Your life is defined by your ability to make decisions. Your career, relationships, health — anything and everything about your present self — is a product of the decisions you’ve made in the past. Consequently, your future will be based on the decisions you make today. It is critical to your entire life that those decisions are made well.
Not only do your decisions need to be made well, but they also need to be made rather quickly. You can’t sit around waiting for years deciding which career path you should take or whether to invest in a certain asset. At some point, you need to commit and start making progress in a particular direction.
The small decisions matter too. Spending 10 minutes deciding on which cereal you should get at the grocery store or what you’re going to have for dinner tonight might feel intense, but it’s also probably a waste of time. It would be much better if you could make those micro-decisions quickly to save that time for more important things.
Luckily, there’s already been plenty of research, particularly psychology research, about how you can make faster decisions while still being effective. Here are 3 simple techniques for how you can make faster and better decisions.
Reduce Your Options
There is a famous study in psychology known as the jam experiment. The jam experiment was conducted by Sheena Iyengar, at a gourmet grocery store of all places. Iyengar set up a display of various jams at the store to try to understand how people make decisions based on how many options there are to choose from.
On the first day of the experiment, 24 varieties of jams were displayed on the table. On the second day, everything about the display was kept the same, except that only 6 varieties of jams were available. The results of the study were as follows:
- The 24-choice table attracted 60% of shoppers while the 6-choice table attracted 40% of shoppers
- Only 3% of shoppers bought jams off of the 24-choice table while 30% of shoppers bought jams off of the 6-choice table
That’s a 10X difference in sales!
The key finding here is that more options are not always better. In fact, having fewer options often helps us make decisions faster and more effectively.
Having many options can be overwhelming, like a kid at a candy store. You get stuck with The Paradox of Choice where there are so many options that it becomes confusing, even paralyzing to pick just one. We end up making a bad decision, or no decision at all.
Having fewer options is a lot more manageable for our brains since we don’t have to do as much mental work. There are fewer things to compare against so it’s not as hard to make the right pick. There’s also less anxiety afterwards about making the wrong choice since there were fewer alternatives in the first place.
If you can find a way to reduce the number of options you have to choose from in a smart way, then you can make faster and better decisions. Let’s look at a few examples of how you can reduce your options:
- Have a pre-set outfit for each day of the workweek — Steve Jobs and Barack Obama used to always do this
- Have pre-set meals, or perhaps just pre-set protein (beef, chicken, lamb, pork, fish, etc.) for each day of the week — just like athletes do their meal planning
- Simplify your decision by breaking it down into individual selections. For example, when picking through the jams, look at the first one you see: do you like it, yes or no? If yes, grab it and you’re done with the decision! If no, move on to the next one going one at a time
- If you’re deciding on which membership to go with, default your selection to the cheapest one first. You can switch later if need be, but going directly to the cheapest one (or a default in general) gives you something to start and experiment with
Reducing your options is all about reducing the complexity of the decision. If you can do so in a smart way, you’ll find it making decisions easy.
Make a System
It is well-known that making decisions emotionally isn’t good. Our emotions can often make us jump to conclusions and increase the intensity of cognitive biases. In general, the more emotions and feelings that are involved, the more our decision making moves away from rationality, something we definitely don’t want.
Ideally, your decisions should always be rational and objectively rooted in your best long-term interests. You should be confident in whatever choice you make, never having to second guess yourself because of anxiety.
Having a system for your decision making is a powerful way to get to that ideal level. With a system, you are essentially automating your decision making, thereby making it faster and more rational. All you have to do is gather together all of the information about the decision, run it through your system, and you should get a definitive result that you can immediately act upon.
Benjamin Franklin had a fantastic decision-making system which we call The Ben Franklin Method. Here’s how it worked:
- Get a sheet of paper for writing.
- Draw two columns: Pros and Cons. Write the pros and cons of making that decision in each respective column.
- Give each pro and con a score based on their importance. Score each of them on a scale of 1 to 5.
- See which side ends up having a higher score at the end to come to your final decision. As an added bonus, set a threshold for the score difference too. For example, for you to go through with a big decision, the pros must outweigh the cons by at least 3 points.
- Give yourself a few days for steps 2 to 4 to mull things over. You might remember an extra point to consider or feel that you should change some of the scores.
See the graphic below for an example.
Notice how automatic this system is. All you have to do is write the pros and cons of each side in the columns, score each point, and then you get your final decision! There’s no second-guessing yourself or feeling emotional about one option or the other. You’ve run it through your system and got your result to follow, perfectly rational.
This is the exact way that the best systems work. In mathematics, you have specific methods for solving problems. In physics, you have formulas for explaining things. In computer programming you have algorithms. Here for decision making, we have a system.
You can apply this same Benjamin Franklin decision-making system to any of your decisions to come up with a quick and smart result. Make your two columns, list your pros and cons, score them, find the balance, and voila, you have your decision. You can also make up your own system based on some proven decision-making techniques.
Set Time Limits
All too often people make poor decisions, or no decision at all, due to what is called decision fatigue. Decision fatigue happens when you’ve already spent a significant amount of time making decisions, and thus any further decisions that follow end up being poor. Your brain just gets tired.
But decision fatigue doesn’t only occur when you’ve been making many decisions throughout the day. It also happens when you spend a lot of time focusing on one single decision. The concept is the same: you are expending brain power thinking about all the options, which tires you out mentally. Any further thinking about that decision becomes less and less effective as time goes on: poor ability to make trade-offs, decision avoidance, and impulse reactions.
John Tierney, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength writes:
“Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.”
The more time you spend on making decisions throughout your day, no matter what it is, the less effective your decisions the rest of the day will be.
Thus, it follows that a great way to reduce decision fatigue is to spend less time making decisions. We can do this by using time limits on our decisions, giving more time to the more important decisions and less time to the less important ones. For example:
- Use a 1-minute time limit for the most minor of decisions. Which jam to pick, what to wear, what to have for dinner, or whether you should talk to that cute person you saw at the grocery store. Just this simple one-minute limit will already remove a lot of your decision fatigue and procrastination
- Have a limit of 10 minutes when deciding on things of medium importance like where to do for date night with your significant other or what topic to write about for your blog today. This will ensure that you get the job done well without spending too much time on it
- For bigger decisions, such as where to go in your career or what to invest in, it’s OK to spend some extra time since it’s so important. The good thing is that you’ve already saved a ton of time with the smaller and medium-importance time limits. You can then use dedicated thinking time or apply the other methods of Reducing Options and Making a System to make sure you get the big decisions right
What’s also great is for you to have a default option. That way, if you do end up running out of time for your decision, you already have something in mind to go with. For example, if you can’t decide what jam to buy, then you always default to the one on the far left. If you can’t decide where to go for date night, then sushi for default it is!
Time limits allow you to minimize decision fatigue by minimizing the amount of time you have to spend thinking about your non-critical decisions. This ensures that you are able to make your smaller decisions faster and that you have the time and energy to make your bigger decisions better.
Your life is defined by your ability to make decisions. Being able to make those decisions quickly and effectively will help you to live a much better life. Here we looked at 3 simple techniques for making faster and better decisions, based on psychology:
- Reduce options — with fewer options we eliminate the anxiety and confusion of choosing
- Make a system — this will automate and rationalize your decision-making process
- Time limits — to push you to move faster and avoid decision fatigue
For more on decision making, see To Make Better Decisions, Practice “The Ben Franklin Method”
For more on how psychology affects our decision making, see Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow