate posts.

Now, in Part 2 of this post, I will explain some practical ways to defend against the frivolous spending of Decision Units, how to mitigate Decision fatigue, and ultimately, how to be happier with your decisions in the end. 

  1. Minimize the number of both your options and your decisions
  2. Know when to ask for others’ opinions and when not to
  3. Realize that every choice can, and likely will, work out in your favor

Step #1: Minimize the number of overall options and decisions

The more options you consider, the more buyer’s regret you’ll have. The more options you encounter, the less fulfilling your ultimate outcome will be. — The Four-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss

Here’s a look into an example day of spending your Decision Units.

  • It’s Monday morning. The alarm goes off at 6:00 am and you hit the snooze. You wake up on the third or fourth snooze and head to your closet to decide what to wear. Tan shirt with the blue pants, or blue shirt with the tan pants? Cost = 5 units
  • Before leaving the house you decide to have breakfast, but nothing is prepared, you open the fridge and try to decide between a bagel and creme cheese, eggs, nuts, a glass of milk, etc.You’re too tired to decide what you want. Cost = 5 units
  • On the way to work you hit bad traffic, do you take an alternate route? Gt off on this exit or that frontage road? You take the exit but hit construction and have to get back on the highway. Cost= 5 units
  • When you arrive to work, you open your computer to find 32 emails. Working through them, you handle them in chronological order, wasting cognitive ability on low priority tasks. Cost = 10 units
  • You get to the bottom of your unread emails, to find the 32nd email presents an internal employee conflict. You debate on how to deal with it, and call a peer for advice. Cost = 15 units

In this example, it is only 8:00 am and you have already spent 40 of your 100 units.

The point is, we are surrounded by decisions that steal our brain power when we could instead be automating these decisions and saving our units. The trick here is to make fewer decisions or create fewer options for your decisions. In my example Monday, you could do this by instead…

  • Setting your clothes out the night before you go to sleep. (5 units saved)
  • Preparing breakfast the night before, or develop a habit of making the same breakfast every morning. (5 units saved)
  • Using Google maps, or another GPS system that shows routes, traffic, construction, and estimated destination times. Trust the GPS and travel in peace. (5 units saved)
  • Scanning unread emails but not responding to anything that is “non-urgent” until you have prioritized all issues. Once you have read an important email, right click and mark any email that needs a response as “unread,” so that you will not forget to come back to it. Deal with the most important issues now, and go to the others later. Furthermore, make a To Do list the night before you leave work each night. This list can be as long or as short as the day calls for, however, the goal is not to complete all of the items on the list. Rather, the goal is to prioritize the Critical items. Read my post Get the Most Out of Your To Do List for more help. Now, when you come into work, short of an emergency, you will spend zero units on deciding which tasks are most important to complete in which order. (15 units saved)

 

The key is to look for opportunities to make fewer decisions and save your units. The more you can automate and prioritize, the better cognitive ability you will have to make the tough decisions more easily, such as how to deal with the internal employee conflict.

If you can limit your options in each decision, you will always be happier and more content with the outcome. Robert Frost was happy he chose the road less traveled, but would he have been so content with his decision if there were 100 roads to take, and he had to choose just one?

Everyone has experienced the overwhelming challenge of choosing a meal from the 30-page menu at The Cheesecake Factory. And despite eating there many times, no one I have ever met would consider it their favorite restaurant. Yet Chipotle, the most successful chain restaurant in the last ten years, gives its customers only five options (Chicken, Steak, Barbacoa, Carnitas, Sofritas) for protein and five options for style (burrito, bowl, soft corn tacos, hard corn tacos, soft flour tacos). Yet, despite Chipotle’s lack of options (seems like a negative comment, right?), we all know someone who eats there literally every single day. They love it, and it’s because there are fewer options and they feel more content with their decision. Oh, and it’s delicious too.

Too many choices = less productivity
Too many choices = less or no appreciation
Too many choices = sense of overwhelm
The Four-Hour Work Week

In summary:

  • Make fewer decisions overall.
  • Automate pieces of your life that are using your units.
  • Choose to eliminate decisions in your mornings, in your email box, and anywhere else you can.
  • Limit the options to choose from and you will be left more satisfied with your choice.

Part 3:

In Part 3, I will explain the second of three steps to making better decisions, knowing when to ask for others’ help and when not to.

Remember, there are three steps:

  1. Minimize the number of both your options and your decisions
  2. Know when to ask for others’ opinions and when not to
  3. Realize that every choice can, and likely will, work out in your favor

In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed key concepts of decision making: the importance of avoiding Decision Fatigue and understanding the precious commodity of Decision Units. Also, I detailed how to automate variables in everyday life in order to save your Units and avoid Decision Fatigue. Put simply, we should spend less time and energy with menial decisions by automating as much as possible. This will make life easier. Lastly, I explained the concept that fewer options will make you more content with your choices. It’s important to limit your options and your decisions.

What happens, however, when you have limited your options and decisions, as I have instructed, but you simply have a hard time making decisions? You spend minutes, even hours deliberating over decisions, often times turning to others for advice, and letting that very advice dictate the outcome. I call this Decision Displacement, which is essentially shifting the burden of decision-responsibility from yourself to others.

