Making the right choices in life is vitally important. It might seem like a fairly simple thing to do, after all you make decisions every day, but in reality it’s more complicated than you might think. People make bad decisions all the time. They make decisions based on their emotions, on faulty data, or just decisions that don’t fit well with their personality or their life. And when you make bad decisions, it can derail every aspect of your life and negatively affect your life satisfaction and happiness. Which is why you need to work on your decision making skills as much as you work on every other aspect of your personality and life.
Most people don’t think about the processes they use to make decisions. This is odd because your ability to make good decisions basically defines the direction and the success of your life. So if you can’t or don’t make good decisions, it means that you can’t evaluate your life properly, you can’t determine where you want to go next, and you can’t decide on the best actions to make your dreams come true. Basically, it will mean that you make a lot of mistakes and go down a lot of dead ends before you find your path, if you ever do.
Despite this, a lot of people never think about let alone work on their decision making skills. This is a shame because making good decisions doesn’t come naturally and it isn’t easy. Which is why it should be one of the first issues that you work on as part of your ongoing personal development work.
What are your decision making skills like? Have you ever evaluated them to see how effective they are? How will your life improve if you work on these skills?
Are you Good at Decision Making?
It can be difficult to tell if you’re good at making decisions. Part of this is pride. After all, who would ever want to be told that they aren’t good at something they do all the time. But part of it is the simple fact that you can’t always see yourself clearly. It can be so easy to see other people’s faults and flaws, but it’s harder to see your own because you’re so close. That’s why you need to honestly evaluate your skills, and get expert help if you’re struggling with the analysis. Thinking about the following issues will help you evaluate if your decision making skills are good, or if you need to work on them:
Do you have a decision making process?
This may seem like a silly question, but a lot of people don’t actually have a process for making decisions. If you tend to just do the mental equivalent of tossing a coin, it might be time to improve your game. And if you haven’t changed or improved your process in a long time, you need to think about updating your skills.
What’s your evidence?
Do you make decisions based solely on your emotions? On your intuition? Where do you gather evidence from and how do you interrogate your evidence to determine what’s true? These are all important steps in decision making and most people don’t move through the steps consciously or at all.
What external input do you get?
Do you make decision on your own or do you ask people for advice? Who do you ask? This can be a critical step in creating your own opinions and ideas.
How long do you take?
Small decisions can be made in an instant but the bigger ones take time, and this is the way it should be. If you’re not taking enough time it means you’re not looking at all the facts, simple as that. Conversely, taking too much time to gather information can also cause you to make bad decisions as well.
How do you feel once you’ve made the decision?
Do you waver once you’ve made the decision? Do you question it the moment after it’s made? If you do, it could be a sign that you haven’t gone through the process properly.
Are you often surprised by the results?
When you make decisions, do you picture the results? How often are you wrong? If you’re wrong more than you’re right it means that you’re missing something in your decision making process. Go back and see what you missed each time your predictions are wrong. In all likelihood, this will reveal a pattern made up of information that you aren’t looking at, or an error in your thinking that you need to repair.
The Two Key Factors in Decision Making
There are two basic, key factors in decision making: reason and intuition. Your reason is the logical part of your brain. This is the part that gathers evidence, compares alternatives and weighs all the information to come to a decision. This process isn’t always flawless. There are a number of factors that can influence how your rational mind weighs evidence and what evidence it decides is most important. Though you might think that your mind is completely rational and logical and misses nothing, this definitely isn’t the case unless you’re a computer.
The second factor in decision making is emotion, or intuition. This is that gut feeling you get when it’s time to make a decision. It’s the uncomfortable emotions you feel when you contemplate an option you don’t like, and the positive emotions you feel when you think about another option. Your intuition may feel like it’s always correct, and in fact lots of people will tell you that you can trust it above your reason. But ‘your gut’ or whatever you want to call it isn’t infallible, and it also isn’t always correct. And making decisions based solely on this information means that you’re at the mercy of changing emotions and whims.
