How to Make Better Decisions in Life
When it comes to making decisions, we often face one of two problems: we’re either 1) overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer number of options available, or 2) we are stuck with only a couple shitty choices.
In either case, we want to make the best possible choice, but we’re often afraid of making the wrong decision.
There is no such thing as a “perfect” decision. Every choice we make comes with its own set of pros and cons, and every outcome is shaped by a complex web of variables—variables we’re woefully unaware of most of the time anyway.
What’s more, every decision has an opportunity cost. Saying “yes” to one path of action means you’re saying “no” to another. It’s impossible to ever be certain that we’ve made the “right” decision.
So instead of obsessing over finding the “perfect” option, we need to learn to embrace the inherent uncertainty and messiness of decision-making.
Paraphrasing what a wise man—ahem—once said, we need to learn to give a fuck about the right things in life.
Here’s how you can do that and make better decisions along the way, starting today.
Table of Contents
7 Steps to Making Better Decisions
Step 1: Know Your Values
I get a lot of people who ask me what they should do in a given situation—that is, they want me to make a decision for them.
Should they stay in a relationship or leave and find a new one? Should they go back to school to get a better job or start their own business? Should they stop communicating with a toxic friend or family member or try to repair things?
The problem is there is no obvious yes/no answer to these situations. Ultimately, they all boil down to the person’s individual values—or what they prioritize. Is family hugely important to them? Or does their career matter more? Do they enjoy their job? Or are they passionate about another field?
So the first thing you need to do before seeking any outside advice or anything like that is figure out your priorities. What is at the top of your own little personal hierarchy.
Take a moment to reflect on what really matters to you in life. Is it your family, your career, your health, or something else entirely? Understanding your values will help you prioritize what is truly important to you, and make decisions that align with those values.
One way to think about this is to run a bunch of thought experiments asking yourself: “If I had to give up X or Y for the next 10 years, what would I give up?” That will tell you a lot.
Many of us waste our mental energy and emotional bandwidth on things that don’t actually matter in the grand scheme of things. We worry about what other people think of us, we compare ourselves to others, and we try to control things that are ultimately out of our hands.
One way we start to make better decisions for ourselves is to clearly define a values hierarchy. This means identifying the things that are truly important to us in life, and making decisions that align with those values.
For example, let’s say that one of your core values is “adventure.” You might be faced with a decision between taking a safe, stable job or taking a riskier job that offers more opportunities for travel and excitement.
If you prioritize adventure in your values hierarchy, the second option may be the better choice for you, even if it comes with more uncertainty and risk.
By grounding our decision-making in our values, we can avoid getting bogged down by trivial details or external pressures. We can focus on what truly matters to us, and make choices that are true to ourselves.
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Step 2: Know Your Biases
Biases are mental shortcuts that our brains use to make sense of the world around us.1 They shape the way we perceive the world, make decisions,2 and interact with others.
Our biases are based on our past experiences and cultural and social norms. While biases can be useful in some situations—for example, helping us quickly identify danger—they can also lead us to make poor decisions.
There are a lot—and I mean a lot—of biases that we humans fall victim to, but here are a few of the big ones that can really wreck your decision-making:
This is the tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs, while ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts them.3 For example, if you believe that all politicians are corrupt, you may only seek out news stories that support that belief, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. This can lead you to make decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information.
Sunk cost fallacy
This is the tendency to continue investing time, money, or other resources into something, even if it’s not working out, simply because we’ve already invested so much. For example, if you’ve spent a lot of money on a car that keeps breaking down, you may keep sinking money into repairs rather than cutting your losses and buying a new car. This can lead to wasted resources and missed opportunities.
A much sadder and all-too-common example of the sunk cost fallacy is in relationships. A lot of people stay in bad relationships because they’ve been in them for so long and they feel like leaving would mean they’ve “wasted” all those years.
Bias of overconfidence
This is the tendency to overestimate our own abilities and underestimate the complexity of a situation. For example, if you’re confident that you can fix a leaky pipe in your house, you may not realize that the problem is more complicated than you initially thought. This can lead to mistakes, wasted time and money, and potentially dangerous situations.