William James once said,

“When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that in itself is a choice.”

For the purpose of this post, however, I would like to change this quote to “When you have to make a choice, and you look for others to make it for you, that in itself is a choice, and a bad one at that.”

To explain Decision Displacement, I will tell you about my friend, let’s call him Derek. One day, Derek came to me with a question, “I like her and everything, but I don’t really see it going anywhere. Should I dump my girlfriend or what?”

This was, of course, an important decision for Derek, and asking for a friend’s advice was warranted, sure. But I knew that deep down Derek hated his girlfriend, and he knew it too. It was the classic case of drawing a terrible relationship out even longer because the anticipation of the dreaded breakup would be even more terrible than enduring the terrible relationship. Terrible, right?

I gave Derek my two-cents, to “dump the gal,” and I don’t even remember how it ended up. That’s not the point. The problem wasn’t this one instance, but rather hundreds or thousands of other instances when Derek displaced his decision making on me and on others. You see, Derek was also the same friend who asked me which jeans he should buy, what movie to watch, and who to pick first in his fantasy football draft. He would ask me which shoes to wear, which soda to get from the soda fountain, and which open parking spot to take. It seemed that Derek rarely made any decision without first asking me (or others) for an opinion.

Everything within me wanted to force Derek to decide for himself. But, he was, after all, asking my opinions, so I gave them to him. “Buy those jeans. Watch that movie. Pick that player. Wear those shoes. Drink that soda. Park there.” It was easy for me to make decisions because they had no impact whatsoever on my well-being.

What I should have done instead was force my friend to quit wasting his life asking others for their opinion and start making decisions promptly and confidently on his own.

More importantly, I should have told him what Ramit Sethi says in his article, “Stop Wasting Time on Minor Life Decisions”:

Making occasional “bad” decisions on meaningless areas of life is the price you pay for being able to focus on the big things.

I recommend reading Ramit’s article.

If you find yourself constantly asking others for their opinion then you need to, as Ramit says, “stop wasting time deliberating over minor decisions. Stop agonizing over optimizing small decisions that will have no meaningful impact on your life. Pick something and move on.”

At this point, if you are skeptical, you are probably asking why shouldn’t I ask for advice? Isn’t it harmless? …  My answer to that is No! It is not harmless. You should stop asking others for their advice because quite frankly their advice probably sucks. You know it’s true, so stop asking and start calling your own shots. At best, you might get some advice suggesting a Pro and Con List. Great. Thanks. At worst, however, your friend will quickly give an answer which is based on his or her own experiences, beliefs, tastes, and ideas. Your friend will operate on limited information about you and your situation and make your decision for you. In the meantime, while your friend decides your destiny for you, you will be stuck stalling, wasting precious time, and then making a decision because someone else told you to.

Most decisions should be made without asking for advice. Whether it is what you should order to eat at The Cheesecake Factory or it is which colleges you should apply to, you should not allow others to make your decisions for you. (See Part 1 if you forgot how much I despise The Cheesecake Factory’s menu).

Make the decision. Trust your instincts. Make it fast, and move on to more important things.

This is a muscle to be exercised and a form of discipline to be adopted. It will help you in other areas of life. It will make you more disciplined, yes, but also less anxious, happier, and more effective.

Malcolm Gladwell, who has spent years researching human thinking and decision making, says in his Best Selling book, Blink:

Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.

Trust your judgment. You have the most information and the most context. As my good friend Joe told me recently, “when you take action you will learn something. Let your moral code guide you. Nothing is gained with indecision.”

However, there are those times we need help. Sometimes decisions are just too big and too important to make on our own. They require more thought, research, and advice from those with more experience, knowledge, or wisdom. The big questions are: WHEN do I seek counsel, and WHEN do I decide on my own? 

Maybe choosing where to buy a home or what car to buy is too big of a decision to make alone, I get that, although I think you could do it alone too. Sometimes though we do feel that we have to seek advice from others, and we are probably right. To test how serious a decision is, I often ask myself the question, “will this impact me in five years?” for instance. If the answer to this question is “yes,” then I need to seek trusted counsel.

Next time you feel you might need help making a decision, work through these three questions first:

  • Does this have the potential to harm others?

If “no,” then make the decision immediately. If “yes,” evaluate and seek no more than one trusted person’s opinion.

  • Will this matter one year from now?

If “no,” then make the decision immediately and move on. If “yes,” seek no more than one trusted person’s opinion.

  • Will this impact me five years from now?

If “yes,” then seek trusted counsel from two or three people. If “no,” then make the decision on your own, but don’t deliberate longer than necessary.

These are simple rules and I realize they will not apply to every situation or experience. The basics here, however, are about trusting your own judgment, owning your decisions, and wasting less time and energy on decisions. Because, after all, it all seems to work out in the end, right? (More on this in Part 4).

The answer isn’t to never ask for advice. It is instead to ensure that advice is truly warranted and that time is not wasted collecting varying opinions and deliberating when it could be spent on living life. Your default setting should be to make prompt decisions without asking for advice.

