How to Make Decisions: A Guide for When You Can’t Choose

 

Making decisions is a crucial part of life, but many people struggle to make decisions, in one way or another.

Some people, for example, are naturally indecisive, and therefore struggle to make decisions in a timely manner, even when it comes to trivial things, such as choosing what to eat for dinner. Other people, on the other hand, rush into decisions too fast, and therefore make decisions that are bad for them, especially when it comes to things such as their finances or relationships. And finally, some people are fine when it comes to making decisions in general, but get stuck when it comes to certain life-changing decisions, such as what career path to follow.

Because making decisions is such an important part of life, and because we often struggle to do it properly, learning how to make decisions is highly beneficial. As such, in the following article you will learn about the process that you should use to decisions, and see guidelines, tips, and techniques that will help you make better decisions faster and more easily. This will help you both in general, as well as if you’re struggling with a specific hard decision right now.

 

Why it’s hard to make (good) decisions

There are many reasons why it’s hard to make decisions, and especially good, fast ones. Most notably:

  • The decision-making process involves a number of steps that can be difficult to conduct, such as gathering information and determining goals, and struggling with any of these steps can either halt the entire decision-making process or interfere with it in some other way.
  • The act of making decisions is often inherently tiring, since it can deplete the cognitive resources that we use to exert self-control, which makes it more difficult for us to make further decisions until we can mentally recharge, a phenomenon known as decision fatigue.
  • Factors such as uncertainty or a large number of available options can make it harder to choose, as can related issues, such as the fear of missing out.
  • Issues such as cognitive biases can also interfere with decision-making, and often lead people to make bad decisions.
  • Certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, are associated with indecisiveness, and some people are naturally indecisive in general.

Overall, there are many reasons why it’s hard to make (good) decisions, including the complexity of the decision-making process, the cognitive effort associated with decision-making, and related issues such uncertainty, the fear of missing out, and cognitive biases. These concepts, together with related ones, are explained in more detail in the dedicated article on the topic.

 

How to make decisions

The decision-making process

To make decisions in an optimal manner, you should generally include all the following steps as part of your decision-making process:

  1. Identify the decision. Recognize the need for you to make a decision, and figure out (roughly) what the decision will entail.
  2. Determine your goals. Figure out what you’re hoping to achieve with the decision, and how important each goal is to you.
  3. Gather information. Collect the information that you’ll need in order to make a decision.
  4. Identify your options. Figure out which options are available to you.
  5. Evaluate your options. Identify the pros and cons of the available options, especially as they pertain to your goals.
  6. Select your preferred option. Rank the different options based on their pros and cons, and choose the one that’s best for you.

If necessary, it can be beneficial to move back and forth between these steps and make modifications as you go along. For example, if you discover that none of the available options will help you achieve your main goal, you can go back and reassess your goals, and then gather more information accordingly.

In addition, you can add any of the following optional steps to your decision-making process, in order to improve your ability to make decisions:

  • Create an optimal environment for decision making. You can do this in various ways, at any point in the decision-making process. For example, if you worry that the people you’re around now will hinder your ability to properly evaluate your options, you can postpone this step until you’re alone.
  • Identify and account for possible obstacles to your decision-making. It’s best to do this early on in the decision-making process, though you can do this at any step. For example, if you know that it’s going to be difficult for you to gather information and that this might cause you to rush into a bad decision, you can discuss the issue with a trusted person who will help ensure that you don’t make a decision until you’ve gathered all the necessary information.
  • Create an implementation plan. It’s sometimes beneficial to plan how exactly you will implement your decision. This can increase the likelihood that you will do so, and in some cases, the act of creating an implementation plan can help with the decision-making process itself, for example by helping you internalize the consequences of your choice, or by helping you determine how practical your chosen course of action is.
  • Review your decision. It’s sometimes beneficial to review your decision and the decision-making process that led to it, before you take action, in order to make sure that you’ve made the best possible decision. In addition, it can also be beneficial to revisit decisions after you see their consequences, in order to learn how to improve your decision-making process.

Once you finish making a decision, you can move on to take action, and act on the decision that you’ve made.

Note that, in addition to following this process, there are other things that you can do to improve your decision-making. As such, in the following sub-sections you will see additional tips and techniques that will help you improve your decision-making.

