Take a guess — how many decisions do you think you make per day? You might count only decisions you’re aware of — like the 20 minutes you spent deciding on which pizza to order (Hawaiian, obviously). But in reality, we make decisions practically every second of the day.
Do I snooze or get up right away? Kitchen or bathroom first? How much coffee is too much coffee? Should I wear the polka-dot socks or the striped ones? Even things like what thoughts you focus on are decisions. So it’s maybe not so surprising to hear that on a daily basis, we make a mind-boggling 35,000 decisions. These shape pretty much everything about your life (no pressure). But even if we zero in on the big, life-altering decisions, it's obvious that mastering the art of choosing wisely is crucial.
So, how do you become a pro at this? Good news: This article is packed with 20 potent, science-backed tips to do just that. Ready to elevate your decision-making game? Just keep on reading.
- What is a good decision, anyways?
- What leads to bad decisions?
- 20 tips for making better decisions
- Nailing the right mindset for quality decisions
- Create the right conditions for good decisions
- The nuts and bolts of good decisions
- Specific types of decisions
- Struggling? 4 bonus tips for good decisions
- Wrapping up
What is a good decision, anyways?
First, let’s clarify what we’re aiming for. So, what's a good decision? Seems like a straightforward question, but it sure can get complicated when you dig in.
Many people think it’s all about crunching numbers and data and choosing the “correct” choice. But that's where we tumble down the rabbit hole — what is "right," anyway? Who decides it is “right”? What does “choice” itself even mean?
Thankfully, Dr. Lace Padilla, an assistant professor of cognitive and information sciences, saves us from this existential despair with a much simpler answer. She proposes that a genuinely good decision is one where you've used all the information you have to the best of your ability.
So that means bad decisions are when you misread or misunderstand the information you have. It’s not necessarily about choosing the “wrong” choice — because nobody’s perfect, and mistakes are inevitable. What really counts is that you've understood the information available to you and used it to make the best call you could at that moment.
What leads to bad decisions?
Let's face it, we've all been the architects of some cringe-worthy choices — from DIY haircuts to gas station sushi. But the question is, why? Here are common reasons.
1. We misinterpret the evidence
We just mentioned Dr. Lace Padilla’s definition of bad decisions — misunderstanding the information we have. This can often be traced back to our past experiences, which usually guide us but can sometimes lead us astray.
Take the case of Galileo. When he first spotted Saturn through a telescope, he thought it had "ears". That's because he didn’t have the right model to understand what he was seeing. It took another 45 years for Huygens to recognize those 'ears' as the rings around Saturn. (Too bad — learning about planet “ears” would make science classes much more amusing.)
2. We overestimate our beliefs
Research shows most of us are not great at figuring out how accurate our beliefs are. We might be super confident about something, only to find out we're wrong. And ironically, we're usually overconfident with tough questions but underconfident with simple ones. It's a tricky balance, but being aware of this can keep us grounded.
3. We’re influenced by irrelevant emotions
Our emotions can hijack our decision-making process without us even knowing — even in counter-intuitive ways. For example, fearful people make pessimistic judgments of future events. But angry people make optimistic judgments.
What’s more, these emotions often have nothing to do with the decision at hand. In one study, participants who were feeling sad tended to set a lower price for an item they were asked to sell.
So if you’re regretting a decision, maybe it was those stale, family-sized nachos you ate.
4. We’re paralyzed by too many choices
You may have already heard of “paralysis analysis” — in other words, overthinking. Basically, you get so wrapped up in the pros and cons, and “this hotel has a free minibar but that one has a balcony”, that you can’t make a choice. You’re afraid of not making the perfect choice, so you’re stuck in a never-ending decision-making mode. The irony? Spending too much time analyzing is a bad decision all by itself. (Because who wouldn't be paralyzed choosing between tiny liquor bottles and a view of the parking lot?)
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20 tips for making better decisions
Now that we understand what good and bad decisions are made of, it’s time to look at some tips so we have more of the former. Science has a lot of juicy tips to give us, so I’ve divided them into 5 categories:
- Tips for adopting the right mindset to make good decisions
- Tips for optimizing your conditions
- Tips for the act of making good decisions
- Tips for specific types of decisions
- Bonus tips for those really tough decisions
Let’s go ahead and get started.
