How To Get Better At Making Decisions

decision

I think she should go straight ahead, but whatever. (Photo by Julia Manzerova)

In London recently, a man started attacking strangers with a scaffolding pole. 

The police chased him, but he was fast, and they said so over the radio. An elderly man driving in the area picked up on the radio conversation and told a nearby officer on foot to jump in his car. Officer now on board, he weaved his way through backroads he knew well, taking shortcuts to where he suspected the suspect would be. He was able to track the criminal down so the police could taser and detain him, which they did successfully.

There’s no telling how many more people would be hurt right now if this man hadn’t made the firm decision to help. He didn’t ask the officer, “Can I help?” He confidently drove up and urged the officer to jump in. He was all-in. 

Great decision-making isn’t just for local heroes or the movies, though. Decisions shape every person’s life. Even a life-changing book like Mini Habits first requires the decision to buy it, and then to read it. So here’s how to get better at making them.

The One Path To Rule Them All

I took a walk on the beach yesterday, and talked to several strangers. Someone give me a trophy! I’m kidding, but actually, it was a good thing for me to do in a new area. In the past, I would find reasons not to talk to people. But yesterday was different because I realized something and changed my strategy…

I realized I tend to think of decisions as being “toward behaviors,” as in, “I’m going to talk to this person.”

Then I thought about it from the opposite angle—eliminating every other possibility.

When you TRULY decide to do something (with conviction and confidence), you’re not considering doing anything else. You’re committed to one path. So rather than thinking about it as “I’m going to do this,” think about it as, “I will not do anything but this single action.”

Thinking in this way made it easier for me to accept that my decision was made because it blocked my typical exit path, which is to find a last-second excuse or alternate path that’s more comfortable.

So this strategy is more like pushing yourself to do something instead of relying on something to pull you toward it. Decisions are best made by pushing. Does this sound familiar?

It’s the same concept as motivation vs. willpower. Motivation-based approaches are like the person who circles the pool ten times, dipping their toe in the water as they consider entering, while willpower-based approaches are like your friend pushing you in (or you just jumping in). Initially, you’re mad at your friend for exposing you to the shock of entering cool water for the first time, but then you realize you’re in the pool and it’s not so bad. It’s fun! 

[Tweet “Impactful decisions can be scary and uncomfortable at first, but once you dive in, everything gets better.”]

Decisions Require Thought Termination

In this article about procrastination, I talked about the two phases of decision-making—deliberation and implementation. In order to take that first step forward into action, it requires that you terminate the preceding deliberation process. You have to stop weighing your options. You have to stop analyzing your mental pros and cons list. You have to turn your brain off.

Poor decision-makers have trouble terminating the deliberation process. Their brains constantly show the “calculating…” screen.

Saying, “I’m not doing anything but this” terminates the deliberation process because it rules out all other options. Otherwise, you leave the door wide open to change your mind. And for uncomfortable decisions that we need to make anyway, it’s not good to give yourself a way out (because you’ll take it!).

“I think I’ll do 35 push-ups right now… oh, but I just remembered the big kayaking trip tomorrow. I should rest my arms.”

Excuses pop into your mind when you “tentatively decide” to do things. Try this instead:

 “I won’t consider doing anything but 35 push-ups right now.”

That eliminates the option of even considering other ideas. It’s a subtle difference in mindset, but a difference-making difference! 

Two Key Causes Of A Non-Decision

Hyperanalytical people like me have a tough time shutting down this ever-calculating brain we have been blessed with cursed with given. We calculate and overanalyze decisions because we want to make the best decisions we can make! Our noble goal is held up by these two fixable snafus:

  1. Calculating on the fly
  2. Not terminating the process once we have an answer (checking our work)

Never Calculate On The Fly What You Can Calculate Beforehand

If you’re shy and your goal is to meet people and expand your comfort zone, then talking to more people is an automatic YES. That decision can be made immediately, before the opportunity arrives. There’s no need to (over)analyze in each instance if you should talk to someone. If the thought crosses your mind to talk to someone, that’s a sign that your intuition sees the person as non-threatening. Combine that quick-twitch intuition with your predecision to talk to people, and your decision is already made! Easy!

But it may not be enough. Within bigger decisions, there are often smaller decisions that are the real saboteurs!

BEWARE THE SUB-DECISION!

So you’re going to talk to people. Decision made. Hmm…what should you say? 

Uh oh. Houston, we have a sub-decision. <— I’m confident no one else will ever put together that string of words.

If you decide in advance to always start with “hi” or “hello,” you’ll remove that decision of “what should I say?” Put it together and you should be saying hello to a lot of people.

Hi. Photo

“Hi.” (Photo by Nfoka)

I understand that it might seem lame to say hello 400 times in a day, and either not say anything else or talk like a bumbling fool because you’re nervous after that, but for a shy person, it’s simple, invaluable training. And for anyone, it’s fantastic decision-making training. 95% of people are friendly and will say “hi” back, and if they don’t, so what? It’s their loss to not be friendly.

This is the example that comes to mind because I just moved to a city full of strangers. I know nobody here (though I did meet with some readers, which was great)! So if I’m going to talk to a person here, it’s a stranger.

Another example: If you’ve decided to ask your boss for a raise, have you also decided how much to ask for? That’s a sub-decision that can prevent you from bringing the topic up.

“I should have asked for raise, but our meeting is over now. I just couldn’t get it in.” 

~ Person who should have decided beforehand

The Moment A Risk/Reward Ratio Seems Favorable, Terminate And Act!

Not all decisions can be made in advance. For instances in which we must make a surprise decision on the spot or a long-term decision like what career to pursue, we usually have good ideas of what would work best. But if you lack confidence (or are fearful), you’ll hesitate even when the answer is clear. You’ll check it over and over again, and each time the answer comes back as “yes, that’s a good idea,” you assume you missed something and cycle through it again. 

Gifted decision-makers have confidence that comes from experience. They know it’s not that we won’t ever make mistakes, it’s that we’re going to make mistakes no matter what we do. We’re likely to make more mistakes by choosing indecisiveness (not deciding is a decision itself, and a poor one). 

Life Is Never A Straight Line

I went to college. Then I changed colleges and majors. Then I changed majors twice more and graduated with a Finance degree. Now I write books and create courses that have nothing to do with Finance. These decisions were right at the time, but they were not an efficient way to get to where I am today (and they came with student loans… whaaa?).

the road of life

These cars have the answer. They’re moving. (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

[Tweet “Life is a meandering road: keep driving in the direction that seems best, and you’ll get somewhere meaningful eventually.”]

Your trust isn’t that you’ll make the right decision every time, it’s that you’ll make the best decision you can make right now and adjust as needed. That’s the most any of us can hope for. Risk is a part of life, and for an extreme example, if you try to avoid all risk by never leaving your bed, you’ll risk getting horrible bed sores and other health problems.

People think they can avoid risk by not making or delaying decisions, but all they’re doing is trading one risk for another (and it’s rarely a favorable trade).

Take action: Think about a key decision you can make now before you’re faced to make the call on the spot, and plan to do nothing but that choice when the time comes. And when making any decision, be mindful of the need to terminate the deliberation process and commit to a single course of action. As with most things, you’ll get better with practice. I have.

The subscriber-only message on 8/5/14 expands upon this post and talks about Bond, James Bond! Join Deep Existence below to read the rest. 

About the Author

I'm lazy, but you can call me Stephen. When you're as lazy as I am, you need superior strategies to live well. My strategies are so effective that I'm productive every single day. As the world tries to figure out how to always stay motivated, I create strategies that don't require it.