Have you regretted any of the decisions that you’ve made? I’ll take a wild guess here and say “yes.” We all have walked in Remorse-land many times and have made mistakes we would gladly erase if given the chance. So then, if someone comes to you and offers you a time machine to go back and alter some of your not-so-bright choices, you would take it, right?
Of course, this all makes for an enticing plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but in reality, such kind of magic doesn’t exist. How about then if you are given the next best alternative, the tools to make better decisions from the outset, rather than living with regrets and wishing to have the power to bend time?
Here are five strategies which will help you become better at picking the winning option:
1. See the future you
In his widely-popular research, Hal Hershfield, a UCLA associate professor who has studied for years how people can make better long-term decisions, asked participants to envision themselves in 10 years. fMRIs detecting brain activity showed that we think about our older selves the same way we do about complete strangers.
But when part-takers were shown computer-altered pictures of themselves looking near retirements age, things changed— they allocated twice as much money to their retirement fund vs. buying something new today.
The rather salient takeaway here is that, to make better decisions, we must imagine how they will impact our future selves. If you believe a choice will help you get you closer to the future happy and successful you, then, by all means, take it. But if you are unsure, better have another think.
2. Expand your pool of options
An excellent piece in the NYTimes describes a study by Paul Nutt—a Professor of Management at Ohio State University, who, in the early 1980s carried out a study among senior managers at public and private companies in the U.S. and Canada on how they made decisions. He found out that half of the decisions in companies failed because people tended to take shortcuts and didn’t spend sufficient time looking for alternatives and evaluating them (only 29% did so).
And this can cost us. According to other research, when we ignore assessing other options, our chances for success are about 50 %, while decisions involving at least 2 choices lead to a favorable outcome in 2 out of 3 cases.
To come up with some quality ideas, in addition to expanding the size of our canvas, we should involve other people in our brainstorming endeavor, draft a list of the choices and assign weights to each. The highest score wins.
These approaches will enhance our decision-making skills, which, in turn, will give us a shot at something much bigger; a chance to reach our goals, be happier and have a more fulfilling future.
“Panic causes tunnel vision. Calm acceptance of danger allows us to more easily assess the situation and see the options.” – Simon Sinek
3. Limit your pool of information
Yes, this idea goes directly against the above point and sounds counterintuitive, but if you get to think about it—it does make sense. Studies from Princeton and Stanford Universities, have revealed that when we immerse ourselves in a sea of information, we may end up pursuing non-instrumental data, which we then use to make decisions.
Naturally, the quality of that outcome will be questionable. Sometimes, we may end up with a choice that we wouldn’t have made altogether (and possibly regret it later on) if we didn’t rely on this irrelevant information.
How do we end up in such a position? It’s driven by our aversion to uncertainty. Simply put, our brains hate volatility and try to resolve it any way they can. One way is by seeking any information that seems like a good candidate and hastily pick it.
Phew, problem solved! Move on. But, as research tells us, seeking out more details do help make a decision, but it may not necessarily be a good one.
4. Take a page from Darwin and Franklin
When Malcolm Gladwell published his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking in 2005, the world was fascinated by the idea that we can make complex decisions with very little effort—just by trusting our gut instinct and by ‘snapping it.’ That is, the book offers some research to support the idea that quick solutions based on intuition can yield surprisingly successful outcomes.
Sounds great but many subsequent studies don’t quite support this. What’s more, sticking to the “old school” ways of making decisions such as conscious thinking and evaluation of alternatives, can lead to more high-quality results.
Just take a note from Darwin who used the pros-and-cons list to make the most important decision of his life—whether to marry. Ben Franklin, similarly, always used this same “simple” method when confronted with challenging choices. Sometimes, the conventional non-fancy ways to make decisions happen to be the best options.
“Warren Buffett told me once and he said always follow your gut. When you have that gut feeling you have to go with, don’t go back on it.” – LeBron James
5. Kill the Company
“Kill the Company” is a best-selling book by Lisa Bodell—the CEO of a consulting company which helps businesses embrace change and innovation. The basic premise of the exercise is that executives are asked to brainstorm all of the ways in which their company can go down. Then, packed with this insight, they work backwards to try and remedy the loopholes in their processes, strategies and choices.
The idea has proven very effective and easy to practice. Just imagine that a decision you pick today turns out to be a complete failure in the future. What will you do to ensure a better outcome?
In the end, our decisions are the foundations of the future lives we build for ourselves, as they have the power to directly affect our success trajectories. While taking the wrong turn may not always have catastrophic consequences, we are also rarely given a do-over in life.
And why is it so vital that we keep honing our choice-making skills, you may ask? It’s very simple—YOLO.