How to make hard decisions quickly

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How to Make Hard Life Decisions

  • There’s more than one (socially) acceptable answer. Our cultures often nudge us to make hard decisions by making one answer the default. Decisions often become hard, then, when we look to the world around us and no suggestion is offered.
  • It’s not clear how to evaluate the decision. Many different factors determine which choice is correct, and it’s not clear how to weigh or integrate them. Compare this to a decision about where to put your savings, which although technical, mostly boils down to a few quantitative factors like return and risk.
  • You can’t test out alternatives or learn from trial-and-error. Much of the complexity of life is reduced by learning from experience. The hardest decisions in life, therefore, afford little opportunity to reconsider.

In these cases, it’s often best to use a few different methods and see which choices they suggest. If you get agreement among different methods, that’s evidence that one side is the better choice (given the information available).

1. Find a model. Formalize the decision.

The first method is to explicitly use reason in your decision-making process. This is often valuable when your intuition is conflicted, or there are quantitative matters to consider that your intuition might not be considering.

For instance, let’s say you’re deciding what to major in school. One way of evaluating this choice is by figuring out, what your chances of passing are, what the average career earnings are for each field and adjust it based on your preference between those fields for non-monetary compensation (say from working in a more glamorous career).

This bloodless analysis won’t always yield the correct answer. However, by looking starkly at the numbers, you can get a better sense of whether it’s actually so bad to go into engineering rather than botany.

Your model will leave a lot out. That’s okay. That’s why this is just one decision-making method, not the whole decision-making method. For instance, you may weigh the costs and benefits of having kids right now based on the costs and disadvantages and see if those are ones you can bear. That won’t calculate the love for your future children, but it will make you aware of any sacrifices required.

2. Go with your gut. Then double-check it.

One reason this works is that our intuitions encode our past experiences. Thus we often reason from sophisticated patterns that aren’t consciously visible to us. Intuitions also help us avoid problems of self-conscious signaling, so we may pick the option we really “want” more, even though we can’t rationally justify it.

One way to check it is through what’s informally called a “Freudian Flip.” This technique says to assign each decision to a flip of a coin (or dice, if there’s more than one option). Then flip it. Once the decision has been “made,” ask yourself whether you regret not being able to take another. If you feel relief, that’s the direction your intuition points. If you feel regret, it points in the other way.

3. Simulate the decision. Do your research.

Say you’re deciding what career to enter. Have you tried talking to people who work in those fields? Asked them if you can shadow them for a day, to see what the working life is like?

Have you gathered information on salary, benefits and informal assessments of typical working culture and expectations? Have you considered interning in each potential field for a couple months, to get a better feel for each?

Obviously, the cost of increasing research can eventually outweigh the potential difference in choices, but I’m often amazed at how little research and investigation people do for the difficult questions in their lives. It’s only after years of preparation do they realize they don’t actually want the life they have been pursuing.

4. Would the person who made this decision do it again?

The reality is more banal than that. We’re mostly the same. Yes I may like science fiction and you like romantic comedies, but we all like water, breathing, food, sunshine and much, much more. Our commonalities bind us more than our differences make us unique, so we can leverage this to imagine the outcomes of our decisions.

Ask people who made the decision you’re contemplating whether they would do it the same way again? Best of all, ask people on both sides. Most people intuitively justify their past decisions, but you can see differences between, “it turned out okay…” and, “it was easily the best decision of my life!”

Four reasons to make fast decisions

1. Delayed decision-making costs money

2. Slow decision-making leaves you vulnerable to competitors

In one Stanford study, faster decision-making was linked to better performance, while slow decision-making was linked to poor performance. In one case, a firm’s delay in coming to a decision caused it to eventually go bankrupt.

3. Successful people make decisions quickly; unsuccessful ones make them slowly

4. Slow decision-making leads to burnout

Most people think that decision fatigue is caused by making lots of decisions, but that’s not always the case. This drain of mental resources can also occur if you remain indecisive about just one decision.

Dragging out a decision is the equivalent of mental multitasking. Your brain is constantly switching back and forth between choices, weighing its options, which leads to burnout and decreased focus.

How to make decisions

The decision-making process

  1. Identify the decision. Recognize the need for you to make a decision, and figure out (roughly) what the decision will entail.
  2. Determine your goals. Figure out what you’re hoping to achieve with the decision, and how important each goal is to you.
  3. Gather information. Collect the information that you’ll need in order to make a decision.
  4. Identify your options. Figure out which options are available to you.
  5. Evaluate your options. Identify the pros and cons of the available options, especially as they pertain to your goals.
  6. Select your preferred option. Rank the different options based on their pros and cons, and choose the one that’s best for you.

If necessary, it can be beneficial to move back and forth between these steps and make modifications as you go along. For example, if you discover that none of the available options will help you achieve your main goal, you can go back and reassess your goals, and then gather more information accordingly.

  • Create an optimal environment for decision making. You can do this in various ways, at any point in the decision-making process. For example, if you worry that the people you’re around now will hinder your ability to properly evaluate your options, you can postpone this step until you’re alone.
  • Identify and account for possible obstacles to your decision-making. It’s best to do this early on in the decision-making process, though you can do this at any step. For example, if you know that it’s going to be difficult for you to gather information and that this might cause you to rush into a bad decision, you can discuss the issue with a trusted person who will help ensure that you don’t make a decision until you’ve gathered all the necessary information.
  • Create an implementation plan. It’s sometimes beneficial to plan how exactly you will implement your decision. This can increase the likelihood that you will do so, and in some cases, the act of creating an implementation plan can help with the decision-making process itself, for example by helping you internalize the consequences of your choice, or by helping you determine how practical your chosen course of action is.
  • Review your decision. It’s sometimes beneficial to review your decision and the decision-making process that led to it, before you take action, in order to make sure that you’ve made the best possible decision. In addition, it can also be beneficial to revisit decisions after you see their consequences, in order to learn how to improve your decision-making process.