Each sub-section focuses on a different type of decisions, including good decisions, fast decisions, and hard decisions, and there are generally tradeoffs between the different approaches that are recommended below. For example, good decisions might take longer to make, while fast decisions might not be as good.

It’s up to you to decide what to optimize for, and you will likely prioritize different things in different situations. For example, when it comes to making relatively trivial decisions, such as what to order at a restaurant, you will generally want to prioritize speed, but when it comes to important life-changing decisions, such as which career path to follow, you will generally want to prioritize making the best decision that you can.

 

How to make good decisions

To make good decisions, you should generally go through every step of the decision-making process before you reach a decision, and make sure to conduct each step properly. To help ensure that you do this, you can go through each step in a way the forces you to be explicit with your reasoning, for example by outlining it aloud or in writing.

When doing this, you should watch for issues that could interfere with your decision-making, such as cognitive biases, and deal with them, primarily through the use of appropriate debiasing techniques. For example, if you’re in a situation where the egocentric bias is making it hard for you to see things from a different perspective, you can use self-distancing, and ask yourself what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation. This particular technique can be beneficial in a wide range of situations, and as one book on the topic states:

“The advice we give others, then, has two big advantages: It naturally prioritizes the most important factors in the decision, and it downplays short-term emotions. That’s why, in helping us to break a decision logjam, the single most effective question may be: What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”

— From “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

In addition, once you have picked your preferred option as part of the decision but before you take action, you can play the devil’s advocate, and argue either against that option or in favor of the options that you’ve decided to forego. This can help you identify potential flaws in your decision-making, and will help you make sure that the option you’ve picked is truly the best one for you.

Finally, note that your intuition can sometimes help you make relatively good decisions, especially in situations where you can’t conduct a comprehensive decision-making process, for whatever reason. However, the risk of relying on your intuition is that it is relatively opaque, meaning that you won’t necessarily understand why it caused you to make a certain decision, and so you might not be able to confirm that you made the best choice. As such, while intuition can be a powerful tool, you should be wary when using it, and only do so when you believe that it’s the best option in your particular situation.

 

How to make fast decisions

Sometimes, your goal shouldn’t be to make the best possible decision, but rather to a relatively good decision quickly. This is particularly important in certain cases, such as if you habitually delay making trivial decisions, or if you delay making decisions for so long that it leads to significant negative consequences for you.

Fortunately, there are many techniques that you can use to help yourself make decisions faster:

  • Use your intuition. The fastest decisions are generally those that are based on your intuition (sometimes referred to as your gut instinct), rather than on your conscious reasoning process, so you should use your intuition where possible to make quick decisions.
  • Use heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that you can use to make decisions faster. For example, if you often need to choose between several possible solutions, you can decide to always rely on the principle of parsimony in such cases, and consequently pick the simplest option that’s available.
  • Set up routines that simplify your decision making. For example, you can set up a consistent routine in terms of what clothes to wear or what food to order, to save yourself from having to make those choices over and over again. This is beneficial not only when it comes to the decisions that are a part of the routines themselves, but also when it comes to other decisions, since reducing the number of decisions that you have to make frees up your cognitive resources so you can spend them on decisions that truly matter.
  • Create if-then plans for decision making. For example, if you know in advance that you’re going to be presented with a good default option in a certain situation by someone you trust, you can decide to simply stick with it instead of looking at all the alternatives.
  • Limit the amount of information that you take in. Instead of gathering and processing all the available information, focus only on the most important information that you need. A useful rule of thumb you can use is the 80/20 rule, which in this context suggests that a small portion of the information available to you will cover most of what you need to know.
  • Actively ask yourself whether you need to move to the next stage of the decision-making process. For example, if you notice that you’re delaying at the information-gathering stage, ask yourself if there’s still new and meaningful information for you to find, and if not, then move forward.
  • Remind yourself that your choice doesn’t have to be perfect. To internalize this, you can ask yourself what are the consequences of the decision that you make, how much of a difference your choice will make, and whether you can change your mind later.
  • Embrace the concept of good enough. Remind yourself that as long as the decision that you make is good enough to achieve your goals, there’s no reason to waste extra time and effort on it.
  • Identify the cost of delaying. For example, you will often incur an opportunity cost as a result of delaying a decision, and reminding yourself of this cost can push you to make a decision faster.
  • Remind yourself that indecision can be worse than an imperfect decision. For example, failing to make a decision in a timely manner can often lead to worse practical outcomes than making a bad decision, in terms of how you will feel about yourself later.
  • Remind yourself that not making a decision is a decision in itself. By delaying making a decision, you’re choosing the path of inaction, whether you do so consciously or not.
  • Use countdowns. A countdown involves counting down from a certain number (e.g. five), and committing to making a decision once you finish the count by reaching zero. Short countdowns, of only a few seconds, are particularly beneficial when it comes to speeding up your decision-making, since they encourage you to use your intuition. Note that you can improve your ability to use this technique over time, by using it when it comes to relatively easy decisions, which can make it easier to use when it comes to more difficult choices.
  • Set a timer. If you want to make a decision faster but need more than a few seconds to do so, you can set a timer with some time limit (e.g. 2 minutes), and decide that when the timer runs out you have to choose.
  • Remember Parkinson’s law. Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time which is available for its completion”, which signifies that the more time we dedicate in advance to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if it could have been completed in a shorter period of time. Based on this, the less time you give yourself to make a decision, the faster you will make it.
  • Make sure that you haven’t already decided and now you just need to act. Sometimes, and especially when we’re averse to a certain action or anxious about it, we delay even when we already know what we need to do. It’s important to identify these situations, and then either take action directly or find ways to push yourself to take action, for example by creating an appropriate plan of action or by getting someone to give you the motivational boost that you need.

