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How to Make the Right Choice

How to Make the Right Choice

Which job should you take? What car should you buy? Should you ask him to marry you? Are you ready for another baby? Is this house right for you, or should you keep looking before you make an offer?

Life is full of hard choices, and the bigger they are and the more options we have, the harder they get.

As it happens, our brains are fairly binary. They can react very quickly when presented with two options, especially when one’s clearly better. Stand here and drown in the rising waters or jump onto that big rock and be safe? Easy choice.

When presented with more options, though, we choke up. Jump onto the rock or climb the tree? We don’t know which is clearly better, and research shows that most people will not choose at all when presented with several equally good options.

Practice, experience, and rules of thumbs can help us to make those split-second decisions (for example, “When in doubt, go left” has done pretty well for me so far). Fortunately we don’t normally face immediate, do-or-die decisions – we usually have the luxury of working through a decision.

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Getting Past Pros and Cons

The old chestnut of decision-making is the list of pros and cons. You make two columns on a piece of paper and write down all the positive things that will come of making a choice in one column and all the negative things in the other. In the end, the side with the most entries wins.

But this strategy doesn’t take into account the different weight that each positive or negative might have. If one of your pros is “will make a million dollars” and one of your cons is “might get a hangnail”, they don’t exactly cancel each other out.

Some people counter this problem by assigning point values to each item in their list. A huge income might be worth +20 points, while a tiny risk might be only –1. This helps make a more realistic assessment of your options.

But pros and cons aren’t always apparent or obvious, and the whole list-making process doesn’t sit well with many people – especially impulsive, “seat-of-the-pants” who might feel unnaturally hampered by the formality of the pro and con list.

Here are some other strategies for making big decisions. Not all of them will work for every person or for every decision, but they all have something to offer to help you clarify your thinking and avoid “decision paralysis” while the water rises around you.

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Analyze outcomes

Working through a big decision can give us a kind of tunnel vision, where we get so focused on the immediate consequences of the decision at hand that we don’t think about the eventual outcomes we expect or desire.

When making a choice, then, it pays to take some time to consider the outcome you expect. Consider each option and ask the following questions:

  • What is the probable outcome of this choice?
  • What outcomes are highly unlikely?
  • What are the likely outcomes of not choosing this one?
  • What would be the outcome of doing the exact opposite?

Thinking in terms of long-term outcomes – and broadening your thinking to include negative outcomes – can help you find clarity and direction while facing your big decision.

Ask why – five times

The Five Whys are a problem-solving technique invented by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. When something goes wrong, you ask “why?” five times. By asking why something failed, over and over, you eventually get to the root cause.

Why did my car break down? A spark plug failed. Why? It was fouled. Why? I didn’t get a tune-up. Why? I was too busy playing GTA4. Why? Because I’m miserable and lonely and the people in the game are the only ones that really love me.

See? Your car broke down because you’re a sociopath.

Although developed as a problem-solving technique, the Five Whys can also help you determine whether a choice you’re considering is in line with your core values. For instance:

Why should I take this job? It pays well and offers me a chance to grow. Why is that important? Because I want to build a career and not just have a string of meaningless jobs. Why? Because I want my life to have meaning. Why? So I can be happy. Why? Because that’s what’s important in life.

Notice that you sometimes have to change how you’ ask “why” to keep the questions focused inward rather than outward to irrelevant external factors. It wouldn’t do any good to ask “Why does this job pay well and offer me a chance to grow” since the important thing is that it does, not why it does.

Follow your instincts

Research shows that people who make decisions quickly, even when lacking information, tend to be more satisfied with their decisions than people who research and carefully weight their options. Some of this difference is simply in the lower level of stress the decision created, but much of it comes from the very way our brains work.

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The conscious mind can only hold between 5 and 9 distinct thoughts at any given mind. That means that any complex problem with more than (on average) 7 factors is going to overflow the conscious mind’s ability to function effectively – leading to poor choices.

Our unconscious, however, is much better at juggling and working through complex problems. People who “go with their gut” are actually trusting the work their unconscious mind has already done, rather than second-guessing it and relying on their conscious mind’s much more limited ability to deal with complex situations.

The Choice is Yours

Whatever process you use to arrive at your decision, your satisfaction with your decision will depend largely on whether you claim ownership of your choices. If you feel pressured into a choice or not in control of the conditions, you’ll find even positive outcomes colored negatively. On the other hand, taking full responsibility for your choices can make even failure feel like a success – you’ll know you did your best and you’ll have gained valuable experience for nest time.

What strategies do you use? I know I’ve left out a lot of sound techniques — share your own decision-making strategies in the comments.

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Last Updated on August 16, 2018

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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The power of habit

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to make a reminder works for you

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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