You’re clueless. Everything seems a plausible choice. Between a multitude of possible options, you think there’s only a bit of difference between them.
It’s just that there’s a lot of them.
Do you know how to make good decisions in life? Is there a guarantee that they’re going to be that good? What is a good decision, anyway?
Ohio State University psychologist Michael DeKay talks about “predecisional information distortion,” which means that our final decisions are mostly influenced by our initial preferences. It’s a powerful kind of bias that makes us ignore further options.
Information overload is a cause of predecisional information distortion. More options being available to us doesn’t mean that we’re going to make a good decision.
Another interesting cause is that we want to maintain a consistent self-image, even though in fact, we’re not consistent. I find this particularly true in cases in which when we know that other people hear about a statement we make, we’d want to stand by that statement because we don’t want to appear like a fool.
The truth is, having or looking for a lot more choices would torture our mind, and this mostly yields poorer decisions.
However, DeKay conducted an experiment in which participants’ initial preferences didn’t seem to influence final decisions.
They asked participants to evaluate specific items based on specific parameters. Only after doing so were they asked to choose the best item. In not knowing in advance that they were going to choose later, they made “unbiased” or “impersonal” decisions.
Survivorship bias happens when we focus on winners in a particular field that we ignore the stories of losers, who may have employed the exact strategies the winners have.
Loss aversion is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses over making gains. We’d rather not lose $100 than gain $100 more.
The Availability Heuristic is a mistake in which we believe that the things we hear about happen prevalently. For instance, the current times have never been safer, but the news would seem to show otherwise. The news can make us paranoid over everyday crimes when in fact, there’s a lot more beautiful and humane acts we don’t hear about.
Anchoring happens predominantly in stores. Smart store owners will show the biggest price tags at the storefront. When you see the $1,000 tag upon entering a retail store, you’ll find that the $100 item tucked at a corner somewhere isn’t that expensive anymore.
Finally, confirmation bias. If you’re prospecting a red car of a specific model, you’ll seem to notice, as time goes by, that there are millions of that same red car downtown. Your brain ignores the fact that there are also millions of the same model that are gray, black, or white.
Why am I talking as if our brains are kind of screwed up?
Well, because our brains are kind of screwed up. But does it matter?
Truth is, we just have to acknowledge the fact that our brains—the human brain—can play tricks on us. In knowing how the brain works, we can pretty much assess whether the decisions we contemplate are already good.
Having said that, the choices we make might only be a very teeny part of the whole picture. I’d contend that sometimes, decisions are just decisions. What matters is what we do from this point forward, regardless of the choices we make.
I’ve learned three main lessons in making what I’d say pretty good decisions in my life.
Identify the problems you want to own.
If you think you need to make decisions on every problem your infinite powers can accommodate, then forget it; it’ll be pointless. You might not even make one satisfactory decision in the first place.
Remember information overload? There’s absolutely no way you can process all of that, ever.
So you have to do some mental decluttering. Yes, thoughts will come and go, but establishing what you’d want to work on eliminates others as only distractions, and that’s a good thing.
If in any case the distractions turn out to be the important bits of information you need, then you will know. Just remember that focus is key.
Defining the problem will most likely lead you to the right information. Allow yourself to treat a specific problem you choose as if your life depends on it. And then mercilessly ignore distractions.
But how will you find the right problems exactly?
Two things can help: your intuition, and your values.
Use your intuition.
I constantly struggle with this: I tend to hoard information. I tend to wait for the time the bits of information I gather become already repetitive, and that’s when I stop.
If you’re reading this on some bright screen and not on a paper a friend has printed out for you (I’m just taking a shot here), then you know that gazillions of bits of information are already available at your fingertips.
But given how limited and elusive our brain could get at a particular time, we can resort to our intuition, especially if problems are a bit more complex than, say, choosing which dessert you’re going to eat (if you are to begin with).
So you want to go out to catch some sun? No problem. Will you confront the person who’s been talking behind your back? Use your intuition.
Your current skills greatly influence your intuition. If you’re not sure what your core skills are, write down what you think could develop after a major decision is made. After a few months or years, evaluate which of those skills you’ll have strongly improved.