There’s no need for you to use all of these techniques. Rather, you should find the ones that you believe will help you the most, and focus on implementing those when trying to make decisions faster. As you make progress, you can try to use new techniques from the list, and figure out which ones work for you and which ones don’t.

 

How to make hard decisions

When it comes to making a hard decision, you should try to deal with it as you would other decisions, by conducting a proper decision-making process. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you still can’t choose, there are various techniques you can use:

  • Focus on the concrete facts. If you feel that you’re getting lost in all the available information and hypothetical scenarios, try to shut most of these out, and focus only on the most basic, indisputable facts that you know.
  • Use a decision-making aid. Common aids that you can use include a pro-con list, where you outline all the advantages and disadvantages of each of the available options, a decision matrix, where you systematically analyze and rank the attributes and outcomes of the available options, and a decision tree, where you map out the follow-up options and outcomes that each choice will lead to.
  • Eliminate weak options. Even if you’re not sure which option of the available options is best, you might be able to figure out which options are clearly inferior, and then eliminate them in order to make it easier to assess the decision as a whole. Note that, when doing this, it can help to understand the concept of dominant and dominated strategies in game theory.
  • Create decision pairs. If you’re struggling to compare multiple options to each other, try creating decision pairs between sets of two options, and choose the best option in each of these pairs to narrow down all your alternatives.
  • Look at secondary factors. If you can’t choose between several options based on the primary factors that you care about, try looking at secondary factors instead. For example, if you can’t decide between two jobs based on factors such as salary and how interesting the job is, try looking at factors that you haven’t previously considered, such as the type of commute involved.
  • Recognize that certain options are on a par. When different options are on a par, that means that they’re similar in terms of value, even though they are distinctly different from one another. Recognizing that certain options are on a par can help you make hard decisions, by helping you internalize that each option is going to be different from the others, and therefore can’t be compared directly based on the same narrow metrics.
  • Question your goals and priorities. For example, if you’re struggling to choose between jobs, because one job offers more prestige while another offers a chance to work on something that you’re passionate about, ask yourself why you care about prestige in the first place.
  • Implement the principle of ‘memento mori’. Memento mori is a Latin phrase that means “remember that you will die”. It is meant to remind you of your own mortality, and of the brevity and fragility of human life. This principle can be useful to keep in mind when it comes to identifying your goals, primarily when it comes to big, life-changing decisions.
  • Visualize the outcomes of choosing different options. This can help you better understand how you value each potential outcome, and how you will feel if you achieve it. The better you visualize the outcomes, the better this technique will work.
  • Ask yourself what’s making it hard for you to choose, and try to resolve that issue. For example, if your problem is that you’re afraid of making the wrong decision, you might be able to feel less anxious by reminding yourself that your decision is reversible.
  • Focus on what you stand to gain instead of what you stand to lose. This can help deal with issues such as the fear of missing out.
  • If possible, test things out. For example, if you’re wondering which career path to follow, see if you can get some experience with each possible path. If you already have relevant experience, make sure to actively reflect on it.
  • Take some time away from the problem. Sometimes, stepping back from an important decision can help you develop a fresh perspective, and make it easier for you to choose. The amount of time you should spend away from the problem will vary in different situations, but in many cases, even a short break or a good night’s sleep can help a lot.
  • Get an external perspective. Asking someone that you trust for advice can often be beneficial when you can’t choose, particularly if they have experience relating to that decision.
  • Let someone you trust choose for you. This is a more extreme version of asking for feedback, but it can be useful in cases where you absolutely can’t choose yourself and also have someone that you trust to make the best choice for you.
  • Flip a coin. Flipping a coin, or using some other random process, can sometimes help you make a decision, particularly if it’s clear that none of the available options is substantially better than the other. Furthermore, in some cases, the very act of flipping a coin will help you identify the best option for you; this can happen, for example, if you flip a coin to help yourself choose between two things, and find yourself hoping that the coin will land on a certain side.

