I’m someone who agonizes and agonizes and agonizes over the simplest of decisions until I’ve expended an inordinate amount of mental energy on something that usually doesn’t matter that much. So, when I’m tasked with making choices that are actually of consequence? Forget about it. But, as it turns out, it’s entirely impossible to learn how to be more decisive.
According to Annie Duke, co-founder of The Alliance for Decision Education and author of How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices, folks tend to have difficulty making decisions because they lack two important tools: omniscience and a time machine. “If you were omniscient and had a time machine, you would know everything you need to know about the [the results of your decision], but the problem is that we don’t have either of those things, so we don’t have perfect information when we’re making a decision.” To learn how to be more decisive, then, it’s important to understand that the goal is not to get the decision exactly right, because you can’t predict perfect outcomes, no matter how much you agonize over your options before choosing.
The goal is not to get the decision exactly right, because you can’t predict perfect outcomes, no matter how much you agonize over your options before choosing.
Overcoming this mentality to make informed decisions efficiently is critical, because the alternative is at best wasted energy and at worst inertia. “When we make a decision rather than staying stuck, we often find that the new energy—the sheer power of the ‘unsticking’ decision—leads us to doors and windows we never imagined,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “Although the journey is sometimes not what we expected, an open mind and open heart can lead us to amazing new realms.”
So how do you get from where I sit—completely hung up in even the simplest of scenarios of needing to choose—and learn how to be more decisive and confident in those decisions? Experts share their favorite tips below.
11 expert-approved tips for learning how to be more decisive
1. Evaluate the decision’s true impact
Duke says your first step for learning how to be more decisive is to determine its potential long-term impact on your happiness by asking yourself how you will feel about the result of the decision next week, month, or year. For example, if you’re someone who has difficulty deciding what to order off a menu, consider the extent to which the decision may impact your future life and happiness. Because more often than not, especially if you’re an indecisive person, the effects of the decision are negligible.
Duke calls this the happiness test. “A lot of what hangs us up in our decision-making is that we get really caught up in the immediate aftermath of getting a bad outcome, and we’re so afraid of it that it paralyzes us,” she says. “But when we apply that happiness test and we start to get a longer time horizon, what we realize is that the thing we’re so scared of isn’t even going to have an impact.”
Once you determine this—that it doesn’t really matter in the long run what you choose—Duke recommends flipping a coin or asking someone else to decide for you. She cautions, however, that once you’ve done this, you might feel as though you actually want the other choice, the one not chosen by chance. This doesn’t actually mean the coin has presented you with the wrong decision, though. It just means that the two options are really similar in terms of their impact, and that it doesn’t actually matter which one is chosen.
2. Try “the only option” test
If you’ve tried Duke’s first strategy and still aren’t quite sure how impactful the decision will be, she suggests you imagine each option as the only option, and see how you feel about it then. So for example, if you were choosing between a vacation to Italy and one to France, you might imagine how you would feel if your only option was Italy, and then how you would feel if your only option was France. If both appeal to you as an “only” option, then the magnitude of that decision is not great, meaning it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, and you can flip a coin.
“When we have two great options, we don’t know which one to choose because, absent a time machine, you’re not going to be able to predict how it turns out,” says Duke. “But the whole point [of this exercise] is that they’re the same, so it doesn’t matter which one you choose.”
3. Think about the outcomes relative to one another
Not all decisions are low-stakes, of course; some have huge consequences. When tasked with making a monumental choice, Duke advises assessing your options relative to one another. So, for example, I’m currently trying to decide if I should have a baby by myself. Duke says that to make this decision, I should first consider how happy I will feel with each outcome—having a child and not having a child. “Try to get to a place where having a child is either clearly better than not having a child or is clearly worse than having a child,” she says.
With big decisions, it’s easy to get hung up on trying to reach 100 percent confidence either way before making a call. This is an unreasonable expectation, says Duke, because, again, we don’t have a time machine and we’re not omniscient, so we probably won’t achieve certainty. What we can achieve, though, is some percentage of greater certainty about one option relative to another. So for example, I’m 80 percent sure that having a child will be better for me than not having a child, and I’m only around 10 percent sure that not having a child will be better for me than having one. That disparity makes the choice pretty clear; I should have a child.
4. Consider whether there’s more information you can gather to inform your decision
Still not ready to make a decision based on relative comparison? In this case, Duke suggests asking whether there’s any additional information available to you that would help increase your confidence in one option over another. Using the example of my decision regarding having a baby by myself, Duke says it’s important to note that I cannot get the information I’d most like to have with respect to this decision, which is whether or not I’ll meet someone to have a child with soon. Instead, I should be looking for what further information is available to me, such as how much money I’ll need to save for the child’s first year, where my fertility is, and how many years I have left to conceive.
