How do you make better life decisions?
February 18, 2016 2:29 PM   Subscribe

How do you deliberately learn how to make better decisions whether it be your personal life or your professional life? How do you get better at making decisions that you take rarely - i.e. whom to get married to, what business to start, where to go to school, etc.

I'm currently working on writing my business plan and have an inherent fear of making wrong decisions. And that raises a lot of questions like:
Should I quit my job?
Should I move countries?
Should I start a business doing X or doing Y?
Should I move now, or should I move in a few months?

How does one answer questions like these when you don't know whether the decision you are taking is the right one? How can you find comfort in uncertainty and in not knowing the outcome?

I'm looking for how you have deliberately worked on making better decisions. Do you have a decision journal (similar to a trading journal) where you analyze and dissect the decisions you've made? Do you force yourself to answer questions such as:
What went wrong?
What could I have done better?
Did I check for any biases that may affect my judgement?
Is this the right heuristic to apply in this situation?

Or do you have a system where you go through a checklist of other questions and heuristics and biases to make sure you aren't missing anything?

I know and understand that decision making is a process and that you should judge the result not on the outcome but on the process that you undertook (for reference, this image). The question is how can I get better at it?
posted by rippersid to Education (16 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
Suzanne Conrad has a system for this called the power of knowing what you want. Most people in life only know what they DON'T want — I don't want to be like my mother, I don't want to work at a desk all day, etc. etc. And while knowing what you don't want can be helpful, the amount of "don't wants" in your life is infinite, while the number of "wants" in your life is measurable.

So, draw a big circle on a piece of paper. Outside of the circle you can put all your "don't wants." Anything you can think of. Inside the circle, put your wants. They can be material — I want to won a house by 2018, for example. For they can be abstract — I want to feel secure. I want to love my body. Whatever. Anything you can think of.

Once you have your circle, you can begin to realize that literally EVERY decision you make, from small to large, either moves you inside your circle, or outside of it. EVERY decision.

You can do this exerice any time you need to. As your life changes what's inside your circle might change. And you can do it for a specific decision, like a big move or a job you're considering.
posted by Brittanie at 2:52 PM on February 18, 2016 [74 favorites]

Another thing that has helped me is realizing the power of choice, and that I am the maker of my own life (i.e. my life isn't just "happening" to me.) You always have at least two choices in any situation, and sometimes "do nothing" is a choice.

You say that you have an inherent fear of making the wrong decision. I find that a lot of misery comes from people thinking that the choices they have made are permanent. When you've realized that you've made the wrong choice, can you consider making a "course correction?"
posted by Brittanie at 2:56 PM on February 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Gin and Broadband pointed out this useful metric for saying no: "The proposal is that three marginal conditions should be considered as equivalent to a single exceeded limit when deciding to halt operations." It has become a helpful rule of thumb for me.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:04 PM on February 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

I love the answer from Brittanie.

Also keep in mind that there may be more than one "right" decision at any juncture, and life is often a series of course-correcting actions.

Read biographies and autobiographies. Hindsight is 20/20, and nobody has their own until, well, it's in hindsight. Reading about other people's decisions and the outcomes can help you determine what you consider to have been good/bad decisions. You may see patterns emerge as you read about other people's life experiences. (In the same vein, talk with people! Get their stories!)
posted by whoiam at 3:10 PM on February 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Define your constraints. Listing solid constraints will confidently eliminate some decisions, thereby narrowing down the possibilities of what might work.

If your constraints are well defined, you have a much shorter list of possible choices to contemplate. Once you have eliminated those that you know cannot work because of constraints, you have a lot less to worry about.
posted by Michele in California at 3:13 PM on February 18, 2016

i was thinking about this the other day, as i think i have been fairly lucky in general and couldn't work out why. and i realised that although i worry about small decisions, i've tended to not sweat the big ones. so i am generally conservative (about, say, what to buy tomorrow at the shops, or when estimating the next task at work) but when it comes to big things like what country to live in, or whether to accept a job offer, or to start working only half time) i've gone with "new shiny thing" without stressing it too much.

i don't know if that's much help, but it seems to have worked ok for me.

perhaps part of it is that the small, day-to-day conservative decisions gave me a safety net that meant i could roll with the big changes and give them time to pan out (of course, it also helped enormously to be born as a straight white male, in a wealthy country, to a fairly well-off family, with largely free, good quality education....)
posted by andrewcooke at 3:35 PM on February 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

So the one thing I have learned over the years is that you can only make decisions using the information you have at hand, and you do the best you can. I personally like to make pro/con lists, and I weight how I feel about everything on the list on both sides and then make the choice. I do research, ask friends for their opinions and figure out how I feel, and that goes on the list too. Some of my decisions turned out to be horrible, such as buying a house a few years back. BUT - you can't be too hard on yourself. I made that decision using all the information I had at hand at the time and it was the best I could do. None of us can see the future, and many times there's many "correct" choices to choose from.

I think to get better at making big decisions, I have worked at trying to reduce the judgement I heap on myself when things don't go exactly as planned. Anyway, maybe try the pro/con list thing - it's been a big help to me and at the very least, it forces you to think through everything and write it out. Good luck!
posted by FireFountain at 3:54 PM on February 18, 2016

Try this one weird trick the analysts hate! When you've exhausted your analytical capacity and still can't decide, flip a coin: heads this, tails that. When you catch yourself hoping the coin falls a certain way, do that.

Oh, and 1) always evaluate the exit strategy as part of your deliberations, and 2) treat "future you" as your client/close friend.
posted by carmicha at 6:12 PM on February 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

I also struggle with making the "right" decision. Over that last few years though, I've realized that regardless of how things turn out, I feel much better about my course of action if it aligns with my values. For example, is the choice based on being as kind as possible or is it based on providing stability, etc. As the others have said above, you can't create a perfect analytical system, but you can strive to be the person you want to be.
posted by A hidden well at 7:52 AM on February 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

When doing the pros and cons, or don'twant-dowants, guard against wishful thinking; be self-aware enough to keep your right brain from exaggerating one (or more) of the left-brain factors.
posted by mmiddle at 7:52 AM on February 19, 2016

You learn how to make better decisions by making bad decisions first.
posted by joeyjoejoejr at 10:12 AM on February 19, 2016

Another tip: Do a bunch of research, set it aside ("sleep on it") and pick a later date to make the decision. You will make better decisions if you give yourself some time to digest the information before you actually decide anything.
posted by Michele in California at 10:21 AM on February 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Make a table of pros and cons and put a numeric weight to each one. Add up the pros, add up the cons, and see which wins.
posted by serena15221 at 11:06 AM on February 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

Read read read. Ask Metafilter, Captain Awkward, Ask a Manager, Carolyn Hax, Dear Prudie. Note how others deal with their big life decisions and what advice people give them. Look for common threads, think about whether you agree or disagree. When the time comes for you to make a similar decision, put what you've learned into practice.
posted by MsMolly at 2:10 PM on February 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

There's a ton of information out there about how to make better decisions. Just Google decision making methods, algorithms, and heuristics and you'll find a lot of stuff.

To start, I suggest reading "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahnemann. It's dense, but if you're system oriented like me, you'll never be the same after reading it.

A more specific method that you could use to answer the questions you posed is the principle of even swaps. If the choice is between two fairly close alternatives, and there is a way to standardize some your data inputs, even swaps are pretty useful.

My main advice is to start thinking about decisions systematically. I used to have trouble making decisions too. But, once I figured out that there are actually systems out there to help decision making easier, I began applying those principles to my life.

I have tons more on this topic. If you want to know more, MeMail me.
posted by reenum at 4:22 PM on February 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

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