4 Rules of Thumb to Make Faster Decisions

Follow simple choice rules to reduce complexity and make decisions faster.

Posted Oct 23, 2018

Carlos Pereyra/Pixabay
Thumbs up for simple rules of thumb.
Source: Carlos Pereyra/Pixabay

Have you ever wasted precious energy on making minor decisions? If you're anything like me, you’ll find long periods of debate tiring, frustrating and plain unnecessary. I simply don’t have the time to agonize over every single decision life throws at me—especially if they amount to 35,000 decisions each day! Often choices with many different options can be the hardest, and this holds particularly true for areas outside one’s comfort zone and expertise.

Example decisions I personally struggle with include identifying the best energy provider, picking items from an unknown restaurant menu, selecting a new phone model, or choosing a hotel when staying in a foreign city. None of these decisions are likely to have a life-changing, earth-shattering impact on me, and I thus cannot afford to mull them for hours. Yet, I obviously aim for a good outcome—be it a cheap electricity deal, a yummy meal, a multi-functional phone or comfortable accommodation. This begs the tricky question of efficiency: How can I make quick decisions without sacrificing a decent outcome?

Let’s discuss the task of booking a hotel as an example. Not only are there usually lots of different hotels to choose from, there are also a multitude of aspects to consider when making your decision. What is the price per night? Is the hotel in a central location? Does it have free WiFi access? Is breakfast included? Does the hotel have gym facilities? Is it close to public transport? Are pets allowed? Can they provide rooms for smokers? Are there any parking spaces? What are the hotel’s check-in times? And do they offer free booking cancellations?

With so many different criteria to weigh, simple decision guidelines are certainly appealing. Such guidelines—often referred to as “rules of thumb,” “heuristics,” or “mental shortcuts”—are easy-to-follow rules that aim to reduce choice complexity, speed up the process of comparison, and still deliver satisfactory results. Some rules of thumb are context-specific and target narrow areas of behavior such as healthy eating. A well-known example rule entails eating at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables per day to meet your needs of vitamins. However, with context-specific heuristics being comparatively rare, more general rules of thumb are necessary to guide decision making in a broader range of situations.

Take the best

This important heuristic takes a one-dimensional choice approach. It involves fixating on one choice criterion only and picking the best option for the chosen criterion. Returning to the example task of booking a hotel room, one priority might be a rich and varied breakfast buffet. With this in mind, the decision process can easily be simplified by focusing on breakfast deals only, and picking the hotel with the most appealing food offer.

Personally, I tend to judge a hotel room by its overall size and the amount of floor space. As a passionate hobby yogi, I always need enough room for my yoga mat! Unfortunately, this criterion is hard to assess in advance, and it’s best to come prepared. For all those travelers struggling with tiny box rooms, I have just the yoga sequence for you. Not only is this class great for small spaces, the instructor Katee also manages to squeeze a well-balanced practice into as little as 15 minutes. Now, that’s what I call efficiency!

Recognition heuristic

Another powerful rule of thumb—often used intuitively—is the recognition heuristic. As indicated by the name, this decision rule relies on mere recognition of a choice option based on personal memory. Easy recognition is often associated with the overall importance of a choice option. Recognition of a hotel brand, for example, typically indicates high popularity, a big market share and a well-established business. The recognition heuristic therefore involves choosing the hotel with the most recognizable name.


The tallying approach is an extension of the “Take-the-best” heuristic. However, rather than focusing on a single choice criterion, tallying involves considering a list of different criteria, counting the number of favorable criteria for each option, and making a choice based on the number of criteria fulfilled. When selecting your hotel, you might decide to extend your initial priorities (i.e. a hearty breakfast) and additionally consider the availability of parking spaces and gym facilities. Checking the hotel options against the items on your priority list, you’d simply choose the hotel that ticks the most boxes.

Imitate the successful

Human decision makers never act in isolation, and they can receive important decision cues from their social environment. Drawing on this social type of information, “Imitate the successful” describes a strategy of copying other, successful decision makers. In your quest for a suitable hotel, for example, you might ask experienced travelers for advice or choose the hotel with the highest online ratings from previous customers.

Despite the crude simplicity of many rules of thumb, they have been shown to yield surprisingly satisfactory results, often trumping the outcomes of much more sophisticated choice strategies. However, while using rules of thumb is a great way of minimizing cognitive effort, it also leaves you open to biases and subtle influences, which might sway your choices in unwanted directions. Recognition of a brand, for example, is frequently manipulated through strategic advertising campaigns. Similarly, customer ratings can easily be fixed to present a misleading result. Instead of blindly relying on those simple rules of thumb, we need to consciously recognize their potential downfalls and change decision rules if necessary. Let’s make efficient choices, not mindless ones!