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5 things you can do to make better decisions (from someone who is tired of "5 things" lists)

Perseverating over your decision won't lead to a better decision. Seek out information, talk to different people, get better sleep, impose time limits, and second-guess yourself before you make a choice.

I use Decision Science to help businesses make better decisions. This is what I do for a living. I do this by helping them refine their options and clarify their trade-offs, and by gathering, curating, and synthesizing relevant information.

My expertise is needed because none of our decisions are 100% in our control. It’s scary but true. Our biases force us to ignore pertinent information. Our mental short-cuts cause us to inaccurately calculate the likelihood of outcomes. Our emotions force us to be impulsive. Our peers push us to conform. We can't help it.

And it’s not our fault. Because we’re human, our decision-making is peppered with glitches.

Decision Science unpacks where we lack control and how decision-making can go “wrong.” Research on decision-making is rich and cross-disciplinary: psychology, sociology, behavioral economics, and medicine all have something to say. Even principles of quantum theory are inserting themselves into Decision Science. Which makes it seem as though perfect decision-making is a pipe dream.

Perfection of any sort is a pipe dream, but if you’re ok with being just a little better today than you were yesterday, here’s a list of 5 things you can do that might improve your decisions:

1. Seek information, not advice. Too often when we ask for help, we are looking for someone to tell us what to do. We do this because when we are uncertain, we just want an answer, and we trust our colleagues to get us there. But our colleagues are plagued with the same decision-making glitches we are. To alleviate uncertainty, try approaching help as if you’re seeking information. For example, don’t ask your brand strategist friend if you need a brand refresh. Instead, ask them under what conditions a refresh is worth considering. Ask them what can go wrong, and what would make the effort worth it. Educate yourself. Then go off and make your own decision.

2. Expand your professional network. We rely on our closest friends for guidance and, if we’re smart, for information. But people we don’t know well could be better sources of information than people we are close to. We seek the close company of people like us, who care about the same things, read the same articles, listen to the same podcasts, and have access to the same resources. People we don’t know well are more likely to introduce us to new ideas and people, giving us access to more information to inform our decisions. So connect and engage with people from different industries, in different areas of the country, with different opinions, and even from different professional levels. CEOs can learn a lot from mid-level Managers. They can also learn a lot from their taxi drivers.

3. Stop putting off getting better sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause poor decision-making. And yet, though a lot of us are tired, we keep putting off doing anything about it. We need to stop that. It gets interesting when bad decision-making leads to extra hours at work spent correcting those bad decisions, which leads to sleep-disrupting stress and fewer hours available for snoozing. Which then leads to exhaustion, and more bad decisions, and more hours spent correcting the outcomes of those decisions… which leads to stress and too few hours of sleep…. Don’t ask me how I know this cycle so well.

4. Try imposing a hypothetical time limit on your decisions. Sometimes decisions are hard to make in the first place. This can happen when you’re faced with too many trade-offs. Consider having to choose between three job candidates, or agencies, or consultants, each with a long list of unique skills, each with contributions that are hard to prioritize. It can become overwhelming. But when you impose a time constraint, you’re more likely to focus on the deal-breakers – on trade-offs you won’t compromise. Maybe price will pop up to the top. Maybe it’s experience in your industry. Limited time is likely to help you weed out what’s less important, which makes decision-making easier.

5. Second guess yourself. Again. Overconfidence bias is a thing: humans have a tendency to believe that we know more than we actually know and can do more than we actually can do. When we think we’re about to make a good choice, there’s a chance that overconfidence bias is creating blind spots around potential problems while it protects our human egos. I’ve heard people say that second-guessing is a sign of poor confidence. I strongly disagree. It’s just the right dose of confidence – at least if good decision-making is what you’re after.

Each of these tips alone can make an impact, so if you choose only one and commit, you’ll be on a better path. Bottom line: you don’t make better decisions by perseverating. You do it by understanding how decision-making can go wrong and then correcting for it. Sometimes it’s as easy as setting your decision aside, getting some good sleep, talking to someone you haven’t talked to for a while, and asking them – and yourself – the right questions.

You know… stuff you should be doing anyway.


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