Making good decisions is an essential life skill, and you can improve it with practice. We have some fundamental handicaps to overcome, but if we make it a habit to practice decisiveness in low-impact environments and avoid worthless decisions when it matters, we can dramatically improve our ability to make high quality decisions. By committing to better decision making, recognizing when to make decisions and when not to, improving our ability to do one thing at a time, and clarifying what we are deciding, we can improve not only the quantity but the quality of the decisions we make.
Have you ever found yourself pulling junk food out of the pantry late at night in the middle of a diet? Let’s just say that pasta doesn’t have a long life expectancy in my house. The culprit here is decision fatigue. Making decisions, even trivial ones, uses up some finite resource in your brain. The more decisions you make in a row, the more you impair your ability to self-regulate, making you more likely to take the lazy or easy option. This can be pretty trivial, like the box full of crackers you pound while trying not to wake up your wife with the crunching, but it can also be more serious. The seminal study of this phenomenon followed judges making parole decisions. They discovered that the judges were more likely to grant parole first thing in the morning or immediately after lunch. Apparently, when they had been working all morning, they depleted their ability to carefully consider the case and instead defaulted to the safer option - keeping the prisoner confined for another month. Some CEOs, like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, take this information to its logical conclusion and eliminate as many decisions from their life as possible, all the way down to wearing the same “uniform” every day.
Understanding decision fatigue is super important, but I don’t think it’s the full story. Based on personal experience, I happen to agree with Jocko Willink that decision making is like a muscle and it needs exercise. Decision fatigue is like muscle failure: if you try to do 1000 pushups in a row, your form will probably start suffering, and making too many decisions in a row will similarly suffer. On the other hand, if you never do any pushups, when you drop down to prove you’re still in fighting shape, you might not be too happy with the result. If you never make any decisions, your brain will literally lose the ability to do it well.
Decisiveness is also linked to willpower and focus - improving your ability to do one thing at a time will let you get better results for the same amount of mental effort. It’s not a 100% one-to-one correlation, but whatever gets depleted by decision making seems to be linked to what lets us use our willpower (usually measured by psychologists with such fun activities as holding your hand in ice water). We get addicted to distractions, and they screw up our ability both to do one kind of work at a time as well as make decisions. We are all cognitive misers, and when we build our ability to avoid distraction, we have more mental resources left for making decisions.
So far, we’ve talked about internal factors that affect your decision making, but there is an important external element: the clarity of your criteria. If you take a second and think about it, this makes intuitive sense: if you have to waste time and energy on figuring out why your decision matters, or how to make it, you’re not spending that time or energy actually making the decision itself. You can take some steps to affect this external factor, which we’ll detail below, but for now, let’s just recognize that decisions with vague criteria will eat up more effort than those with a lot of clarity.
When you put this all together, you get a surprisingly simple prescription to improve your decision making: treat it like exercise. Like a muscle, decisiveness will atrophy if you don’t use it but will also give out if you do too much in a row. So, like an athlete, you need to distinguish between training and performance. When you need to be on and your decision-making counts, when it’s game time, avoid trivial decisions. For example, you might create a morning routine to remove decision-making and have a fixed system for selecting clothes to wear so that when you get to work, you can focus on your most important task for the day while you’re fresh. For especially important events, like a big pitch or quarterly planning, you might plan out your day ahead of time and stay away from email and texts, to really minimize decisions to what counts.
Which brings us to training for better decision making. When you don’t need to be at your best, actively search out decisions to make to be your mental gym. Here’s my favorite example: always have an answer when someone asks “what would you like to/for _____?” Friends trying to decide where to get dinner? Name a restaurant. Husband asking what you want to watch on TV? Mention a show you’d like. Your new kryptonite is “I dunno, what do you think?” For frequently made decisions, improve the criteria you apply by developing some simple rules. Finally, you can also cultivate your ability to focus by practicing being bored and taking the right kind of breaks. If you can practice decisiveness in low stakes environments and remove constraints from the more significant decisions in your life, you’ll be making better decisions in no time.
The most important decision you can make is paradoxically the one to be more decisive. Once you have, you can use the techniques we’ve covered here to gradually improve. I again echo Jock Willink when I tell you that the way to better decisions is to simply decide to make more of them and follow through. Hopefully this has given you some insight on how to follow through, but the core is very simple: decide to be decisive and you will be.
Last modified on 2017-10-20