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A Definitive Guide To Making Better (And Better Informed) Decisions

Eggs or fruit for breakfast? Sell or stay independent? Pants or no pants? Decisions, decisions: They're everywhere. Worry not, this guide's here to help.

All day, every day, we are faced with an onslaught of decisions both small and large. It's hard work. Naturally, we often seek help to quell the stress of making tough choices.

But it's not always that easy—increasingly it seems as if there is also an onslaught of articles and guides claiming to help us make choices. This forces yet another decision. It's hard to make a decision about where to turn for help making decisions, especially when you can't make one in the first place.

To fight this tendency, we've compiled a guide of Fast Company's accumulated wisdom on the art of making choices. Below are a few of the most popular opinions and those we hope will help you most:

1. Savor the present (and think for the long term).

When applied correctly, Buddhist concepts like mindfulness, happiness, and concentration can be an integral part of the decision-making process. Balancing your body and mind, by using for seven Buddhist precepts for awakening, can dramatically enhance your productivity and give a new boost to your daily routine. Like the key to a constructive conversation, being present allows us to enter a state of mental calmness, or "equanimity."

Equanimity—this is the capacity to adapt; to let things move and shift. This allows us to shift from being rigid to being open to new possibilities. When we are calm and concentrated, equanimity can naturally appear.

However, while it is important to savor living "one moment to the next," it's also imperative to realize the affect that these moments have on the long term, especially for tough decisions.

To do this easily and effectively, business writer Suzy Welch has developed three questions as part of her "10-10-10" rule:

  • How will I feel about it 10 minutes from now?
  • How about 10 months from now?
  • How about 10 years from now?

2. When your gut talks—listen.

Business expert John Coleman recommends trusting your instinct for those seemingly logic-defying decisions. Often we overthink the hard—and very simple—decisions that fall on our plate. To counteract this, Coleman suggests going against your rational analysis—something that can lead to unexpected (and hopefully positive) results.

As someone educated in the highly analytical arenas of engineering and business, I have been prone to overthink just about everything. But when I look back at the most important and best decisions I have ever made, they were made despite the rational analysis that was telling me to do the opposite of what I did.

While Coleman's advice may seem a bit radical, it's worthwhile to understand and take seriously the role of emotions in the decision-making process: They often sway the decision maker's objectivity and can lead to less-than-desirable results. To make the "right" decision—or the more objective one—it's important to understand where you emotions stem from and what affect they have.

Emotions are woven into all decision-making processes in many ways in which we are not conscious. Leaders who see themselves as making decisions in a purely rational manner could be setting themselves—and their organizations—up for potential disaster because they may end up believing that they are right when they are wrong. However, you can gain control over some of these emotions by becoming more aware of their source and more analytical and fact-based in your approach. And you’ll feel a lot surer in your gut.

3. Commit fully to your decisions, but don't be afraid of experimentation.

For every opportunity that comes your way, ask yourself, "Do I want to ______?" Entrepreneur Derek Sivers says that you will intuitively respond in one of three ways:

  1. "HELL YES!!!!! Abso-freaking-lutely! YESSSSSS."—When this happens, you should do it. Right now.
  2. "Yeah . . . This makes sense. I can see this working. Yes."—When this happens, you should table it for now and revisit it later. Or never.
  3. "Maybe. That could be cool. That might work."—When this happens, you should walk the away. Mediocre is not good enough.

Sivers's approach brings a key of decision making to the surface: To truly make a decision, you need to be 100% committed. If you're not enthusiastic about the project, or whatever you're making a decision about, you'll more than likely not give your all.

And while it's important to only commit to decisions that you're fully behind, that doesn't mean you have to be familiar with them. Treating life like an experiment can strengthen your decision-making muscle.

Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta explains that perfectionism often freezes our decision-making process. He suggests that we see the impermanence of our choices by treating them as experiments.

"If you don’t get good results, you can try another option and run another test. Then you can see what the outcomes of the choices are (the info you didn’t have when first thinking about the decision), and you can make a better-informed decision now."

4. Use the tools available to you.

Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman says that the best tool on the market is a simple marble notebook.[/b]

Use the notebook to map out your thought process. This practice, Kahneman says, will help you eliminate limiting biases by offering you "honest and accurate feedback" that will lead to better choices.

You can also try a website like SentioSearch, which uses psychology and the social capabilities of the Web to help you avoid regret by providing crowdsourced advice from people like you.

Meanwhile, it's always a good idea to look to women for advice. Apparently, women have better decision-making abilities than men, because they tend to break away from traditional practices and take a more cooperative, inquisitive approach to the process.

5. Pace your information uptake.

As anyone who has spent 20 minutes in the cereal aisle can attest, too many options and too much information can disable your choice-making abilities. This can lead to productivity-killing decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue seems to be the mental equivalent of hanger, that dreaded combination of hunger and anger. As decision after decision depletes your willpower, John Tierney, the New York Times writer says, you'll eventually do one of two dumb things:

  • Act impulsively: Since you have no energy to think about consequences
  • Do nothing: Since you have no energy to agonize

In this way, if we don't learn to manage our energy, we won't be able to manage our decisions.

Do you have a decision-making technique that we should know about? Make the decision to tell us about it in the comments below!

[Image: Flickr user Snowpea & Bokchoi]

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  • Theresa O'Connor

    When your gut talks, it had better be an informed gut!  You indeed will be using your knowledge, history, insight, experience and emotions to arrive at a decision - and perhaps getting there without words.  Because it is inarticulate we characterize it as a gut feeling.  When your gut is not informed about an issue, do not trust it. But when you are processing from good expertise, you may quickly arrive at a decision. That I would trust.

  • SStegall

    When I have difficulty making decisions, and all else fails,  I go to bed and think it thru for a few undecided minutes.  Turning it over to my subconscious usually results in waking up with a firm decision one way or the other.

  • aschambers

    These are some great tips for making better decisions.  When it comes to decision making at the leadership level or in a cross-functional team within organizations, our organization sees a lot of dysfunction.  Emotion and opinion are at play, which can cloud facts and impede forward motion to the end result. It seems more common than not that the “Art of Thinking and Deciding” together is a very rare competency for teams at all levels.  We've found there are four steps that organizations (leaders at the executive level or even down at the team level) can take to improve decision making in a radical way:

    1) Get Clear on the Issues - What is being solved? What decision actually needs to be
    made? Once that has been determined, the next questions is:  Is this the right group to be making this decision and why and does that group have all of the facts necessary to make the decision.

    2) Outstanding Decisions start with Listening - Some of the best thinking about a decision comes from listening rather than talking. Let the decision content owner lay out the situation to everyone involved, convey the facts, and review the options available to the team. Then allow everyone to ask one round of clarifying questions. Allow people only to ask clarifying questions and not simply make declaratory statements with a “don’t you agree?” at the end. The team generally makes better decisions using this approach because it's based on facts and not opinions.

    3) Honor Outliers, then Move Ahead Together - the key is to honor the opposing opinions while sticking to the process. The key is to address conflict with integrity in a safe environment that separates issues from individuals. In the end, some may still disagree. But if they’ve had their say, had their concerns heard and vetted by the group, and had their point of view considered, but the group still landed on the same decision, it’s time to move forward.

    4) Create Accountability - It’s incumbent on the team involved to own the decision they’ve made, and to support one another as the work is being done. You may meet resistance, and there may be a desire to loop back, rethink, and make changes. The key is for everyone to commit to each other that they’re
    going to do their part to make the decision a reality. Declare the decision in very public terms. Communicate it to the organization, hang it on the wall, whatever you think works best, but own it openly.

    Here's some additional information on this approach: