24 ways to stop making horrible decisions (and start making better ones)

Fork road split divergeGeograph via Google ImagesTwo roads diverged in a yellow wood…and I enlisted these scientifically tested strategies to make a rational decision.

Every day, we’re faced with an endless onslaught of decisions, from the trivial (marinara vs. pesto) to extremely important (should you quit your job?).

Too often we simply go with our gut and do what “feels right.” And that’s not always a bad move.

But there’s a problem with that strategy: feelings leave us open to a variety of behavioural and psychological biases — biases that affect the way we think and lead us to make the wrong choices.

By being aware of the tendencies that lead us down the wrong path — and considering some techniques to maximise the chances of finding the right one — we can make better, more rational decisions. There may not be a way to guarantee the future (yet), but these 24 decision-making tips could be the next best thing.

Max Nisen and Aimee Groth contributed to an earlier version of this article.

Don't waste time searching for the 'best' option.

Having a lot of choices is great -- until it's not.

In fact, according to researchers Simona Botti from the London Business School and Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago, we spend so much time seeking out options that it outweighs any benefit of having additional choices. Choices come at a cost -- and most of us underestimate how much we're paying.

Accordingly, when you're researching options, set a time limit for yourself, and make sure you're not using your decision-making angst as a procrastination device.

Don't assume everyone else has better information.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange April 17, 2015.

We tend to assume everyone knows something we don't and therefore we should do what they're doing (because they must be acting on superior knowledge), but that's not necessarily the case.

Behavioural economist Matthew Rabin and Erik Eyster extended this further, explaining that this herding effect can perpetuate wrong choices: as a group, we seem to overestimate how much people are acting on better private information, and underestimate how much they're simply following others.

Sometimes, people genuinely are privy to real information you're not. But in plenty of cases, they're just following the crowd.

Harness the power of a good nap.

While we previously cautioned against going with your gut, a study from the University of Amsterdam found that there's a time and a place for everything, and when it comes to complex choices, sometimes it's best to let your unconscious mind do the heavy lifting.

In cases where a lot of independent factors are at play, making a decision when you're mind isn't actively focused can actually lead to better, more satisfying choices.

To harness the decision-making power of your unconscious, distract your conscious brain by sleeping or working on something else.

Be sure you're not just seeing what you want to see.

When we're presented with uncertain information, we tend to interpret in a way that confirms what we already think or want. This 'confirmatory bias' actually makes us overconfident in our choices, despite the fact that we don't have any real reason for our certainty.

If you notice you have a preference for a specific choice, and you notice that choice conveniently happens to be the easier or more familiar one, it's essential to make sure you're not unconsciously reframing information to support something you only wish was true.

Don't assume everyone's as trustworthy as you are.

There's a downside to being a highly trustworthy person: you're not very good at assessing whether someone else is trustworthy, too.

Due to 'false consensus' theory, we tend to think other people would behave pretty much as we would in a given situation. That is, if you're honest, you assume everyone around you is honest, and if you tend to lie, you see a world of liars.

And that tendency persists even when we get information to the contrary. If you're extremely trustworthy, then, be careful that you're not extending your (admirable) characteristics to someone who might not deserve it.

Don't let too much information obscure the important stuff.

One of the lessons from Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller 'Blink' is that information overload can be overwhelming -- and too much information can be worse than no information at all.

It's easy to get so much data that it becomes almost impossible to pick out what's relevant and important. Accordingly, Temple University professor Angelika Dimoka told Newsweek, 'people's decisions make less and less sense' -- that is, if they're able to make them at all. Total decision paralysis is a possible side effect of too much information, she notes.

The upshot: Focus on the quality of information you're getting, not the quantity.

Have a snack.

You can't think clearly when you're hungry -- and a Diet Coke's not going to do the trick.

'Even the wisest people won't make good choices when they're not rested and their glucose is low,' social psychologist Roy Baumeister told the New York Times. 'That's why the truly wise don't restructure the company at 4 p.m. They don't make major commitments during the cocktail hour. And if a decision must be made late in the day, they know not to do it on an empty stomach.'

When your glucose is low, your brain responds more strongly to immediate rewards, and is less likely to prioritise long-term prospects. In conclusion, have a snack first.

Remember: 'hot streaks' aren't real.

John Wall at the Rising Stars Challenge

Thanks to the 'hot hand' fallacy, we tend overestimate the power of a hot streak. If you're winning, then why wouldn't you just keep winning?

The problem is, the world doesn't work that way, and just because something has been happening doesn't mean it will continue to happen. (But it also doesn't necessarily mean it won't.)

According to behavioural economists Matthew Rabin and Dimitri Vayanos, most of us tend to underestimate the meaning of short streaks, but overestimate the importance of longer ones.

Tread carefully -- especially when things are going well.

Meditate to help you resist 'sunk cost' bias.

Once we've invested time and money in something, our tendency is to keep investing more time and more money in that thing -- even once it's become abundantly clear that our investment isn't paying off.

But researchers from Wharton have discovered one way to help overcome the 'sunk-cost bias': meditation, which has been shown to help people let go of the past and focus on the present.

And you don't necessarily need a disciplined meditation practice to reap the benefits (though it probably helps) -- even a few minutes of meditation before a big decision can have a major effect.

Beware of stereotypes.

Even when we're aware of stereotypes, we sometimes still fall victim to them.

And while negative stereotypes are bad for obvious reasons, research from Duke indicates that positive stereotypes can be at least as destructive -- if not more so, since they're particularly unlikely to arouse scepticism (and especially likely to produce antiquated beliefs).

Question your assumptions -- the negative ones and the positive ones. Are you making choices based on facts or stereotypes? That's harder to parse than it might initially seem, but as is so often the case, awareness is the first step.

Don't blindly trust the numbers.

Big data has been revolutionary for a number of industries. New sources and analytics tell us more than ever about customer preferences and activities.

And yet data can be dangerous -- and blindly accepting the numbers can be as bad as ignoring them altogether. The best attitude is what Shvetank Shah calls 'informed scepticism.' Know what the data means, but trust your judgement.

Make your most important decision first to beat 'decision fatigue.'

Brains get tired, and the more choices we have to make in a row, the worse we get at making them.

That's why back-to-back meetings are so draining: because 'no matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price,' explains the New York Times' John Tierney.

When you're suffering from decision fatigue, your mind starts to find shortcuts, and one of two things happens: either you get impulsive (buy the candy!), or you start to avoid making any choices at all. Accordingly, the aim to make your important decisions relatively early in the day, before your decision-making powers start to falter.

Allow yourself not to be so specific.

It's tempting to assume that crisp, clear decisions are the best kind of decisions.

But that need for precision can actually lead to wasted time and unnecessary decisions. Often, the details don't actually matter -- and while it's counterintuitive, allowing for some fuzziness can help shift your focus toward more meaningful conversations.

It might be superficially less satisfying, but as Bob Frisch argued in the Harvard Business Review, it's a whole lot more effective.

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