The key to avoiding the negative effects of biases on decision-making is self-awareness. By acknowledging that we all have biases, and being mindful of how they might be influencing our perceptions and decisions, we can make more informed and thoughtful choices.
Seek out diverse perspectives, challenge your own beliefs, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. By doing so, you’ll be better equipped to make decisions that align with your values and help you achieve your goals.
Step 3: Gather the *Optimal* Amount of Information
Next, it’s time to gather information about the decision at hand. Do your research and seek out different perspectives on the matter. The more information you have, the better equipped you’ll be to make an informed decision.
Well, not so fast.
When it comes to decision-making, many of us fall into two camps, what psychologists call the maximizers and the satisficers.4
- Maximizers are the ones who want to make the absolute best decision possible, no matter what. They’ll spend hours (or even days) researching every possible option, weighing the pros and cons, and trying to predict the future consequences of each choice.
- Satisficers, on the other hand, are more concerned with making a decision that is “good enough.” They’ll do some research and weigh a few options, but they’re not going to obsess over every little detail.
The difference between maximizers and satisficers is like the difference between trying to find the perfect parking spot at the mall on Black Friday and parking three miles away and walking.
So which approach is better? Well, again, it depends on your goals and values.
If your goal is to make the absolute best decision possible, then the maximizing approach may be the way to go. This approach can be useful in certain contexts, like investing or business, where small differences in outcomes can have a big impact.
However, if your goal is simply to make a good decision and move on with your life, then the satisficing approach may be more efficient and less stressful. Satisficers are more likely to avoid decision fatigue and analysis paralysis,5 and they tend to be more satisfied with their choices overall.6
Of course, there are trade-offs to both approaches. Maximizers may have a higher chance of finding the “perfect” option, but they also risk spending too much time and energy on decision-making, which can lead to burnout and indecision. Satisficers, on the other hand, may miss out on some potentially great opportunities by settling for something that is merely “good enough.”
Ultimately, the decision between maximizing and satisficing depends on your own personal goals, values, and priorities. If you’re someone who values efficiency and simplicity, then satisficing may be the way to go. But if you’re someone who prioritizes excellence and optimization, then maximizing may be more aligned with your values.
The key to making good decisions is not necessarily finding the best option, but rather finding the option that aligns with your own goals and values. And sometimes, that means parking three miles away and walking.
Step 4: 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 while 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.7
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 eat 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.
Step 5: Write It Down
The best way to help you sort out all of your emotional drivel from actual decision-making is to write things down.
Writing things down is a simple but powerful way to clarify everything that’s swirling around in your head. I get emails from readers all the time with long screeds about the issues in their lives only to have them say at the end that they don’t need a reply because writing it all out was so cathartic and revealing.
The act of writing forces you to organize and make concrete all the emotional turbulence swirling around in your brain. Vague feelings become structured and measured. Your self-contradictions are laid bare. Rereading what you write reveals your own logic (or lack thereof). And it often reveals new perspectives you hadn’t considered.
When it comes to mulling over a decision, there are a few specific things you can write about to help you if you’re having difficulties:
What are the costs and benefits?
First, take some time and do a good old-fashioned cost-benefit analysis of your decision. But don’t just do the old-fashioned “pros” and “cons” list. Add a couple more columns. Separate your “pros” into both long-term and short-term. Add a column for regrets associated with each decision. And note if there is any long-shot potential for success.
What is your motivation behind the decision and is that a value you want to cultivate in yourself?
All the decisions we make, big or small, are motivated in some way or another by our intentions.
Sometimes this is very straightforward. Last night, I was motivated by hunger to eat something and there was a burrito in front of me, so I shoveled it into my face hole. Sometimes it’s not so straightforward though.
Problems arise when our intentions a) aren’t very clear to us and/or b) conflict with our core values.
For example, are you buying that car because you would genuinely benefit from owning it, or because you’re trying to impress the people around you?
Or are you filing for full custody of your kids because you think it’s truly in their best interest, or are you trying to get revenge on your ex after finding out they are dating someone new?
