- Be willing to accept and adapt when you fumble or misjudge in your choices.
- Use introspection to your advantage to reflect mindfully from different lenses.
- Seek to increase your number of alternatives to a reasonable, but not infinite, level and choose action over inaction when you are in doubt.
If we make hundreds (or thousands) of choices in any given day on average, as most research suggests,1 at least some portion of them have to be wrong. From a probability perspective, I think most people would agree. How could we possibly make 100 percent correct choices all day long?
Mistakes or errors (or what we often call wrong choices) are a fact of life. Embracing the good and bad results are part of healthy habits and minds. Yet, oddly, if you ask some people, they will look back and not see anything they could have done differently. Meanwhile, others critique everything they do.
Maybe our perception of "good versus bad" or "right and wrong" are just labels and inventions our minds create to explain things. The thing is that with many misjudgments, we don’t suffer too many consequences. If we chose to turn right when driving, and we should have turned left, well, we just re-routed. Maybe it was a poor choice, but it wasn’t costly and didn’t deserve too much focus. Many of the hundreds of options we make daily won’t result in too much damage.
Much more important is the pattern of your choices. It’s this pattern of regularly doing something that creates a permanent positive impact or lasting harm. In big decisions and when we see patterns, we should re-examine how we made the decision so we can improve. I think most of us want to live a better, healthier, and more abundant life, and that requires a little attention. Don’t you agree?
Step 1. Get Introspective
Introspection plays a role in the process of judgment and decision-making.2 Introspection involves closely examining your cognitive and behavioral processes that go into how we frame and shape the decision and the outcomes that emerge. Introspection requires reflection and mindfulness to understand and appreciate mental states during the process of contemplation and selection. If you are unable to find something that you should have done differently—when looking back at a large enough sample of choices—you may not be reflecting deeply. One useful practice that might aid in reflecting would be to journal the decisions you make daily, study what you learned, and consider what you might have done differently.
Step 2. Seek to Increase Your Alternatives
But introspection alone will not ensure better choices. What else are we missing? As I’ve previously suggested in my articles, having more information and alternatives will help. If you feel forced to choose one way because you are unaware of an alternative course of action or feel out of alternatives, those decisions don’t tend to result in positive outcomes. On the other hand, abundant and conflicting information results in the denigration of decision quality. Yes, it is true that having too much information results in the dreaded “analysis paralysis.” Even with experienced decision-makers, studies have found that too much information clouds judgment and erodes the quality of choices.3 This choice paradox suggests that while increasing the number of alternatives generally increases decision outcomes, too many alternatives will result in diminishing returns.4
Step 3. When in Doubt, Choose Action
So how do we make better choices that will guide self-improvement and ensure positive results? Maybe a flip of a coin is the best option. One research study suggested that individuals who made major life decisions relying on a coin toss were generally more satisfied and happier when compared with others who used other methods.5 So, the question is—are some people too cautious with their choices? Do we overthink and over-scrutinize? Maybe so.
For those of you that fall into this camp, you might be better off doing less thinking and jumping in with both feet. Action usually has a higher correlation with happiness than doing nothing. Many of you might spend so much time asking others for opinions, seeking solutions, or running numbers, you never get around to doing anything!
Step 4. Focus on Decision Quality
In addition, try to re-conceptualize how you interpret your outcomes. It could be that contentment with the outcome is not the same as the quality of the outcome. We often wish things would have turned out differently, or we regret something, but that doesn’t mean the decision quality itself is flawed. Instead, we have to focus on what we can reasonably control—what went into the process.
The antidote is to be clear in your decision process: Define what you are trying to accomplish, seek out your best alternatives, and do your research. Focus on making this process effective, but streamlined. Similarly, don’t spend eternity evaluating the options.
Step 5. Be Vulnerable When Making Decisions
You have to be vulnerable, open, and influenceable when making decisions. No matter what comes your way after a choice, be willing to embrace it and either re-direct or go all in. This does not suggest just accepting suboptimal results, but owning and taking accountability for those choices and finding a new path forward is the mindful present task. Vulnerability encompasses the uncertainty, risk, and exposure we face, especially when choosing one path over another.6 As Ray Bradbury, the famous fiction author, once said, “Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.”7
Important decision-making involves taking risks, accepting the consequences, adapting to changes, and choosing action. Adapting and correcting our missteps are key. We haven’t figured out everything about the science of decision-making, but these elements are part of the solution. Do what you can to shore up your process and embrace the outcomes.
1. Krockow, E (2018). How Many Decisions Do We Make Each Day? Psychology Today, Sept. 27, 2018. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stretching-theory/201809/how-many-decisions-do-we-make-each-day.
2. Tuomas Leisti, Jukka Häkkinen (2016). The effect of introspection on judgment and decision making is dependent on the quality of conscious thinking. Consciousness and Cognition, Volume 42, Pages 340–351.
3. Leonie Aßmann, Tilmann Betsch, Anna Lang & Stefanie Lindow (2022). When even the smartest fail to prioritise: overuse of information can decrease decision accuracy. Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 34:5, 675–690.
4. Schwartz, B., & Ward, A. (2012). Doing better but feeling worse: the paradox of choice. Positive Psychology in Practice, 86–104.
5. Levitt SD (2021). Heads or tails: the impact of a coin toss on major life decisions and subsequent happiness. The Review of Economic Studies, Volume 88, Issue 1, Pages 378–405.
6. Brown, B. (2013). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. London, England: Portfolio Penguin.
7. Brainyquote.com (2023). Accessed at brainyquote.com/quotes/ray_bradbury_383404.