Nailing the right mindset for quality decisions
Mindset really is everything. And your brain is the birthplace of every decision you make. So it makes sense to cultivate a welcoming environment for those choices to bloom. So, how do we set the stage for great decision-making? Here are three tips to get you on the right track.
1. Don’t get too hung up on making the “perfect” decision
Here's a funny twist for you: your pursuit of making better decisions can be sidetracked by, you guessed it, bad decisions. Perhaps the granddaddy of them all is getting fixated on perfection.
This is a struggle I understand very well, as a fellow perfectionist. But this is one of those paradoxes of life. You’re much more likely to make the best decisions when you stop being so obsessed with making the best decisions.
Researchers have identified two types of decision-makers:
- “Maximizers”, who agonize over every option and detail to make sure they're picking the absolute best one.
- “Satisficers”, who want to make decisions quickly and aim for an acceptable choice rather than the best one.
Maximizers do often have great outcomes, as they are usually very informed. But, all that information is very time-consuming to gather. And it can be painfully difficult to reach a decision in the first place. You keep going through all the options back and forth in your head — and this process doesn’t even stop once you make the decision. Maximizers are prone to decision regret, wondering “What would it have been like to choose the other thing?”
What good is it to make the “perfect” decision but feel miserable? It’s much better to aim for a “good enough” choice that makes you happy. And that’s the satisficers’ approach. Unless the stakes are very high, know when to cut your losses. You really don’t need to spend 30 minutes choosing the “perfect” font for your Instagram post. Or mulling over whether your dog would look cuter in a bandana or a bowtie. Let “good enough” be good enough.
2. Don’t rely too much on your confidence
Confidence is great for self-esteem, but it can also lead you straight into disaster. We've all been there: so sure we'd ace that test, only to stare at the paper like it's written in ancient Greek. Studies back this up; people tend to overestimate their abilities and the accuracy of their knowledge more often than they'd like to admit.
Do you know exactly where that obscure office building is for your big meeting? 90% sure you can Jedi-mind trick your boss into that promotion? Well, reality often begs to differ with our mental scripts.
Here’s an eye-opening exercise: spend a little time each day gauging how likely you are to pull off your various endeavors. Write down your estimates. At the end of the day, revisit your estimations. Missed the mark? That's okay; humility is free but invaluable. And, it will help you become much more accurate at estimating your real abilities.
3. Allow your emotions
Characters like Sheldon Cooper and Spock might have us believe that decisions are primarily logical. But actually, every decision we make involves feelings.
In fact, people who experience damage to the emotional centers of their brains find themselves unable to make decisions. They become paralyzed by decisions, unable to make even the simplest choices. That’s why neuroscientists argue there’s a “sweet spot” between logic and emotion that leads to the best decisions.
So as long as you’re not overwhelmed by emotion, don’t be afraid of considering your feelings. They're not a bug in your decision-making software; they're a feature.
Create the right conditions for good decisions
Your mindset is one of the most important things. But there are lots of other factors that influence how you make decisions. Let’s look at 3 of them that you can control.
1. Get quality sleep
We all know sleep makes you cranky and gifts you those oh-so-stylish bags under our eyes. But did you know it also has a pretty terrible impact on decision-making? So if you’re staying up all night debating between options A and B, you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot. Take “sleep on it” literally — and prioritize getting quality sleep. Here are some science-based tips how:
- Get more light during the day
- Reduce screen time at night
- Avoid caffeine late in the day
- Go to bed at the right time
- Relax yourself
- Create a comfortable environment
- Turn down the heating
2. Minimize distractions
Imagine trying to pick out the perfect anniversary gift while assembling IKEA furniture as your phone keeps buzzing. You probably won’t end up with the best gift in the world. (You will, though, likely have a lopsided bookshelf and a tweet that reads like you typed it with your elbows.)
This is the work of your brain’s “control network”. It’s the part of your brain that helps you focus and stay on task, such as your decision. But it doesn’t do very well with multitasking. (That’s incredibly counter-productive, anyways.) So whenever you want to make a decision of importance, put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and choose a distraction-free environment.
3. Ensure adequate time
It’s common sense that rushing through decisions can easily lead to bad choices. Yet, many of us ignore that, believing we don’t have time to think things through.