Note that, in addition to following this process, there are other things that you can do to improve your decision-making. As such, in the following sub-sections you will see additional tips and techniques that will help you improve your decision-making.

Each sub-section focuses on a different type of decisions, including good decisions, fast decisions, and hard decisions, and there are generally tradeoffs between the different approaches that are recommended below. For example, good decisions might take longer to make, while fast decisions might not be as good.

It’s up to you to decide what to optimize for, and you will likely prioritize different things in different situations. For example, when it comes to making relatively trivial decisions, such as what to order at a restaurant, you will generally want to prioritize speed, but when it comes to important life-changing decisions, such as which career path to follow, you will generally want to prioritize making the best decision that you can.

How to make good decisions

To make good decisions, you should generally go through every step of the decision-making process before you reach a decision, and make sure to conduct each step properly. To help ensure that you do this, you can go through each step in a way the forces you to be explicit with your reasoning, for example by outlining it aloud or in writing.

When doing this, you should watch for issues that could interfere with your decision-making, such as cognitive biases, and deal with them, primarily through the use of appropriate debiasing techniques. For example, if you’re in a situation where the egocentric bias is making it hard for you to see things from a different perspective, you can use self-distancing, and ask yourself what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation. This particular technique can be beneficial in a wide range of situations, and as one book on the topic states:

“The advice we give others, then, has two big advantages: It naturally prioritizes the most important factors in the decision, and it downplays short-term emotions. That’s why, in helping us to break a decision logjam, the single most effective question may be: What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”

Common questions about making decisions

Should I let my emotions dictate my decisions?

You should take your emotions into account as part of your decision-making process, but you shouldn’t let your emotions cloud your judgment in a way that causes you to make bad decisions. For example, when it comes to deciding whether to end a romantic relationship, you should take into account important emotional considerations, such as how you feel about your partner. However, you should not let your feelings for your partner lead you to conduct a flawed decision-making process, for instance by causing you to ignore serious negative things that this person did to you.

How can I be sure I’m making the right decision?

You can be relatively certain that you’re making the right decision by taking care to conduct a proper decision-making process, which includes all the relevant steps such as gathering information and evaluating options, while also taking care to avoid common issues, such as cognitive biases, that could interfere with your decision-making. In addition, you can increase your certainty in your decision by reviewing your decision-making process after you complete it, and by asking for feedback on it and on your decision from relevant individuals.

However, that said, there will be many situations where you can’t be absolutely certain that you’re making the right decision. To avoid regret and indecision, it’s important to accept this, and to tell yourself that you’re making the best decision that you can, based on what you know.

What if I make the wrong decision?

No matter how careful you are in your decision-making, there is almost always the possibility that the choice that you make will be “wrong” in some way, meaning that it will lead you to a worse outcome compared to some alternative that you had available. Because this is generally impossible to avoid, all you can do is accept the possibility that it will happen, and try to make the best possible decision that you can, by following a proper decision-making process.

“We can’t know when we make a choice whether it will be successful. Success emerges from the quality of the decisions we make and the quantity of luck we receive. We can’t control luck. But we can control the way we make choices.”

— From “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work“

That said, in many cases, you’ll discover that even if you do make the wrong choice, the outcome isn’t as bad as you thought, for example because the decision is partly reversible. If you do find yourself having made the wrong decision, your main goal should be to avoid obsessing and punishing yourself over it. Instead, you should figure out what you can learn from your experience so you can make better decisions in the future, and then start looking at what you can do to move forward past this decision.

How can I avoid regretting my decisions?

There are two main ways to minimize regret toward the decisions that you make. The first is to make decisions in a way that minimizes the likelihood of future regret, and the second is to change the way you view your decisions after you’ve made them.

When it comes to making decisions in a way that minimizes regret, you should do what you can to make reasonably good decisions, which means, for example, that you should generally follow all the necessary steps of a proper decision-making process. This reduces the likelihood that you’ll make bad decisions that you’ll later regret, and will also help you know later that you’ve made a good decision given the circumstances and what you knew at the time.

In addition, where appropriate, the book “The Paradox of Choice” suggests that you can adopt the standards of a satisficer, by trying to make decisions that are good enough given the circumstances, rather than those of a maximizer, who tries to always make the best possible decision.

The book also suggests that to minimize future regret, you should reduce the number of options that you consider before making a decision. This aligns with research on the topic, which shows that regret generally arises from comparisons between the option that you select and the alternatives that you chose to forgo.

Finally, when it comes to making decisions in a way that minimizes regret in the long-term, note that people often regret indecision and inaction more than they do bad choices. As noted in The Paradox of Choice:

“When asked about what they regret most in the last six months, people tend to identify actions that didn’t meet expectations. But when asked about what they regret most when they look back on their lives as a whole, people tend to identify failures to act.”

However, keep in mind that regret is influenced by various other situational and personal factors. For example, inaction tends to lead to more regret when a decision is made in response to negative prior outcomes (a phenomenon referred to as the inaction effect), while taking action tends to lead to more regret when making decisions in response to prior outcomes that were positive, or when making decisions in isolation (a phenomenon referred to as the action effect). This is important to take into account when trying to make decisions in a way that minimizes regret, because it means that decisions that you make should be tailored to you and to your specific circumstances, rather than based entirely on general guidelines.


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