3 steps for how to make better decisions

We make hundreds of decisions every day. This morning I chose what to wear, what kind of tea to have, and what time to get out of bed. Recently I chose a new house to move to.

Whether it’s a small decision—like what to have for lunch—or something as major as a career change, knowing how to make better decisions can help us avoid the anxiety of regretting our choices later and can even help us build more good habits.

Try keeping these three steps in mind next time you have a big decision to make.

How to make better decisions in 3 steps

1. Lay out all your options

When you’re choosing between lots of options, do you like to lay them all out in front of you at once? If you do, that’s a good habit to have.

It turns out looking over all your options at once can help you make a better choice.

A study used a series of experiments to test this. In each experiment, participants were given a set of choices and asked to select the best one. Each set included an objectively “best” choice, though it was not always immediately obvious. Some experiments included some mental math to compare pricing options, for instance.

Some participants viewed all the options simultaneously before making their choice, whereas others were shown one choice at a time.

Those participants who looked at all their choices at once were 22% more likely to select the correct choice than those who viewed each option separately.

So next time you’re evaluating a set of options, try writing them down or printing out photos and spreading them out in front of you. Evaluating the entire set at once may just lead you to a better decision.

2. But don’t agonize too long over your choice

While it’s useful to see all your options at once, you may be at risk of agonizing too long over which is the best choice. That is, if you’re a maximizer.

Research shows there are two types of decision-makers: maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers tend to agonize over making the right decision and worry about the options they’re dismissing. Satisficers, on the other hand, tend to take the first option that seems good enough.

According to Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, maximizers are more likely to regret their decisions than satisficers. Satisficers care just as much about the choices they make, but they’re more willing to move on quickly after making a decision and not to worry so much about the choices they didn’t take.

Maximizers, however, tend to get hung up on wondering “what if” about each choice they discarded.

Maximizers come in two varieties, though, and one of these types tends to feel more decision-related anxiety than the other. Promotion-focused maximizers weigh the pros and cons of each choice, looking out for more positive options.

But assessment-focused maximizers assume there’s always one objectively best choice and pore over the information they have to find it. This group tends to show more anxiety when making decisions, and worries more about making their choice that it wasn’t the best one.

Jeffrey Hughes, social psychology researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada says this group tends to revisit the same options too much:

It’s okay to look through your options thoroughly, but what especially seems to produce frustration and regret when making decisions is reevaluating the same options over and over. Doing so invites you to keep thinking about all the options you had to leave behind, rather than enjoying the option that you chose in the end.

So while it’s handy to have all the options available in front of you, beware of poring over them exhaustively. You may just burn yourself out and end up with regret no matter which choice you make.

3. Make your decisions in the morning (even if you’re a night owl)

When it comes to timing for a decision, a small study suggests you’re better of making a choice in the morning, no matter whether you’re a morning person or not.

The study quizzed around 100 online chess players about whether they were morning larks or night owls, and what their sleeping and eating habits were like. The researchers then compared the in-game decisions made by players who preferred mornings and those more comfortable at night.

While morning larks played more games early in the day and night owls played more late games, both groups showed the same changes in decision-making style.

In the morning, the players were slower and more accurate in their decisions. In the evening they were faster, took more risks, and made less accurate choices.

And these changes occurred regardless of whether the players were morning larks or night owls.

We found that players changed their decision-making policy throughout the day: players decide faster and less accurately as the day progresses, reaching a plateau early in the afternoon.

So it seems the best time of day to make a big decision is in the morning, regardless of whether it’s your favorite time of day. (If you need help getting up in the morning, try our free morning routine template.)

Do you have any handy tricks for making decisions? Let us know in the comments.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.