You can practice this at a restaurant next time you go out to eat. When the server puts the menu down, don’t open it. Don’t even peek at it. Then, when the server comes back to take your order, open the menu and choose within 5 seconds. (Don’t let it go 6 seconds, cheater). Make the decision, be happy with it, and move on to what is important – your time spent with the person across the table.


Part 4:

Welcome to the end. So far, in Parts 1-3, I discussed various terms and concepts on decision-making, such as Decision Fatigue, Decision Units, Decision Automation, and Decision Displacement. For final post, I will divert from the technical aspect of this topic and instead tell a story about a teenager named Chris…

About ten years ago I was preparing for my high school graduation party. I was a young, strapping teen taking pride in helping my dad with the heavy lifting that was necessary to turn our home from a normal place of living to a grad-party-ready facility. If you had a graduation party, you know how this went. My jobs included stripping and staining the deck, painting door and window frames, improving landscaping, cleaning every corner of the house, and more.

In addition to the manual labor it took to prepare for the party, I also spent hours assembling hundreds of pictures university_of_st._thomas_tommies_pennant_78845sma.jpgfrom my childhood. Then, armed with a roll of scotch tape, I lined the house’s entryway hall with these photos so that visitors could walk through and see photos of my brother and me, as toddlers, naked in the bathtub or other photos of me playing the saxophone in the middle school jazz band. I was cool.

In the middle of all of these photos, I proudly hung the banner of my soon-to-be college. The purple team pennant had silver writing: “University of St. Thomas.” I was months away from starting my freshman year there.

St. Thomas was my second choice, however. My first choice was the University of Minnesota, which I had been put on a wait list to attend (I wasn’t a great high school student). At first, months earlier, I was devastated when I didn’t get accepted into the University of Minnesota, but eventually, I learned to accept the outcome, and became excited to attend St. Thomas. “It must be the right thing,” I told myself. After all, all things always work out for the best, right?

For months I had now planned on attending St. Thomas. I knew details on my dormitory, my roommate, and was even working on picking my first four college courses. It was the summer leading up to college, and, like most 18-year-olds, I was ready to leave the nest and fly.

I couldn’t wait to be a “Tommie” and embrace campus life.

Then, just a couple of days before my graduation party, I received a suspicious and random letter from the University of Minnesota. It was my acceptance letter! I was in! As you can imagine, this was some of the best news I had ever received. I took a lap around the house. Did jumping jacks. Hugged my mom. Then, I got in the car, drove to the store, and bought a new pennant for the wall of pictures in the hall entryway. When I got home, I removed the purple St. Thomas banner and replaced it with the maroon and gold U of M.

I couldn’t wait to be a “Gopher” and embrace campus life.

224.jpg

The drastic decision to change my destiny, from spending four years at one institution to spending four years at another, was made within seconds. The decision was simple, but the impact was enormous.

Many college-bound kids experience this phenomenon every summer. Also, many adults experience these swings with life decisions such as job offers and home buying. Life changes rapidly through all kinds of experiences, such as promotions, purchases, and pregnancies. In the end, after the proverbial dust is settled, we always convince ourselves that whatever happened was “for the best.” Rarely do any of us look in the rear-view mirror and wish it had been different.

Ten years later, when I look back on my decision of going to the U of M, I don’t view it as fate, but rather, as a deliberate decision that I made and “it all worked out.” My evidence for this being the “right decision” could be a solid job and a decent income, meeting some of my best friends, and most importantly, meeting my wife there. All factors lend thanks to my four years at the U of M.

But, (and this is a big but) I wonder how life would be different now had I attended St. Thomas instead? Would I still have a good job? Would I have made great friends? Had good experiences? Somehow still met my wife?! Most importantly, would I have learned the lessons of adulthood that I now cherish? After all, college, and life too, are about learning and growing, more than they are about degrees and paychecks.

Would life have been ruined, had I chose St. Thomas? Or would life still be equally as great? Clearly I chose the right path, right? Should I have deliberated more over the decision of which college to attend? Should I have made a pro/con list and reviewed my what-if scenarios?

The answer is no. A thousand times, no!

As big of a decision as is where to go to college, for instance, I believe that things always seem to work out for the best, no matter the route you end up taking.

Making decisions promptly and trusting your instincts is a practice that enhances life. It allows you to keep moving forward, enjoying the journey, rather than the outcome.

Anxiety is reduced when you spend less time and energy on decisions. Why is that? Because you will adopt the belief that I have, which is that in the end, no matter which choice you choose, it will work out in your favor. Stop worrying about your decisions and remember that if you keep enjoying the journey, then it always works out for the best.

As a Christian, this is an easy thought. Romans 8:28 encourages, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God…” But whether Christian or not, this philosophy is one to be adopted both for its practicality, and its ability to bring joy and happiness to life.

Whether you are struggling with a big life decision, or looking back at decisions made and wondering what could-have-been, stop. Have peace. Know that as long as you continue forward, it will always work out in the end.


Finale:

I hope this has helped you in your quest to becoming a world-class decision maker. In improving your decision-making skills you will no doubt experience a stress-reduced life and be much happier with the outcomes.

 

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