Risky career moves, what-was-I-thinking relationships, and just about every '80s fashion trend—most of us have made bad decisions in our lives. And while we’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, living with the outcome of a bad decision doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re immune to repeating it. (See: recent '80s fashion revival.)
Despite the fact that research from the University of British Columbia released in November 2013 found the smallest part of our brain is integral in the decision-making process—and the fact that we do seem to repeat some mistakes—it is possible to become a better decision-maker. With a little practice, some awareness, and a bit of TLC, you can learn to make better choices.
Our decision-making is often influenced by information we get from external sources, including so-called experts. To make better decisions, we need to become confident enough to challenge, question, and interrogate to ensure that the information is actually valid, says Noreena Hertz, author of Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World. Embrace your inner skeptic and never just assume that what you’re being told is always true.
Spencer Greenberg, founder of New York City-based ClearerThinking.org, which develops decision-making training tools, says there are some common areas where many of us consistently make bad decisions. Basing your decisions on an assumption of best-case scenarios or guessing and what might not be going right are two. If there are chronic issues that plague your decision-making, such as not having enough time or information, pay particular attention to those areas. Getting caught up in the "what worked before" mindset or being too impressed with your own success are common pitfalls, too, Hertz adds.
"When J.K. Rowling sent the first Harry Potter book to U.S. and U.K. publishers, they all turned it down because they knew what wouldn’t work: What didn’t work was a book of that size. What didn’t work was a book for boys. What didn’t work was fantasy," Hertz says. "What it took was a new director who was new to publishing to buy the book."
Greenberg says people often don’t learn from previous mistakes because it’s emotionally difficult to face up to them in the first place. But if you have areas in your life where you find a spate of mistakes or problems, you may need to shine some light on the issues and revamp how you’re approaching your decision-making there.
While researching her book Hertz says she found that our emotions and environment had an impact on decision-making. For example, when investors were given the same information on a red background versus a green background, they were more favorable to the red.
When judges were hungry, they tended to dole out harsher punishments. But hold off on the cheeseburger before your next big team meeting: The research also showed that just being aware of the environment and your feelings is enough to offset them and get you into a more objective state of mind.
Getting enough sleep is a big factor in decision-making. When you’re tired or don’t feel well, you’re not likely to make the best decisions, Hertz says.
Hertz says the distraction deluge to which we’re subjected every day can undermine good decision-making. You can’t process information and think clearly while you’re answering texts, emails, and tweets. She recommends carving out at least 30 minutes a day to just think, especially if you’re in a creative or leadership role. This is often where good decision-making happens.
Just because you didn’t get the outcome you wanted doesn’t necessarily mean the decision was bad. There are "many times when the best choice has some possibility of failure," Greenberg says. The key is to learn from it and apply that lesson the decision you make next time, he says.