Decision making is a drain on willpower. Having rules of thumb (aka 'heuristics') can make decision making quicker, easier, and less of a willpower suck.
Here are some examples:
Note that these examples are just to illustrate the concept and get YOU thinking. The idea is that you come up with rules of thumb that work for you in your life.
- Rule of thumb: If it's the third time I've thought about a small decision, it's time to make the decision then and there.
Specific example: A piece of mail came in about something in my neighborhood where the public could make submissions. I had it sitting around, and needed to make a decision about whether to read it properly or not. After glancing at it twice, on the third time, I ended up putting it in the recycling without reading it.
- Rule of thumb: Have two reasons to leave the house. In other words, don't go out to do errands to do just one thing.
Specific example: If I'm going to Walmart, I won't go for just one thing, I'll wait till there are at least two things that I need. Or, If I'm picking up a package from UPS, I'll also do something else nearby while I'm out.
- Rule of thumb: For products I use regularly, I always have one full replacement. This prevents running out.
Specific example: If I open a new box of paper, toner, aluminum foil, toliet paper, powdered sugar, or anything else, I'll buy/order more so that I always have 1 full replacement.
- Rule of thumb: Meals shouldn't take longer to prepare than eat, usually assuming 15 mins of eating time per meal.
Specific example: If I'm going to make a complicated dish that takes an hour (e.g., lasagna), it needs to be enough for the current meal plus 3 servings of leftovers/freezer portions.
- Rule of thumb: Get gas when the tank reaches 1/4 full.
Specific example: It's already specific.
Guidelines for your rules of thumb.
- You don't need to be too rigid with them. They're meant to guide your thinking, rather than box you in. If a rule of thumb doesn't seem like it applies well to a particular decision, you can just ignore it that time. If you find yourself ignoring your rule of thumb too many times, then revise the rule.
- Use rules of thumb to make your decision-making better, not perfect. In relation to the first example I gave about the incoming mail, a more optimal rule of thumb for me might be to always deal with any piece of mail the first time I look at it. However, if I made that rule I most likely wouldn't stick to it. Therefore, I do what works better in reality.
- Don't spend too much time and energy thinking about what your exact rules should be. Instead, make some, try them out, and then revise as necessary. Try something and then tweak it, rather than attempting to come up with the most perfect/optimal rule at the outset.
- Rules of thumb shouldn't feel like they take a lot of willpower to implement. That defeats the purpose.
Dr Alice Boyes is author of The Anxiety Toolkit (Perigee/Penguin Random House, 2015).
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