But as Mike Kallet, author of Think Smarter points out, if you don’t have time to set aside 15 minutes to research the best lawnmower, you better find 3 hours to collect the grass clippings it flung all over your front yard (and still need to research another lawnmower). Studies also show people are more likely to make risky choices under time pressure.
So, you’re much better off carving out enough time to make your decision in the first place, or you’ll pay with many-fold more time and money in the end.
How much time is enough time? I’m afraid I’ll have to echo my next-door cafe (“We close when we decide it’s time to close”). This means, you should take however much time is necessary to:
- Define the problem
- Identify the criteria
- Do the strictly necessary research
And depending on the importance of the decision, perhaps gather some more views or find a few alternatives.
The nuts and bolts of good decisions
Alright, enough preparation! Let’s get into the 7 best science-based tips for making good decisions.
1. Figure out the REAL problem
You could spend hours scouring the internet for information. But all that data's about as useful as a chocolate teapot if you're not even sure what problem you're trying to solve in the first place.
As Dan Pink tells us in his bestseller, "To Sell Is Human," the true key to decision-making success lies not in finding the perfect answer, but in identifying the perfect problem. The best advances in both the arts and sciences come from those who spend more time clarifying what the actual issue is.
As an example, consider a study conducted in 1970 by Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels. They found that artists who were problem finders, not just problem solvers, were the ones with better results and thriving careers.
So the next time you're struggling with a decision, don't just dive into gathering solutions like you're on a wild Easter egg hunt. First pause, take a step back, and ask yourself: "What's the real problem here?"
2. Define what really matters
Once you define the problem, you should also define the main criteria. What’s most important to you? Is it the location of the hotel, or the free continental breakfast? The salary of the job, or the company's pet-friendly policy? Let's be real — when we scribble down a generic pros and cons list, half the things on there are as important to us as a pet rock.
So write a list of what really matters to you in the decision. If you have several criteria, look at each of them one by one and evaluate the options based on them.
As The Muse explains, you can also use this strategy to come up with more options in the first place.
“Suppose you had to decide how to change the onboarding process for new employees. Write down what you hope to accomplish — say, making the process more efficient, more comprehensive, more laid-back — and then focus on each objective in isolation. You want to make the process more efficient? You can do that by sending how-tos in advance. You want to make it more comprehensive? You can do that by introducing them to several departments instead of just your own.”
3. Gather only the necessary information
You know what they say: Information is power. But that’s only half the saying — too much information is a real decision-making killer.
Imagine trying to decide what to eat for lunch while reading a 300-page nutrition guide. Spoiler: You'll starve. Researchers have found that our brains tend to fizzle when hit with too much info. In fact, even a tiny bit of unnecessary detail can derail the decision-making process.
So next time you're wading through a sea of Google results or drowning in YouTube tutorials, remember: you don’t need to know all the things. You just need to know the right things. Keep it simple.
4. Get a range of views
I know you probably want to be able to make decisions on your own. But well, science says it may be in your best interest to still listen to your know-it-all friend, nosy aunt, or mother-in-law (sorry). Because we make our best decisions when we are exposed to a diverse set of views and inputs.
Other studies show that gathering a medley of opinions — whether it's about guessing the weight of an ox or diagnosing skin conditions — tends to lead to more accurate information and results. This is what they call the "wisdom of crowds."
No pals around to offer their two cents? No worries. You can play your own mini-crowd by using the "estimate twice, decide once" strategy:
- First, come up with an estimate or a decision.
- Wait a day or two or until the end of the day. Ponder some more, and make another decision.
- Then average the two decisions.
It’s like asking for your own opinion, twice. You can even switch up your thinking style — first go with your gut, then mull things over with some serious thought.
5. Identify alternatives, particularly the opposite
Dr. Therese Huston, author of How Women Decide, points out that we often get stuck in Hamlet mode. We zero in on just one option and it becomes a yes-or-no choice. To be or not to be? To hire this person or not? To go for a walk or not? In reality, life offers us a buffet of options. Maybe you could hire someone part-time, or promote an existing team member. Instead of a walk, you could take a nap, or finally call your friend back. (Just imagine how different the play would be if Hamlet had considered some alternatives, like therapy, or becoming a monk.)
Research shows that explicitly identifying alternatives is much more likely to lead to good decisions. Dr. Huston recommends coming up with 3 options. She gives the example of a company deciding whether or not to build a parking garage:
“So instead of just should we build a parking garage or not, three options would be: should we build a parking garage, should we give all employees bus passes, or should we give our employees the option to work from home one day a week? That might all solve the same problem, but they’re very different options.”
