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How to Make Better Decisions

8 techniques to ease your anxiety over choosing the wrong option.

Key points

  • All of us struggle with decision-making at least some of the time.
  • To make better decisions, we need to be clear about what, exactly, our options are.
  • Choosing the "right" thing (or person) requires us to keep in mind our values and goals.

Decision-making doesn’t come easy to everyone. Most of us can relate to not knowing what option to choose, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s never regretted a decision they made.

There are many reasons why some of us have a harder time deciding on things. Having too many options is one cause of decision paralysis. Being tired, worried, or stressed can also undermine our ability to choose, as can having executive functioning issues.

Regardless of the reason behind our indecisiveness or ambivalence, we can all benefit from strategies that boost our decision-making capacity and leave us feeling more convinced that the choice we’ve made was the best one. Here are eight techniques to help you make better decisions, no matter what you’re deciding amongst:

1. Clarify your options. To make a good decision, you’ll need to have a clear sense of your options. Making a list of all possible courses of action or options can be helpful here. If your problem is having too many choices, consider grouping options into broader categories. (If this still doesn’t reduce your choices enough, you can skip this step and start with step two or three.)

Maybe you need to decide between job offers, or career paths. Maybe you don’t know who to reach out to on a dating app or who to go on another date with. Perhaps you’re mulling over whether to leave a job or end a relationship. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out which air conditioner to order. Whatever your choices, get them down on a page (or screen) so you can see them all in one place.

2. Call forth your values. We feel more confident about our choices when they resonate with our values. So, if you’re struggling to decide between options, call to mind what matters most to you—and deprioritize choices that don’t align with this.

Values are qualities of being or ways of operating in the world. They aren’t destinations (goals) but rather orientations (directions you want to go in). If you’re not sure what your values are, consider a values clarification exercise, or the traits and actions of the people you admire. This can clue you into what’s really important to you.

Sometimes, decision-making is tricky because our options cause a conflict between two or more values. For instance, you may highly value being a helpful friend but you may also highly value being a hard worker, and when your friend reaches out to you for support on a night when you’re working on a tight deadline, you’ll have to weigh which value is most important in light of your current circumstances. This is where additional steps can help.

3. Keep your eye on the goal. Unlike values, which orient you toward a direction you want to go, goals are the destinations you want to get to. Remind yourself what your goal is in making a specific decision. Then, for each option on your list, ask if it’s in keeping with that goal. Eliminate or deprioritize the options that aren’t.

4.Make a pros and cons list. With your remaining options, make a list of pros and cons for each. What are the upsides and downsides to each? Which might you enjoy or dislike most? Which might have the most benefit for the most people? Making a pros and cons list helps you see the net positive or negative outcome of each option.

5. Envision your future self. Ask yourself for each option how you imagine feeling immediately after choosing it, then how you imagine feeling five years from now having chosen it. Maybe this course of action won't feel good initially, but you’ll regret not having pursued it in the future. Imagine yourself, also, at the end of your life looking back on this decision. Will it seem trivial? Will you be glad or sad you pursued it (or not)? Factor in how you feel taking these perspectives to your final choice.

6. Advise a stranger. Imagine advising a total stranger on what they should do. What, objectively, would you think to be the best possible option for them? Keep note of the guidance you give this stranger.

7. Seek wise counsel. There’s value in consulting others with experience in an area where you’re struggling to make a decision. If your decision is about a relationship, seek out someone in a stable, healthy one rather than someone who struggles to keep a mate. If you need guidance on a financial decision, avoid asking someone who has poor budgeting skills. Don’t hesitate to reach out to certified experts for the biggest decisions. That’s what they’re there for (though they may charge a fee).

8. Review, reflect, and commit. With these steps complete, you likely have a better sense of which options are the most promising. If you’re a spiritual or religious person, here’s where you can summon the input of a higher power and pay attention to what you perceive as confirmation or affirmation of the best choice. If you can, give yourself a day or more to reflect one last time on your values, goal(s), pros/cons, future self, and what you’d advise someone else to do—plus any feedback you’ve gotten from consulting others (including what you’re in touch with spiritually).

Don’t pressure yourself to be 100-percent convicted about any one option, but pay attention to which one objectively and subjectively seems to be the best out of all of them in its alignment with your values and goal(s), the number of pros relative to cons, how you envision feeling about the option in the future, and what feedback you’ve gathered from appropriate sources on how to proceed. From there, it’s time to commit to that action, give it all you’ve got, and trust that you chose as soundly and wisely as possible.

Making decisions may always be daunting for many of us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t execute this task with greater assurance and better preparation. The point isn’t to render decision-making easy, per se—though these strategies can certainly have this effect. It’s to instill in us a firmer confidence about the choices we end up going with, as well as the process of choosing in and of itself.

More from Katherine Cullen MFA, LCSW
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