Through hard work and time, we can develop our intuition to an expert level.
Let your values lead you.
You couldn’t quit your job because you’ll look like a moron? You couldn’t be alone because you’re used to being with your friends for as long as you can remember? You couldn’t just leave a crying baby because that’s a sick mark of apathy?
Well, ask yourself this question instead: As long as you’re not being a dick to other people, whose values do you really follow?
Sometimes it hurts to admit that we’re only following the values that have been taught to us from a very young age. They’re not necessarily destructive right off the bat, but the most important question to answer is whether it’s our values we’re following or not.
This totally changes the game.
If you want to become an entrepreneur, then the values of a corporate executive might differ from yours. If you want to experience solitude because you want to figure out something you think is huge, then your friends who don’t plan on figuring out something huge could have different values. If you want that baby to develop a strong sense of emotional stability early, then you might not want to seek advice from helicopter parents; they most probably have different values.
It’s your life. You will do whatever you want. Just don’t wait until you’re too old to realize that the decisions you should’ve made were based mainly on your values, not others’.
You hinder two important skills in trying to be perfect.
Perfectionism can screw you in many ways. And among them are your speed and creativity.
It always pays to “make a decision now.” Because it’s almost always certain that a good enough decision now is better than the perfect decision tomorrow.
Because that perfect decision will most probably be just as good if you make it right now. That is how the law of diminishing returns also applies to decision making.
If you do your homework (which you should) prior to making a decision, then you can make a decision in less time. The moment you allow your sense of perfectionism to take over, an entirely different problem emerges.
You see, perfectionism is like sets of 1-kilo ball and chain. Every time we give in to perfectionism, we attach another ball and chain to our ankles. Trying to be perfect every time will at some point stop us from moving forward.
Perfectionism is a disease only action can cure. How do I know? Because I’ve struggled with it. All while not really seeing any significant improvement in the work. So why still bother and simply get the hang of it?
If you honor the time constraint you set up for yourself, you become creative. Bust your mind open for ideas, however weird they are.
Because ideas shape the world, if you don’t realize it yet. If you believe that your work is for the greater good, you might as well discover ideas yet unknown—and execute based on them.
And your decisions might suck, but you still make them, because when you see empirical and tangible results along the way, you will make better decisions based on the previous ones.
However, you will never discover the beauty of it all, if you don’t decide now (or the soonest possible).
It’s okay to listen.
While it’s true that no man is an island and that you shouldn’t go it alone, decision making might also need a second opinion.
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when, most probably, someone’s already had years of experience on it; you just have to ask that person.
In looking for the ideal source of help, be vigilant about credibility. You can use your intuition on this. But the point is that there are lots of otherworldly creatures that seemingly want to help you, but are just time-constrained themselves to make a quick buck.
Therefore, there’s a bigger problem when it comes to listening to others: our willingness to trust.
Or worse, trusting people with opposing views. You know, how can you trust two persons (or groups) who are trusted, credible, and sincere but happen to have different perspectives?
Or, what if everybody seems to contradict what you learn from books? They’re books for crying out loud.
It can be difficult to listen to someone we love, or to a stranger who introduces new ideas we have no clue about.
We are still alone in that respect, then.
But after all has been said, we still got to do what should be done.
We can heed or reject advice. Or paint a bigger picture from everything we learn—whether from people or books or experience—but ultimately, we take action.
Sometimes it’s our stubbornness that holds us from learning what’s already in front of us. And as they say, recognizing that we know nothing is key to learning … or something.
Think About It
Decision making seems a messed up part of our lives. And it’s designed that way. If humans hadn’t learned how to make a good decision under pressure—creatively and fast—the world might look like something else.
It’s weirdly fulfilling, on the other hand. You know that your brain can be tricky, and that other people’s brains can even be trickier to further trick yours. What the hell, right?
But you know deep inside that at some point, you just have to make a freaking decision.
You make a decision because you want to move one step further. You make a decision because you want to slowly make that “crazy” 180-degree turn. You make a decision because you badly want to change your life.
You make a decision to leave a place you disgust and move to one that once existed only in your head. That place can be an end goal, or the process itself.
Which decision are you making today?
(Top Image: Pixabay)