 

Common questions about making decisions

Should I let my emotions dictate my decisions?

You should take your emotions into account as part of your decision-making process, but you shouldn’t let your emotions cloud your judgment in a way that causes you to make bad decisions. For example, when it comes to deciding whether to end a romantic relationship, you should take into account important emotional considerations, such as how you feel about your partner. However, you should not let your feelings for your partner lead you to conduct a flawed decision-making process, for instance by causing you to ignore serious negative things that this person did to you.

 

How can I be sure I’m making the right decision?

You can be relatively certain that you’re making the right decision by taking care to conduct a proper decision-making process, which includes all the relevant steps such as gathering information and evaluating options, while also taking care to avoid common issues, such as cognitive biases, that could interfere with your decision-making. In addition, you can increase your certainty in your decision by reviewing your decision-making process after you complete it, and by asking for feedback on it and on your decision from relevant individuals.

However, that said, there will be many situations where you can’t be absolutely certain that you’re making the right decision. To avoid regret and indecision, it’s important to accept this, and to tell yourself that you’re making the best decision that you can, based on what you know.

 

What if I make the wrong decision?

No matter how careful you are in your decision-making, there is almost always the possibility that the choice that you make will be “wrong” in some way, meaning that it will lead you to a worse outcome compared to some alternative that you had available. Because this is generally impossible to avoid, all you can do is accept the possibility that it will happen, and try to make the best possible decision that you can, by following a proper decision-making process.

As one book on the topic states:

“We can’t know when we make a choice whether it will be successful. Success emerges from the quality of the decisions we make and the quantity of luck we receive. We can’t control luck. But we can control the way we make choices.”

— From “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

That said, in many cases, you’ll discover that even if you do make the wrong choice, the outcome isn’t as bad as you thought, for example because the decision is partly reversible. If you do find yourself having made the wrong decision, your main goal should be to avoid obsessing and punishing yourself over it. Instead, you should figure out what you can learn from your experience so you can make better decisions in the future, and then start looking at what you can do to move forward past this decision.

 

How can I avoid regretting my decisions?

There are two main ways to minimize regret toward the decisions that you make. The first is to make decisions in a way that minimizes the likelihood of future regret, and the second is to change the way you view your decisions after you’ve made them.

When it comes to making decisions in a way that minimizes regret, you should do what you can to make reasonably good decisions, which means, for example, that you should generally follow all the necessary steps of a proper decision-making process. This reduces the likelihood that you’ll make bad decisions that you’ll later regret, and will also help you know later that you’ve made a good decision given the circumstances and what you knew at the time.

In addition, where appropriate, the book “The Paradox of Choice” suggests that you can adopt the standards of a satisficer, by trying to make decisions that are good enough given the circumstances, rather than those of a maximizer, who tried to always make the best possible decision.

The book also suggests that to minimize future regret, you should reduce the number of options that you consider before making a decision. This aligns with research on the topic, which shows that regret generally arises from comparisons between the option that you select and the alternatives that you chose to forgo.

Finally, when it comes to making decisions in a way that minimizes regret in the long-term, note that people often regret indecision and inaction more than they do bad choices. As noted in The Paradox of Choice:

“When asked about what they regret most in the last six months, people tend to identify actions that didn’t meet expectations. But when asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”

This is also reflected in other sources, as such as the following:

“Studies of the elderly show that people regret not what they did but what they didn’t do.”

