Most of our day-to-day decisions are pretty low-risk: what to have for breakfast, what to wear to work, what to watch on Netflix. But even if picking a breakfast food isn’t going to change the course of your life, choices can present a real challenge.
So it makes sense that big, higher-risk decisions can cause serious stress in your life. Stuff like buying a house, getting married, getting divorced, moving across the country or quitting your job can all drain our willpower. Thankfully, there are certain exercises that help you through the decision-making process. Before making a major cross-country move, I used these tips to help me decide where and when I wanted to go.
Pretend you’re advising a friend
Big decisions can wreak havoc on your emotions, and that makes it harder to come to a solid decision. So help mitigate this, the New York Times suggests that you pretend like you’re advising a friend through the decision.
The reasoning here is really simple: your short-term emotions can get in the way of decisions, and that clouds your judgment. It’s hard to break free of your emotions, but it helps to know they affect your choices.
This only works in certain circumstances. Pretending to give advice to a friend about the cheapest moving truck doesn’t make sense, but advice on where to move does. This was one of the most helpful ideas for me as I tried to pick where the heck I wanted to go next. I went with an imaginary friend with a similar disposition to me and tried to think of how I’d approach a conversation with them. I pictured the type of questions I’d ask, thought about the various risks I might mention, and even came up with a few things to research about different locations.
It certainly takes a bit of mental gymnastics, but it’s worth it to at least try. You can always seek out advice from a friend as well, but this way you can do so on the fly without the need for a long phone call.
Limit the amount of information you take in
It’s a pretty common idea that the more information you have, the better position you’ll be in to make the best possible decision. However, at some point, you reach a point where you have too much information. It’s one of those dumb tricks our brains pull on us that’s hard to counteract.
When we have too much information, we start to fill in gaps and add weight to information that doesn’t matter. Psychology Today explains what’s going on:
The human mind hates uncertainty. Uncertainty implies volatility, randomness, and danger. When we notice information is missing, our brain raises a metaphorical red flag and says, “Pay attention. This could be important…” When data is missing, we overestimate its value. Our mind assumes that since we are expending resources locating information, it must be useful.
This information comes in all forms. It might be that you’ve done so much research about a topic that you’ve passed the point of “educated decision” and moved onto too much information. Or it might be that you’ve sought out the advice of several friends, all of whom have given you different opinions. Regardless, when you have too much information on the table, you’re making the decision-making process far more difficult.
In my own case, I certainly reached that point of information overload where I had too many facts and opinions in front of me. Cutting some of that out helped. Instead of talking with a bunch of friends, I kept it to just a few I really trust.
The other big realization I had with both bigger and smaller choices was that my decision was always reversible. With a lot of our decisions, we put more weight on them than they’re worth. Yes, moving across the country to a new place is a big deal, but it’s also totally reversible. If it sucks, you move again. Likewise, with most smaller decisions, setting up a two-minute rule to make the choice gets it out of the way so we can move on. Most decisions we make don’t matter as much as we think they do, and recognizing that helps keep the amount of information you take in to a minimum.
Empower your inner contrarian and reverse your assumptions
I already mentioned the benefit of thinking outside yourself a little and pretending like you’re offering advice, but it’s also worth going even further and challenging your core assumptions. It might sound a little crazy, but you’re so prone to continue making the same kind of choices throughout your life that challenging yourself and doing the exact opposite is often the best way to get around this problem. The idea here is to confront your default behavior, step outside your comfort zone and use your imagination to test some completely new ideas.
The suggestion here is simple: if you’re making a decision between a few different options, throw in a new option that is essentially the exact opposite of what you’d normally do. Now, imagine yourself as if you’d already made that choice and you’re living with that decision. For something like moving, it was about tossing in an extra couple places I had no desire to move to. Then, when I weighed my choices, I had a few options I’d never even considered. This forced my brain to challenge my assumptions about what mattered about the city I chose, what I was really looking for, and what details really mattered.
It might sound like you’re just going to confuse yourself by adding in options that don’t matter, but in certain cases—especially something like a move or even a career change—it’s about thinking outside your comfort zone in order to make a better decision. If you need some help with that mental backflip, the Think Jar Collective suggests asking yourself a few simple questions:
- List all your assumptions about your subject.
- Challenge your fundamental assumptions by reversing them. Write down the opposite of each assumption.
- Ask yourself how to accomplish each reversal. List as many useful viewpoints as you can.
The end result is a new viewpoint you might not have considered otherwise. You won’t necessarily go with that choice, but it can help you figure out what you really want in a decision.
Spreadsheet it out
A lot of people love to make charts, and if that sounds like you, then you know that a spreadsheet is one of the best ways to help make a better decision. A simple spreadsheet filled with pros, cons, qualities, rankings and more can help give you the big picture of a decision. This helped me figure out both where to move and the more granular details like picking a moving truck company.
The good news is that you don’t have to really geek it up with spreadsheet skills. This spreadsheet provides a template for all kinds of decisions and has a ranking system so you can easily fill in everything you want.
You can make a spreadsheet as simple or as complicated as you like. I needed a two-column pros and cons list for the move, with each city getting its own set of columns. If you want to really up your game, you can create incredibly complicated spreadsheets for all kinds of decisions. Find what works for you with the eventual goal of showing yourself a clear look at all the various facets of your decisions in one place.
Everyone’s idea of what constitutes a big decision and what doesn’t is different, but walking yourself through these exercises is a way to get to a point where you’re more confident in your choice. For me, it was about exhausting enough options that I felt like I was educated, but not overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter how you do it, decisions tax your brain and your willpower, but hopefully you can make it a bit easier on yourself so you won’t regret too much in the end.
This story was originally published on 8/1/13 and was updated on 10/14/19 to provide more thorough and current information.