How to make better decisions and avoid disaster

We all make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions daily and we’re completely unaware of most of them. Some of these decisions are simple (in theory, at least), such as what to eat for breakfast or which shoes to wear.

But many of these decisions have larger consequences, especially when others are affected. This is especially true in our professional lives when we take on leadership roles.

Rather than be anxious about this, however, we can see decision-making as a skill  – and thus something we can learn to do better over time. Here are some simple ways you can make better decisions, starting today:

Expand your framing

In Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, authors Chip and Dan Heath warn against narrowly framing your options. Usually we think of decision-making as “Choice A vs. Choice B” or “Yes or No” but we often have more available options.

One way to avoid the narrow frame is by using the “Vanishing Options Test” from the book. Here’s how the test goes:

“You cannot choose any of the current options you’re considering. What else could you do?”

This simple question can help unlock other – possibly better – options that are hidden from your perspective. This can be a good place to start if you want to avoid the trap of unintentionally limiting your options.

Be mindful of your biases

There are villains that are constantly keeping us from making rational decisions – they are our cognitive biases. These biases silently control how we judge a situation or decision. They also keep us from being objective.

While it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for us to completely rid ourselves of cognitive biases, being aware of them helps. Here are some of the most common ones that are relevant to decision-making:

Status quo bias. Just like the name suggests, this bias leads people to prefer how things currently stand – the status quo – and to see potential change as something negative. This can get in the way when the right decision means making drastic changes.

Confirmation bias. When you only seek out or remember information that validates your ideas – no matter how credible that information is – you might be suffering from confirmation bias. If you think this is hindering your ability to make a rational decision, try playing devil’s advocate and look for information or opinions supporting your other options.

Anchoring effect. “Anchoring” is something that happens when you use the first information you get as a reference for your decision. For example, if you’re looking for a graphic designer and the first designer you find charges $5 per hour, when you encounter someone who charges $10 per hour, he or she will seem too expensive, even if they’re charging lower than average rates.

The best way to combat the anchoring effect is basically to learn as much as you can about all your options, or to consult an expert. You’ll then base your judgments on a broader set of information rather than just the first thing you see.

Trust your gut

Deconstructing your biases and widening your options might work, but what if you don’t have enough time to dig deep and perform a thorough analysis? Most people think that making a rational decision means excluding emotions, but sometimes trusting your “gut” or intuition is the right way to go.

Instinctive decisions can work well when you don’t have enough time to work out all the details. A study published by the American Psychological Association (Mikels et al., 2011) revealed that using gut instinct rather than detailed analysis for quick decisions often led to the right answer.

Ask “What would _______ do?”

Whenever you’re stuck on a decision, it might help to ask what someone else would do in the situation, especially if it’s an expert or someone you admire.

This technique, called “prototype matching,” moves the focus away from the outcome and towards how a specific – or even ideal – type of person would decide. Research has shown that people are already doing this when it comes to the subjects they like or making housing decisions.

According to social psychologist Ilan Shrira, we can use prototype matching when we’re making decisions in unfamiliar situations. For example, if you’re typically shy and you’re at a conference and need to meet new contacts, you can ask yourself “What would I do if I were a confident, outgoing person? How would I approach people?”

Know when the decision you’ve made is “good enough”

Finally, it’s also important to know when it’s time to stop deciding and start acting. Too much analysis can make us feel more uncertain and even regretful about our final decisions.

In a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Schwartz et al. 2002), people who focus on making the most optimal decision (known as maximizers) tend to be frustrated with the decision-making process and are less satisfied with their results. Plus, they often take longer to decide.

Compare this approach to satisficers, who are just looking for the decision that is “good enough”. One specific study (Iyengar et al. 2006) contrasts the results from both approaches. Though maximizers secured more optimal starting salaries at their jobs (at least 20%), compared to satisficers they were less satisfied with their jobs and saw the job search process more negatively.

The key is to know when to take the maximizing approach versus the satisficing approach. Maximization might be helpful when it comes to collecting information and seeking out all options, but at the end of the day, we need to have the attitude of a satisficer when making the final decision and accepting its outcome.

Celine Roque
Post by Celine Roque

Celine Roque is an independent author and marketer focused on entrepreneurship, marketing, and creative work. Her writing has appeared in Gigaom and The Content Strategist.

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