It can also be hugely beneficial to play devil’s advocate. Once we get something in our heads, we tend to cling to that belief. It takes more compelling evidence to change a belief than it took to create it — even if the belief isn’t helpful or true. So when you’re making a decision, consider the opposite. If the initial idea is to build that parking garade, what about a world where your business doesn’t offer any parking? It might sound radical, but entertaining the opposite idea can open up new paths. And research shows it is a great way to reduce errors in judgment. Just remember to make alternatives relevant to solving the problem and the most important criteria.
6. Trust your gut — with a grain of salt and a dash of time
You've heard the age-old saying, "Trust your gut," right? Well, it's not just your grandma's way of saying "I have no idea, dear, figure it out yourself." There's science to back it up. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and scientist Gary Klein wrote a whole book on the power of intuition for decisions, especially in high-pressure situations. But they also say you should still evaluate your gut feelings consciously and deliberately.
Because intuition isn’t infallible:
- Overconfidence in your intuition can be a powerful source of illusions.
- People are more likely to go with their gut when they’re feeling positive, and that often results in mistakes or misinterpretations.
- And, experienced experts can overestimate their intuition, especially if they haven’t dealt with many similar situations in the past.
What's the remedy? According to Dr. Hannah Perfecto, it's a matter of time — just a few seconds, in fact. Pausing even for 10 to 30 seconds to ponder can be a game-changer. It might sound measly, but let's face it, that's more time than most of us give to reading the terms and conditions of a new app.
7. Reflect on your mistakes (but don’t dwell on them)
We all make mistakes, whether it's forgetting an umbrella on a rainy day or spending more than we should have on an impulse buy. The key isn't to beat yourself up about it, but to learn from it. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to think about the decisions you've made. Where did you go wrong? What can you learn from it?
It's a valuable exercise, but remember, there's a time limit. Don't spend hours wallowing in regret. Experts suggest that as little as 10 minutes of daily reflection is enough to help you improve your decision-making skills. Once you've figured out what you could have done better, let it go. Commit to making smarter choices tomorrow. That's how you grow, one decision at a time.
Specific types of decisions
Are you dealing with a decision that’s far off in the future, or related to a significant life change? Some types of decisions are best made with particular approaches. Let’s take a look at three specific cases.
We're all familiar with the proverbial "kick the can down the road" approach. Some decisions, like saving for retirement, seems so distant that we decide to let Future Us deal with it. But Future You will come around much sooner than you think, so maybe Present You might start to take the issue more seriously.
Researchers suggest making distant, abstract decisions feel more concrete helps make better decisions. Here are some examples how:
- Showing people an aged photo of themselves helps them consider what might happen in 50 years, including retirement planning.
- Showing people mock-ups of a floodplain in your area in 50 years can help people make decisions about getting flood insurance.
If you’re tech-savvy, you can try to create visual aids like this for yourself. But you can also just change your thinking. The point is to find a way to connect with your future self or make the event feel like it will be happening sooner. If you had to retire or deal with a flood tomorrow, you’d definitely consider the issue differently than if it’s some nebulous concept of “one day”.
Then there are the choices that can leave us on the fence for ages — lifetimes, even. Should I quit my job and start my own business? Should I leave my relationship? Should I go meditate with lemurs in a jungle yoga retreat?
“Whenever you cannot decide what you should do, choose the action that represents a change, rather than continuing the status quo.”
This goes for decisions ranging from life-changing dilemmas to whether or not someone should grow facial hair. People who followed this advice were more satisfied with their decision and happier six months later. In contrast, people who didn’t make any changes were happy with their decision at first, but not anymore six months later.
Think about it. Are there things that you’ve been doing the same way for ages? The same eggs and toast for breakfast. The same route to work. The same software to help with your work tasks.
Now, I’m not here to bash routines. Heck, I’ve been trying to make some routines stick for the better part of my life. But, you could also be missing out if you’re letting many decisions get made by default.
Research shows that when the same decision is made repetitively, it’s very beneficial to keep gathering information and being open to adjust your views. Both of these are associated with more accurate judgments and better decisions.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to reevaluate every breakfast food on the planet, or zig-zag to work through the suburbs. But, maybe you could consider swapping white bread for whole grain to boost your health. Or that turning left 1 block later has fewer traffic lights, so you cut down on commute time by 5 minutes.