The key to making good decisions is to use both processes. This means using your rational mind to collect and evaluate data before checking in with your emotions to see what they say and using them as another source of information. This will help you to make balanced and rational decisions. And it will also help you to avoid the problems that can come about from making decisions based on one or the other process.
Emotions in Decision Making
Decision making is a complicated thing and scientists have only just scratched the surface of how people make decisions. It turns out that no matter how much we want to think that we’re rational creatures, we’re actually more emotional than previously thought. Numerous studies show that the human brain is actually wired to make decisions based on emotions. In fact, patients with brain damage that shuts down the emotion centers of their brains usually find themselves completely unable to make decisions at all. Instead they spend all their time debating between their options and can’t make even the smallest decisions.
Even more frightening is the fact that emotions usually have a negative effect on your ability to make good decisions. According to a series of experiments performed by Jennifer Lerner, specific emotions can unduly influence decisions in a variety of ways. For example, anger simplifies your thinking. This may sound like a good thing, but it causes people to make decisions based on bad or incomplete information, or even to make decisions based on general rules that leave out all the intricacies of an issue. This can result in behavior and actions that some would deem unconscionable in most circumstances.
The research on this issue is ongoing. But what it seems to indicate so far is that for better or worse, emotions play a much larger role in decision making than previously thought. Which is why developing your awareness and control of your emotions needs to be a big part of improving your decision making process.
Dealing with Your Emotions for Better Decisions
The danger of making decisions based on emotion doesn’t mean you should or even could completely eliminate emotion from your decision making. In fact, this would probably be as dangerous as eliminating your intellect from your decision making process. Instead, you need to develop your emotional intelligence so your emotions don’t influence your decisions without your awareness. This means paying attention to your emotional reactions, questioning why you feel that way and if it’s valid, and it means not making decisions based on knee jerk emotional reactions. This can be a difficult skill to develop, but it’s also essential if you want to avoid some of the worst decisions you will ever make, such as those based on hate, anger or fear.
The following strategies will help you develop your emotional intelligence for better decision making:
- Practice awareness of your emotions.
- Don’t react or judge, just observe your emotions.
- Keep a journal so you can look back and track emotions and potential causes.
- Observe your body, often it will show signs of your emotions when nothing else does.
- Ask yourself why you’re feeling a certain way.
- Take responsibility for your emotions, because other people can’t make you feel anything, only you can.
- Don’t ignore or fight negative emotions, this means they will influence your behavior in secret.
- Practice emotional control. Just because you feel something doesn’t mean you have to act on it.
Other Barriers to Good Decision Making
If you’re having trouble making good decisions it might be because of barriers or obstacles within your own mind or practices that impede your decision making process. So identifying and dealing with these problems could give your decision making skills a quick boost. Common problems include:
Lack of information
You can’t make good choices if you don’t have enough information. This problem usually occurs when someone else is trying to convince you to make a decision. As a general rule of thumb, don’t make a decision if you’re lacking some vital piece of information, no matter how much pressure you’re under.
Unfortunately, this occurs much too often. You’ve probably seen advertisements that promise some great product for a low price each month. But what these advertisements don’t tell you is that you’ll be paying that monthly repayment for close to a decade. This is a good example of bad information that unduly influences your decision making process. So if you think you’re being fed the wrong information, stop and check and take the time to gather information for yourself.
Too much information
Even though too little information can be bad, too much can cause just as many problems. There is some evidence to show that too much information can actually cause you to make worse decisions. It can disable your ability to determine good information from bad. There’s a sweet spot there, where you have enough information, but not too much. And finding this spot is a matter of experience and practice.
Your physical state
Your physical environment can unduly influence your decision making process to a surprising degree. For example, feeling stressed, may reverse your normal response to risk, which can result in you making some very unusual decisions. Even lighting choices can affect your emotions and decision making process. Bright lighting has been shown to make emotions stronger, which means it can make you feel more strongly about an issue than you actually do. So if you’re making an important decision, make sure the environment isn’t making the choice for you.
