How to Make Important Life Decisions

A lot of people seem to be looking for some sort of formula when it comes to making big life decisions. They take aptitude tests and relationship compatibility tests and personality tests and on and on.

They want these tests to spit out a magical number that says “You should be a plumber/computer programmer/circus clown” or “You definitely should not get married to that person” or “You should get extra guacamole on your burrito.”

But if making big life decisions like these were that easy, well don’t you think we’d all have it figured out by now?

The reason you can’t “just make a decision”—even if a test or someone else tells you what you should do—is that making a decision is more than just analyzing the facts by weighing the tangible pros and cons.

These big life decisions force us to carve out our most important values and balance our emotional needs with our material needs. So while the process of making decisions is simple—you just make a damn decision—it’s not necessarily easy.

So instead of giving you some decision-making “algorithm” that I pulled out of my ass, here are five principles you can use the next time you’re making a tough decision.

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1. UNDERSTAND VALUE AND BIASES

All tough decisions are essentially about weighing values. There’s financial value, emotional value, social value, intellectual value, and so on. You have to consider all of them, weighing them appropriately. And not just in the short-term, but in the long-term as well.

This “weighting” of values is incredibly difficult, largely because we struggle to see things clearly.

As a general rule, we are all heavily biased towards the short-term rewards and towards emotional value. We are biased towards our pre-existing beliefs and protecting our reputation. And we’re also bad at seeing long-term rewards clearly because it’s difficult to look past our immediate fears and anxieties. Our emotions color everything we see.

How to make better decisions - Barbie on payday meme

Our “default” decision-making also makes it incredibly painful emotionally to give up on something we’ve worked a long time on, or to consider that we may have been wrong for years.

The fact is, we’ve all been wrong for years. We’re all wrong about our value estimates. And until we can be honest about how wrong we were in the past, we won’t learn to make better value judgments moving into the future.

Our “default” decision-making also encourages us to avoid short-term failures, even if that means missing out on long-term successes.

No, the sweet spot in decision-making is to find the short-term failures that enable the huge long-term successes to happen in the first place. Because this is what most people are bad at. And because people are bad at it, this is where most of the opportunity lies.

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2. LOSE ON PURPOSE (SOMETIMES)

Ever hear those stories of wildly successful entrepreneurs and how they had, like, 23 failed businesses before they made it big?

The lesson we’re all supposed to take from this is that persistence and hard work is the key to extraordinary success.

And sure, whatever…

Usually, we can’t help but look at them and think about how “lucky” they got. I mean, Amazon! Who knew?!

What we don’t consider is that out of those dozens of failed, half-baked business ideas were all wagers with limited downside and extremely high upside. That is, if they lose, they lose a little. But if they win, they win a lot.

Let’s say I gave you a pair of dice and I told you that if you roll double ones, I’ll give you $10,000. But each roll costs $100. How many times would you roll?

If you’re not bad at math, you would know that you should spend all the money you have rolling those damn dice.

Most people look at each decision as a single roll of the dice. They don’t think about the fact that life is a never-ending sequence of dice rolls. And a strategy that loses a lot per roll can actually make you a big winner in the long run.

Yes, you will lose the dice game way more than you win. But when you win, your winnings will far outstrip your losses, making it a worthwhile wager.

You can apply the same “risky” behavior in your life to achieve more optimal long-term results:

  • Propose “moonshot” ideas at work knowing that 90% of them will get shot down, but also that if one of them gets accepted it will be a huge boost to your career.
  • Expose your kids to difficult subjects at an early age, knowing that most likely they won’t take to it. But if they do, it will give them a huge advantage throughout their life.
  • Be excessively bold in your dating life, stating exactly who and what you want, knowing that the vast majority of people will not be compatible.
  • Buy a bunch of difficult books expecting that most of them won’t be useful or comprehensible to you, but also that, occasionally, one will completely change your life.
  • Say yes to every invitation knowing that most of the events/people will be kind of dull and you’ll just go home early, but that occasionally you’ll meet someone really important or interesting.

When you think purely in terms of the immediate result, you cut yourself off from the biggest potential gains in life. And the reason most of us do this is because of our pesky emotions. Our emotions are short-term biased. They are obsessed with the present moment. And this prevents good decision-making.

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3. TREAT YOUR EMOTIONS LIKE YOU’D TREAT A DOG

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed over the years: shitty dogs almost always have shitty owners. The dog’s level of discipline is reflected in the owner’s emotional maturity and self-discipline. It’s very rare to see a dog that’s wrecking the house, eating all the toilet paper and pooping all over the couch and the owner has their own shit together.

This is because our connections with dogs are purely emotional. And if we suck at dealing with our own emotions, then we’ll suck at dealing with our dogs. It’s that simple. If you don’t know how to limit yourself and tell yourself “no” when necessary, then, well, don’t get a dog. And if you do, don’t fucking move into my building.

Our emotions are kind of like our dog that’s living inside our head. We have this part of ourselves that just wants to eat, sleep, fuck and play, but has no conception of future consequences or risks.

That’s the part of ourselves we need to train.

Our emotions are important. But they’re also kind of dumb. They’re not able to think through consequences or consider multiple factors when acting.

Our emotions overreact to things by design. They evolved to keep us alive when we were hunting water buffalo on the savannah and shit like that. When we’re scared we want to run away or hide. When we’re angry we want to break stuff.

Thankfully, our brains evolved logic and the ability to consider the past and the future and all that great stuff. That’s what makes us humans. And not dogs.

The problem is, our “dog brain” is actually what controls our behavior. You can intellectually know that eating ice cream for breakfast is a bad idea, but if your dog brain wants fucking ice cream for breakfast, then that’s ultimately where your body is going to go.

It’s only by training your dog brain with your people brain, “No, bad Mark, ice cream for breakfast is bad, go do something else that feels good and is healthy,” that your dog brain gradually learns.

Do that enough and you have a well-behaved dog brain.

How to make better decisions - well trained dog

Emotions are great for giving you that umph of passion and spirit, the same way a dog is great for running and fetching stuff and being a great friend and barking when someone weird is hanging out by your bedroom window.

But the dog is limited. It needs context and direction to behave well and function. And that’s your job as the dog owner. Similarly, your dog owner brain must train the dog brain to sit down and shut up when necessary. You must give yourself context and direction. Train yourself to adopt the correct habits and make better decisions. Reward and punish yourself.

Love your dog brain (i.e., love yourself), accept your dog brain (i.e., accept your emotions), but also discipline them.

And every once in a while, indulge yourself… that’s a good boy. Yeah, who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? Yes, you’re a good boy.

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