Thanks for reading this essay. As one of the many thousands of decisions you will make today, we appreciate your choice. Now on to decision no. 1,342: Should you continue reading? Our recommendation: Yes!
Estimates of how many decisions we make every day range from the thousands to the tens of thousands, and include everything from whether to hit snooze on the alarm clock in the morning to the "floss or not" deliberation at night. While some of our decision-making is conscious, a lot of it flies under our awareness radar. Studies in economics and neuroscience increasingly demonstrate how factors like biology, conditioning, and social cues unconsciously impact the choices we make. In addition, we all have a wide range of cognitive biases and thought patterns which make us "predictably irrational" in the words of one researcher.
Given the number of decisions we make and their importance in shaping our lives, you'd think we would study how to be good decision-makers in school. For better and worse, those who really do study decision-making often do so with the goal of creating "choice architecture." We encounter the fruits of their labor in every realm of our lives, because they design the options we come across as we shop, use social media, eat in the school cafeteria, save for retirement, or choose health insurance, to name only a few. You can be certain that many of the opportunities you will have today have been carefully orchestrated by people whose goals are to influence your decisions according to their interests.
To give yourself a better chance of making choices in your best interest, we recommend the following guidelines. These strategies won't counter all of the choice architects' efforts or your own cognitive biases, but they will give you an edge in making good conscious decisions.
Make important decisions earlier in the day. The quality of our decisions declines during the day as our fixed pool of willpower diminishes. If you have a lot of important decisions to make, limit the amount of energy you spend making less important decisions and make the most important ones first.
Decrease mental clutter to increase the quality of decision-making. Decision-making and multi-tasking go together like oil and water. We would bet that over half of the mistakenly sent e-mails and texts are the result of split attention. If it's important, clear your mental decks so you can focus.
Clarify your values, goals, and priorities. While in some cases, it really doesn't matter what we decide (chocolate or vanilla?), in others it does (to marry or not to marry?). Often buried beneath our confusion and indecision are important values and goals which we need to identify and prioritize before we can move forward and fulfill our true wishes and ambitions.
Set up defaults to reduce decision-making and to insure good choices. If all the food in our kitchen is healthy—even the snacks—it is harder to make poor food choices (at least at home!). Likewise, finding ways to constrain unwanted choices can also help you to avoid temptation, like turning off your phone when you really need uninterrupted time.
Age matters. While we are familiar with the issues of the teenage brain as it relates to matters like risk assessment and moral development, we are still learning about how our cognitive abilities shift as we age. Studies show that some decision-making improves with maturity, whereas other cognitive processes—involving complexity and speed, for example—often become increasingly impaired. We need to consider what decision-making safeguards we want to put in place for ourselves and others as we age.
Take time to reflect on and learn from your good and bad decisions. One reason we often make better decisions later in life is because of the wealth of experience we have to draw upon. One way to develop this sooner versus later is to review important decisions and see what your patterns are. Perhaps there are certain kinds of decisions for which you need more time, different support, or more (or less!) input. Use this knowledge to your advantage as you navigate the choices in your life.
Learning about how we decide makes for fascinating reading. Our top picks:
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
Pick a couple of decisions you routinely find challenging. Review the guidelines above, and see if there are some strategies that would help. Do you need to create a better default? Clarify your priorities? Focus more? Try applying various practices throughout the month, and see if you notice any difference in the quality or ease of your decision-making.
Wishing you many happy choices,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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