Be open to shake things up a little — life’s too short for only eggs and toast.
Struggling? 4 bonus tips for good decisions
Some decisions are easy — and some are teeth-clenchingly, hair-rippingly frustrating. (I’m guessing it’s the latter that brought you to this article). In these cases, one of these bonus tips might come in useful.
1. Pay attention to how the choice is framed
We often underestimate the power of words, especially when it comes to making decisions. Dr. Perfecto tells us about the concept of “choice architecture,” which is basically how a question or choice is presented to us. Believe it or not, the wording can make or break your decision-making process.
Think about two doctors describing the same surgery:
- One says, "90% of people survive this procedure,"
- The other says, "10% of people die from this procedure."
Both statements are the same, but I bet you'd feel more confident going with the first doctor. That's choice architecture in action — the framing of information can either fuel our confidence or feed our fears.
Now, let's get to another mind-bender: The emotional pain of a loss hits us twice as hard as the joy of a gain. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown that our brains are wired to dread losses more than we appreciate gains. This explains why we can be so hesitant to cut our losses, like ditching a failing investment. But what if we flip the script and frame all choices as potential gains? Suddenly, that risky investment becomes an opportunity for growth, not a looming pitfall.
It all comes down to this: The framing of a choice influences how you feel about it. This is especially important if you are presented with a decision by someone else. But even if you’re debating something yourself, play around with the wording.
2. Take a breather — literally
We usually don’t spend much energy — or any at all — focusing on our breathing. But even something as simple as this can be used to your advantage for decision-making.
Studies found that deep slow breathing increases vagal nerve activity. And this in turn can control stress and lead to much more accurate decisions.
There are two types of breathing patterns you can try:
- Symmetric breathing, where you inhale and exhale for an equal amount of time.
- Skewed breathing, where you exhale for longer than you inhale.
Even just 2 minutes of this showed improvements in a 30-minute task. Pretty good payoff for something so easy and cheap!
3. Step outside of yourself
Ever noticed how it's so much easier to give advice to a friend than it is to decide what you should do? There's a good reason for that, and science backs it up. When people think about a friend's problem rather than their own, they demonstrate better "wise reasoning" skills. Simply put, they make wiser decisions.
So, it’s time to put your role-playing skills to the test. The next time you're struggling with a decision, try stepping outside of yourself for a moment. Imagine the situation isn't about you but about a close friend facing the same dilemma. Ask yourself, "What advice would I give them?" This can help you see the big picture and the different perspectives that you might not have considered otherwise.
4. Batch or automate decisions
Let's be honest; decision-making can be utterly exhausting. And the energy we have for making decisions isn't infinite. Or at least, not when it comes to the rational or “slow” type of decision-making. In fact, our “decision tank” starts running on fumes after about 75 decisions.
What does this mean? Well, if you waste those 75 decisions on things like which gif best encapsulates your feelings or the ideal filter for your brunch pic, then you won’t have much power left when it comes to the things that truly matter.
One way you can safeguard against this is to batch or automate the less important or simpler decisions. For example, science writer Sharon Begley suggests dealing with emails and texts in batches, not in real time. This tactic allows your intuitive, automatic brain to kick in, saving your rational brain from unnecessary strain. It's the same principle behind setting your coffee maker the night before or meal prepping on Sundays — you're removing the need to make those decisions when you're already swamped with other things.
Another tip is to step back from the information flood when faced with complex choices.
You might think that the best way to tackle a complicated decision is to dig in, analyze every angle, and consciously weigh all your options. However, research indicates that the more complex a decision, the more it drains your cognitive resources. Therefore, the poorer the decision. So do the counter-intuitive, or rather the intuitive thing: allow yourself to step back, switch off the constant flow of information, and let your subconscious take over.
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Congratulations — you’re now armed with 20 powerful tips to make better decisions. You may not have realized it, but even during reading this article you were making decisions — for example, to open this article, and to finish reading it in its entirety. (Two excellent decisions, if I may say so myself).
Remember that the point is not to get stuck in perfectionism — we all make and will continue to make mistakes. But with awareness, we can make improvements and build better lives, one decision at a time.
What tip did you like most in this article? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!