|Source: Daniel Oines|
1. Do your homework. The first and most obvious strategy is to gather as much information as you can about the options in front of you, and then to lay it all out in an organized way. Even if you want your decision to be gut-driven rather than fact-based, educating yourself is an important first step. Gut feelings tend to be more accurate and helpful when they’re made by experts, research shows, so becoming an expert on the topic at hand can make your intuition more reliable.
2. Talk to people who've made similar choices. If possible, try to talk to a range of people who've taken the various paths you’re considering—and are willing to speak honestly about them—to learn about their experiences. Research suggests that this approach can help you make more accurate predictions about your own reactions to potential future events. Of course, people have different personalities, interests, and values, so your experience is not likely to be exactly the same as others’. But we tend to overestimate these differences, and as a result we fail to trust others’ experiences as much as we should.
3. Take post-decision dissonance into account. When seeking others’ advice, keep in mind that a phenomenon called post-decision dissonance can keep people from consciously recognizing or openly admitting that they may have made a mistake. Research suggests that people tend to automatically view a chosen path more positively once they’ve embarked on it, presumably as a way to avoid the cognitive dissonance that can result when they feel that they’ve done something that isn’t in line with their true attitudes. Post-decision dissonance can also affect you as the decision-maker if already you’ve taken any steps in the direction of one decision or another, like investing time or money, or announcing your tentative decision to others. These actions may bias your attitudes in the direction that you’re already moving.
4. Ask yourself what you would choose if no one else cared. It’s understandable to let the needs and desires of loved ones factor heavily into your decisions. For many decisions, these are central concerns that should carry weight. But often we’re unduly influenced by external factors that are less likely to matter in the long run, like what will give us the most status and prestige, or what “people” will think. If you suspect that these types of factors are influencing you, try imagining a scenario where no one else knows or cares what decision you make. This approach can help you identify intrinsic goals—that is, goals that are aligned with what you really want, not just what you think you should be doing.
5. Don’t let fear drive you, but don’t ignore it either. If we made all of our decisions based on fear, we would probably never leave the house. To create the lives we want, we inevitably have to take risks, sometimes big ones. But to say that you should never make decisions based on fear is overly simplistic. Fear is there to protect us from danger and harm, and often it does this job well. When it comes to major life decisions, though, what we fear needs to be balanced with what we want. We have to decide whether the costs are justified by the benefits. Focusing only on avoiding what we fear, as opposed to pursuing what we want, is associated with a host of negative outcomes, including loneliness and insecurity, according to research on approach and avoidance motivation. To gain more clarity on a decision, try framing it in terms of what you want and see if that changes your feelings about it. For example, you could think of a decision about whether to stay in a romantic relationship in terms of what you want in a relationship, and in life, not just what you fear and want to avoid (e.g., being alone).
6. Look for alternatives. Our natural tendency is often to focus exclusively on the options we’ve already considered and neglect potential alternatives. To counteract this bias, ask yourself whether you have truly considered all of the options available to you. Are there variations on any of your current options that could address some of your concerns? Are there totally different paths worth investigating? If you’re trying to decide between two risky medical treatments, maybe it’s worth getting a second or third option on safer alternatives. Or if you’re trying to decide between two potential romantic partners, maybe it’s worth considering choosing no one—if you’re majorly conflicted, it might be a sign that neither option is right and there’s someone better out there for you.
7. Stop thinking about it for awhile. Not only can ruminating over a decision drive you a little crazy, but getting too bogged down in the details can also interfere with your ability to gain clarity on what you really want. Research suggests that distracting yourself from a decision for a little while and then coming back to it with a fresh eye can help you make the right move (provided you are already well-informed—simply avoiding a decision altogether because it’s too stressful is unlikely to help).
8. Give each option a test run. Imagine that you've already made the decision—in one direction or the other—and then sit with that for a few days. This strategy allows you to observe how you feel about the decision when you’re in a range of different situations. Research suggests that people tend to make decisions differently depending on a number of transient situational factors, including whether they happen to be in a happy or sad mood. You want to make sure that the decision you make isn’t just the product of a fleeting state of excitement, for example.
9. Consider how your future self may feel about your decision. In a 2014 TED talk, psychologist Daniel Gilbert argued that “all of us are walking around with the illusion that...we have just recently become the people that we were always meant to be and will be for the rest of our lives.” In his research, he has found that at every age from 18 to 68, people tend to underestimate how much their values, personalities, preferences, and hobbies will change over the next 10 years. This “end of history illusion,” as Gilbert calls it, can bias our decision-making towards what’s best for our current selves rather than our future selves. Although it’s difficult to predict exactly what our future selves will want, it can help to at least consider the possibility that they may want something different than what we want right now.
10. Accept that there may be no perfect decision. Making a tough decision can be especially stressful when you imagine that there is only one “right” choice and you just need to figure out what it is. But the truth is often that each option has good and bad sides, and that whichever way you go, it’s possible that you will feel some degree of sadness, loss, and regret—and that doesn’t mean you made the wrong call.
This post previously appeared on the Psychology Today blog, In Love and War.