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5 Rules for Making Quicker, Better Decisions

Decision-making can be exhausting and anxiety-provoking.

Key points

  • The ability to make decisions can get worse after making many small decisions throughout the day.
  • Reducing the amount of time people spend on decision-making can provide more energy and more cognitive resources for important choices.
  • Identifying decisions that are not important and approaching recurring tasks in the same way can help people make decisions quickly and easily.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Decision fatigue is when your decision-making quality gets worse after having made lots of decisions. In everyday life, it results from having to make dozens of small and large decisions throughout the day. For many of us, our jobs involve constant decision-making, as does parenting.

A consequence of decision fatigue from small decisions is that you will often procrastinate and avoid important decisions, like whether to stay in a relationship or whether to make financial investments.

By employing simple decision-making tips for small decisions, you can reduce the burden of these and have more cognitive energy leftover for larger decisions.

You can use the following principles to develop your own personalized and targeted decision-making rules. Note: I don't mean you should use these principles universally. Use them to develop the specific, targeted rules that simplify your life.

1. The "decisions that don't matter" rule.

A critical aspect of improving decision fatigue and making better decisions overall is quickly identifying decisions that aren't important.

Often we face decisions that don't matter, or that don't have a right and wrong answer. Frequently, one answer is as good as another. You might be surprised at how often decisions fall into this category. For example:

  • Indian or Thai food tonight?
  • Should I pay $20 to upgrade to the next size rental car?
  • The blue or the red?
  • Comedy or drama tonight?

Attempt to quickly identify decisions where one option is as good as another, or a slightly suboptimal choice is inconsequential. Go with either choice. If you want to take thinking completely out of it, you can flip a coin. Or, ask your voice assistant to pick a number between 1 and 2. If the voice assistant picks 1, go with Option 1 or Yes. If the voice assistant picks 2, go with Option 2 or No. This is pretty fun!

Experiment: If you'd like to get better at identifying unimportant decisions, try tracking them for a week. Write down each relatively unimportant decision you're tasked with making. At the end of the week, categorize them and look for patterns. For a week, be ruthless in designating decisions as unimportant (or of low importance) and see how it frees you up mentally.

2. The "always buy" rule.

I first heard about this strategy on Gretchen Rubin's "Happier" podcast. If there is an item that your family uses a lot, and running out happens often and is a hassle, you can adopt this rule: Whenever you are in a store that sells that item, you buy it.

In my household, we apply this rule to broccoli. My spouse and daughter seem to eat almost a whole head of broccoli between them every day. Therefore, whenever either of us is in a store that sells broccoli, we buy it.

If you apply this rule, occasionally you may end up with too much of the item, but use it if at least 80 percent of the time it would result in the best decision.

Our rule is "Always buy broccoli." What rule would suit you and your family?

3. The "don't skimp" rule.

This is a somewhat similar principle to the last one, but subtly different. I'll illustrate with an example. Usually, my family buys gas from Costco or at a supermarket gas station with reward points, so it's cheaper. If we're organized, we fill up at those places well before the empty light comes on in our car. If we're busy or disorganized, that doesn't happen. We end up needing to get gas at whatever gas station we're closest to. In these circumstances, we'd often put $10 worth in to tide us over until we could go to the cheaper place. However, getting into this situation in the first place indicates we're frazzled. It's a sign that driving to a specific gas station shouldn't be our highest priority. So we have a rule: "Always fill up the tank" rather than putting $10 in and giving ourselves another errand to do.

I've heard author Chris Guillebeau mention a similar principle related to buying expensive bottles of water such as at the airport or attractions. If you're thirsty and haven't been organized enough to bring water, you're going to have a much better time and make better choices if you buy the bottle of water. So the rule here might be, "Always buy water if you're thirsty, no matter the cost."

4. For recurring tasks, use the "always do it the same way" rule.

Routines reduce the self-control needed to enact behavior. You can reduce your decision-making burden if you always approach a recurring task in the same way.

For example:

  • Every family Christmas, you are always in charge of the main course and your sister is always in charge of desserts and snacks.
  • Every time you have rewards to use, you use them on the same items.
  • Every time you leave your house for a flight, you follow the same routine for getting out the door and making sure you have closed up your house properly.
  • Every time I only have 7 vitamins left in the bottle, I will go online and order another bottle (rather than delaying in case I think of another item I need).

5. Now or later?

This point overlaps with some of the other categories, but it's worth highlighting. We often think "Should I do this now or later?" Try an experiment in which you always pick "Now" for a week. See how it goes. Does that work out better for you than deciding on a case-by-case basis?

For example:

  • Email my colleague now to see if she missed my email, or wait a few more days?
  • Make weekend plans now or later in the week?

This might seem like a minor topic, but the consequences of over-focusing on small decisions can be large. All mental effort has an opportunity cost. If you're overthinking about unimportant decisions, more consequential ones will fall through the cracks. Folks with anxiety often overthink decisions because they're fearful of making wrong decisions, even when doing so would logically have few consequences.

Want more? If you procrastinate due to decision fatigue, this post has some solutions.

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