Are you trying to start a business because you enjoy the challenges and ups and downs of making your own way, or are you jealous of your friends that have successful businesses and feel like you don’t quite measure up to them?
If you identify some ulterior motives when weighing a decision, stop and ask yourself if your intentions align with who you want to be. And if you’re asking yourself, “Well shit, I’ve never thought about who I want to be. What should I do?”
Then I think you should take out a fresh piece of paper and start writing that down.
Step 6: Trust Your Gut
If you’ve gone through all the above steps and you’re still having trouble making a decision, it might be time to listen to that gnawing feeling in your stomach you’ve been ignoring this whole time. Maybe it’s time to trust your gut.
Because on one hand, listening to our intuition can help us make quick and effective decisions. On the other hand, it can lead us down the wrong path if we’re not careful.
So, how do we know when to trust our gut, and when to question it?
First, it’s important to understand what we mean by “trusting your gut.” When we talk about trusting our intuition or instincts, we’re referring to that gut feeling we get—that sense that something is right or wrong, even if we can’t quite put our finger on why.
So, should we always trust our gut? The short answer is no. While our intuition can be a powerful tool, it’s not always reliable. Our intuition can be influenced by all the things I’ve already covered, like biases and emotions and all other factors that may not accurately reflect the situation at hand.8
That being said, there are times when trusting your gut can be the right move. For example, if you’re facing a situation where there isn’t a clear “right” answer—like choosing between two good job offers—your intuition can help guide you towards the option that feels most aligned with your values and goals.
So, how do we know when to trust our gut? The key is to use our intuition as one piece of information in the decision-making process, rather than relying solely on it.
If you’ve done everything else up to this point—you’ve made your values clear, you’ve acknowledged your biases, you’ve taken the time to gather as much information as possible, you’ve written it all down and considered the long-term consequences of your decisions—then ask yourself how your gut feeling fits into the bigger picture.
If your gut feeling aligns with the other information you’ve gathered, it may be worth listening to. But if your intuition is in direct conflict with other factors, it’s worth taking a step back and questioning why you’re feeling the way you are.
In the end, trusting your gut is a balancing act between intuition and logic.
Step 7: Take Action
Once you’ve made your decision, it’s time to get off your ass and do something. Trust in your choice, then make it a reality.
Remember that no decision is perfect, and that setbacks and challenges may arise along the way. But by taking action, you’re taking a step towards achieving your goals and living a fulfilling life.
And here’s the beauty in taking action: every one of the actions you take results in a new set of decisions for you to make.
Life has a momentum to it. Chance interacts with chance. Luck interacts with luck. As you throw yourself at the cosmic dice roll and take action on your decisions, you’ll start to bump into chance. You start to create your own luck.
And with that luck, you open up a whole new world of decisions you didn’t even know existed up to that point.
Rinse and repeat.
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- Cognition – How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You: Crash Course Psychology #15. (2014, May 19).↵
- Acciarini, C., Brunetta, F., & Boccardelli, P. (2020). Cognitive biases and decision-making strategies in times of change: A systematic literature review. Management Decision, 59(3), 638–652.↵
- Confirmation bias – APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3, 2020.↵
- Schwartz, B., Ward, A., Monterosso, J., Lyubomirsky, S., White, K., & Lehman, D. R. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(5), 1178–1197.↵
- Parker, A. M., de Bruin, W. B., & Fischhoff, B. (2007). Maximizers versus satisﬁcers: Decision-making styles, competence, and outcomes. Judgment and Decision Making, 2(6), 342–350.↵
- Dar-Nimrod, I., Rawn, C. D., Lehman, D. R., & Schwartz, B. (2009). The Maximization Paradox: The costs of seeking alternatives. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(5–6), 631–635.↵
- Lebel, R. D. (2016). Moving Beyond Fight and Flight: A Contingent Model of How the Emotional Regulation of Anger and Fear Sparks Proactivity. Academy of Management Review, 42(2), 190–206.↵
- Ariely, D. (2008). Are we in control of our own decisions? Retrieved September 9, 2020.↵