The idea is that gathering additional information should help you to increase your confidence in one option or another.
5. Figure out if you could do both options in parallel
One very simple solution for how to be more decisive is available to you more often than you might think, says Duke: opting to move forward with more than one of your options. In its most basic form, this could look like ordering two things off a menu that both sound good to you and splitting them with a friend. Or if you’re planning a European vacation, it could look like including both Italy and France on your itinerary instead of trying to choose between the two.
6. Beware of your biases
Sometimes you’re faced with a choice between something with a known outcome, e.g. watching TV, versus something with an unknown outcome, e.g. going on a date with a stranger. In this scenario, Duke says it’s important to be aware of cognitive biases that might lead you to default to the more predictable event even when it’s not necessarily the better decision.
Status quo bias, for example, is the preference to do the thing you’re already doing, meaning that if you’re already at home, you will likely prefer to remain at home. Omission-commission bias, meanwhile, is the preference of inaction over action. In either scenario, Duke says, we will regret a negative outcome from a decision that required us to make a change or take action (like go on a date) more than we would regret a decision to keep things as they are (like stay home and watch TV).
This doesn’t mean that taking the path of least resistance is better, however. Instead of worrying about whether taking an action might lead to a worse outcome, reframe the thought to consider that it might lead to a better result. By choosing novelty and action, you allow for greater experimentation in your life and the possibility of something better than the safe or status-quo option.
6. Notice when a decision repeats its
Another helpful trick Duke likes to employ is to think about whether or not you will be making the same decision you’re presently trying to make again in the near future. For example, if you’re agonizing over what to have for dinner, you might lighten the mental load on that decision by acknowledging that you will eat again soon, and therefore if you regret your decision, you can remedy it in the next go round. “It’s a really nice way of getting yourself to decide faster,” says Duke.
7. Know when to trust your gut
According to life coach Susie Moore, learning how to be more decisive really boils down to self-confidence and trust in your intuition. “Logic has a place in the world…but the most important decisions in life are seized by instinct,” she says. “We feel them. That’s why confident decision-making is so commonly referred to as ‘listening to your gut.'” If you can’t sense the right answer, she adds, it may mean you’re not “fully aligned” with yourself at present. “Maybe you are stressed out, over-tired, or over-thinking. That’s okay, too. You might just need some quiet time, a walk outside, or more sleep,” she says.
“When we slow down to process issues, we benefit by allowing the logical mind and intuitive sense to combine.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD
And while Dr. Manly agrees that it’s important to note your instincts when making decisions, she does caution that intuition can sometimes be confused with or contaminated by personal desire, unconscious needs, and illusions. “When we slow down to process issues, we benefit by allowing the logical mind and intuitive sense to combine,” she says. “If we go with only an intuitive reaction—which is often less intuition than a spontaneous yearning—we can end up in some difficult situations.”
For this reason, Duke actually thinks it’s only wise to rely on intuition when the outcome is not that consequential; so in her opinion, you can go with your gut on ordering off of a menu, but not so much when deciding whether or not to buy a house or change jobs.
8. Clarify your values
Another trick for easing the burden of decision-making is to get clear about what you value in life. “Creating a personal mission statement and getting detailed about what that looks like in terms of your life choices can support you if you feel lost or unsure about what to do next,” says psychotherapist Meghan Watson. “Rely on those values, go back to what you believe in and ask yourself the question, ‘If I were living by my value of X, what might change about this decision?'”
9. Engage in advance planning
Eliminating the need for constant decision-making is also a helpful strategy that can be accomplished by planning in advance. Moore recommends you make a plan for everything from outfits to your schedule to meals ahead of time to avoid wasting mental energy on small daily decisions. She also suggests batching your decisions—so for example, taking an hour on a Sunday afternoon to meal plan for the entire week ahead.
10. Set a deadline
To avoid decisions from dragging out indefinitely and wasting your mental energy in the process, Duke recommends setting deadlines in one of two ways: Either circle a date on the calendar by which you’re going to force yourself to make a choice or set a deadline based on a benchmark. So, for example, you might decide to buy a stock when it reaches a certain price, or to move forward with starting a family when you have a certain amount of money saved.
11. Quit living in regret
Arguably the hardest part of learning how to be more decisive is the anticipation of wishing you had made the unselected choice, says Moore. So, in order to be more decisive with ease, commit to stop regretting decisions. “Line up fully with your decision. Fall in love with it. That’s a decision you get to make, too,” she says.
Taking some of the steps listed above, adds Dr. Manly, should offer you some level of reassurance that you did your due diligence before making the decision—which is all you can do (without omniscience or a time machine, to Duke’s point!). “When you make the best decision you can at a particular time, it’s never worth looking back,” she says. “Getting stuck in ‘I should have’ or ‘I could have’ is only a waste of precious time and energy.”
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