Everyone has cognitive biases, thinking patterns that are based on observations and generalizations about people, life or specific situations. These can result in bad logic, inaccurate judgement calls and even memory errors. There are several different types of biases that can influence your decision making process and you will never eliminate all of them from your mind. Biases allow your brain to make fast and efficient decisions, which is why they exist and can’t be completely eliminated. But becoming aware of your biases means you can see when they’re influencing your decision making and compensate for them.
Too many opinions
Human beings are social creatures, which means that you’re naturally affected and influenced by the people around you. This can create a major problem for your decision making process. It may feel natural to ask for the opinions of the people around you when you have to make a decision, but it can also overwhelm you with their expectations and beliefs at a time when you should be focusing on your own. So be careful who you ask, and weigh their opinions carefully.
Heuristics in decision making are simple rules that people use to make decisions. This sounds fairly abstract, but in reality it’s an efficient idea that allows your brain to make fast decisions. For example, if you have a loving grandmother, you might automatically assume that all elderly people are sweet and nurturing. This type of short cut may serve you well most of the time, but it also means that you’re ignoring a lot of information. The trouble with using heuristics is that this type of thinking dismisses information that disproves itself and causes massive errors in thinking and reasoning. Stereotypes about race, sexuality and even gender come from heuristic processes, and no matter how open-minded you might think you are, heuristics play a big part in your decision making process as well.
Building a Good Decision Making Process
When it comes to building your own decision making process it will take time and lots of mistakes to improve your skills. And even once you have an efficient and effective system in place you will still make mistakes, that’s part of being human. A decision making process isn’t infallible and it’s never complete. In order to keep making better decisions, you will have to keep working on it. And every time you make a decision, good or bad, it will give you data you need to improve your method and should be used in this pursuit.
When you’re just starting to work on your decision making process, going through the following steps the next time you have a big decision to make will help you start to make better decisions:
Define the decision
This step may sound simplistic, but it’s also vital. Before you start gathering information or even thinking about your decision, you need to know what the decision is. Make sure you understand the choices exactly. This will help you to gather the right information.
Try to be as neutral as you can when gathering information. This means not dismissing information as irrelevant because you don’t like it, and it means not favoring one choice over another. Doing this may be almost impossible, but the more you try for neutrality the better you will get at it. Also, be aware of the impact of the confirmation bias during this process. This refers to the fact that people tend to gather and determine the weight and value of information based on their previously held beliefs.
Identify the choices
Once you’ve gathered information, define your choices again. Quite often, the information gathering process uncovers options you hadn’t considered before. Factor these into your decision making.
Compare the evidence
Weigh and compare the evidence. You can do a pro/con list at this stage if you want to, but whatever method you choose make sure you look at the realities and possibilities of each choice. And don’t forget to look at the information itself and determine whether it’s biased or unsupportable. This can make a big difference to the choice you make.
Make your choice
Don’t keep gathering information endless. As previously stated, this can make your choice harder. Set a deadline for the decision before you start the research and, when you reach it, make your choice. And stick by it.
Do a review
Once you’ve made your choice and lived through it, review the process and the result. This gives you the benefit of hindsight. You can look at your processes knowing the end result and see where any problems arose that you need to consider the next time you make a decision.
Decision making may seem like a simple thing to do, something you do every day, but the truth is that it’s an essential skill that’s often neglected. People who are dedicated to self-development usually work on their personality traits, on their cognitive skills or on the physical aspects of their life but they rarely look at the decision making skills that decide which aspects to work on. And this is probably a sign that they need to improve their skills in this area. Learning to make better decisions doesn’t mean that you won’t make mistakes. Sometimes you just have bad data, or the world itself gets in the way and changes things so that even well thought out decisions go badly. But if you work on improving your decision making skills you will minimize the number of mistakes you make and ensure that you have the ability to choose the right path and the actions to get to the right goals.
Have you ever worked on your decision making skills? Share with us the strategies you used to improve them and how it worked out in the comments below.