Should you take the job, or should you wait and see if something better comes along? Should you move house now, or maybe next year, when it could be more affordable? Should you spend your holidays in England, Australia, or Japan? Life is full of such conundrums, each of them requiring us to make decisions that will affect the things that are most important to us: our careers, our relationships, our finances, our creative pursuits, and more.
So it’s discouraging to learn that, according to high-profile researchers like the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, we tend to be… well, pretty bad at tackling important choices. We’re derailed by cognitive biases, rushed by circumstances beyond our control, and liable to distract ourselves with trivial decisions before diving headfirst into big ones—as Joshua Rothman puts it, “we agonize over what to stream on Netflix, then let TV shows persuade us to move to New York.”
Fortunately, the researchers aren’t all doom and gloom. While ouija boards and crystal balls won’t help much, there are things you can do to improve your decision-making skills. Here are five of the best science-backed pieces of advice:
- Sleep on it
You probably don’t need a scientist to demonstrate that people make worse decisions when they’re tired or stressed (see: ‘hangry’), but Professor Roy Baumeister, from the University of Queensland, has done exactly that. In a 2007 paper, he demonstrated that self-control is a finite resource, which is depleted throughout the day and replenished during periods of rest. Importantly, the depletion of self-control has a negative impact on the quality of the choices we make. In other words, if you want to make a clear-headed decision that your future self will find it easy to stand by, get some rest first!
- Take into account all the relevant facts
Our decision are only ever as good as the information we have about our decisions. This requires us to do three things: decide which information is relevant (and available), gather that information, and then do our best to check its accuracy. In research by the behavioral economist Daniel Ariely, consumers who were able to control the flow of information required to make a choice (in this case, whether or not to buy an item) later felt more confident that they’d made the right choice. However, it’s also true, writes Ariely, that the work of making a fully informed decision can be taxing: so it’s important to focus your efforts on the choices that matter most. Research those decisions well, and then thank yourself later.
- Become an impartial observer
Why is it often so easy to give advice to others, but so hard to advise ourselves? Actually, the jury is out on that one, but research by Igor Grossmann, of the University of Waterloo in Canada, has confirmed that we make better decisions about interpersonal relationships when we remove ourselves from a situation and consider it as an outside observer would. So, next time you’re wondering whether to take a job, or attend a networking event, or negotiate for higher pay, take a minute to ask yourself: what would I tell a friend to do if they were in the same situation? The answer might surprise you.
- Build your emotional intelligence
It’s an unfortunate quirk of human nature that the way we feel now can influence decisions that will have an impact on a future self who may feel completely different. If we’re angry, we might reject a good opportunity; if we’re excited, we might enthusiastically accept an offer before subjecting it to thoughtful analysis; and if we’re hungry at the supermarket, we’re in serious trouble. Thankfully, it’s possible to reduce the likelihood that our present emotions will affect unrelated decisions by building our emotional intelligence. We’ve covered some of the best techniques for doing this, such as cultivating mindfulness, in a separate article here.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion
Despite being an expert on the shortcomings of human decision-making processes, Daniel Kahneman still advises people to consult each other when confronted with important choices. However, you shouldn’t go asking anybody about whether or not to accept a promotion or switch careers: the ideal adviser is “a person who likes you and doesn’t care about your feelings”. In other words, ask an honest friend or trusted mentor: they have the benefit of distance and can help you see things from a fresh perspective.
Unfortunately, no advice is going to make it easy to confront life’s biggest decisions: but grappling with them is, in a sense, what it means to live an engaged life. We hope that the tips above help you to do so with confidence and clarity. Good luck!