— From “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

However, keep in mind that regret is influenced by various other situational and personal factors. For example, inaction tends to lead to more regret when a decision is made in response to negative prior outcomes (a phenomenon referred to as the inaction effect), while taking action tends to lead to more regret when making decisions in response to prior outcomes that were positive, or when making decisions in isolation (a phenomenon referred to as the action effect). This is important to take into account when trying to make decisions in a way that minimizes regret, because it means that decisions that you make should be tailored to you and to your specific circumstances, rather than based entirely on general guidelines.

When it comes to minimizing regret after you’ve made a decision, instead of focusing on your disappointments and on the negative aspects of your decision, you should focus on its positive aspects, as well as on what you learned from it and on how you can implement what you’ve learned from it when it comes to future decisions. If possible, you can also consider the fact that the decision that you’ve made was the best one possible given the circumstances.

Furthermore, you should remind yourself that even if you regret your decision, you might have also ended up regretting your decision even if you chose differently. For example, although taking action can lead to more regret in the short-term than inaction, this regret tends to decrease over time, while regret over inaction tends to increase, which means that inaction tends to lead to more long-term regret. Accordingly, if you take action and end up feeling regret because it didn’t end up with your desired outcome, you should remind yourself that you would likely have ended up with more regrets in the long-term if you didn’t take action at all.

Finally, to reduce your regret, you should also keep in mind how complex life is, and realize that it’s rare for any single decision to be entirely irreversible or to change the course of your life as much as you might initially think. As stated in The Paradox of Choice:

“I have a friend, frustrated over his achievements in life, who has wasted countless hours over the past thirty years regretting that he passed up the chance to go to a certain Ivy League college. ‘Everything would have been so different,’ he often mutters, ‘if only I had gone.’

The simple fact is that he might have gone away to the school of his dreams and been hit by a bus. He might have flunked out or had a nervous breakdown or simply felt out of place and hated it.

But what I’ve always wanted to point out to him is that he made the decision he made for a variety of complex reasons inherent in who he was as a young man. Changing the one decision—going to the more prestigious college—would not have altered his basic character or erased the other problems that he faced, so there really is nothing to say that his life or career would have turned out any better. But one thing I do know is that his experience of them would be infinitely happier if he could let go of regret.”

 

How do I stick to a decision once I make it?

There are several things that you can do to make sure that you stick with your decisions, and not constantly change your mind:

  • Stop thinking about the alternatives, and focus on your chosen course of action.
  • Increase your commitment to your chosen option, by doing things such as publically announcing it.
  • Make your decision non-reversible, by burning bridges that will allow you to change your mind later.

However, keep in mind that, while these techniques can be beneficial, you should use them carefully, and with proper consideration; don’t stick to an initial course of action simply because it was your first choice, if it becomes clear that a better alternative is available, unless there’s a compelling reason to do so.

 

How can I make sure that I act on my decisions?

The key to making sure that you follow through on your decisions is to formulate your decisions in a concrete and actionable way, since doing so increases the likelihood that you’ll follow through on them in a timely manner. For example, instead of just deciding that you’re going to “start exercising”, decide that you’re going to start exercising as of the beginning of next week, by going to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 6 PM, and spend at least an hour working out.

Other techniques can also help you make sure that you act on your decisions. Most notably, you should identify likely obstacles that will prevent you from taking action, and then formulate potential solutions to those obstacles. For example, if you decide to stop talking to someone after breaking up with them, and you know that you might end up sending them a message in a moment of weakness, you can delete their number from your phone in advance, to help your future-self follow through on your initial decision.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • When making decisions, you should first identify the need for a decision, and then determine your goals, gather information, and identify and evaluate your options, before finally selecting the best one.
  • As part of your decision-making process, you can also create an environment that’s optimal for decision-making, identify and account for possible obstacles to your decision-making, create an implementation plan, and review your decision before acting on it.
  • When it comes to making good decisions, you should account for issues such as cognitive biases that might influence your thinking, and use relevant techniques to resolve those issues, such as pretending that you’re giving advice to a friend.
  • When it comes to making fast decisions, you can use techniques such as relying on your intuition and on mental shortcuts, limiting the amount of information you take in, embracing the concept of good enough, and identifying the cost of delaying.
  • When it comes to making hard decisions, you can use techniques such as focusing on the concrete facts, eliminating weak options, looking at secondary factors, and visualizing the outcomes of choosing various options.

 

To learn more about why it’s so hard to make decisions in the first place (especially good, fast ones), read the associated article on the topic.