How to ensure that you make better decisions

Ensuring that we make the right decisions which serve our best interests, in all areas of our lives, is perhaps the art of successful living. Whether the decisions are in our personal, family, career or business lives we need to make sure that we are in the best possible condition so that we can avoid some of the pitfalls that lead to mistakes.

We make poor decisions in all aspects of our lives from time to time. Even highly intelligent people regularly make mistakes. The 2008 financial crisis is evidence of that. Yet none of us ever intend to make poor decisions. By instigating a few simple, yet counterintuitive habits, we can position ourselves to make better decisions.  

The key is in understanding the typical ways your thoughts tend to interrupt decision making. These tend to be thoughts that are exaggerated and irrational. They are known as cognitive distortions. Identifying and learning to mitigate their impact can help improve decision making but also help to lift feelings of depression and anxiety. Cognitive distortions occur when our brain convinces us of something that's not true. When this happens, decisions are driven by negative thoughts and self-talk.

Michael J. Mauboussin outlined clear steps to better decision making in his recent book ‘Think Twice – Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition’. Here are some of his ideas to help improve your capacity to make better decisions more often.

1. Failing to consider alternatives

Tunnel Vision is a common cognitive distortion and is essentially the habit, or tendency, to only see or focus on a single priority while neglecting or ignoring other important priorities. It comes about when we reduce our options instead of opening our minds to more choices or forget how hidden incentives can influence our decisions. The key is not to make bland, unimaginative and risk-free decisions but to consider a wealth of information based on situations similar to the ones we face every day. Spotting tunnel vision, particularly when the big decisions are about to be made, can be the first step in ensuring that you choose more wisely.

2. Failing to consider outside views and the experiences of others

This is when we believe that each of our problems are truly unique and we discount the opinion of others. It can occur when business people remain eternally optimistic about the next corporate acquisition when their track record demonstrates that their acquisitions are often dismal failures. The outside view is an unnatural way to think, precisely because it forces people to set aside all the cherished data they have gathered. This can happen when police investigations end up with the wrong suspect (because the investigations team started out with the wrong assumptions), or when investors continue to buy the stock of the plummeting share value of companies. It can also happen when people continue to pursue a project at work when an outsider would recommend ditching it straight away.

3. Overvaluing an expert opinion

As a result of modern technology, we no longer have to limit our decisions to the opinions of a few experts. We can empower our ability and confidence to be better decision makers. By using online resources effectively we can access more accurate computer models and powerful social networks that offer us the "wisdom of crowds". Obviously, if your plumbing needs repair you need a plumber, not a physicist, professor of linguistics and a soldier working as a collective. However, collectives are typically more useful than experts when the problem is complex and specifiable rules cannot solve it.

4. Failing to notice how much we are influenced by others

We like to think that we are deciding for ourselves and that we are immune to the influence of others. But peer pressure can be powerful, so we need to be alive to the conscious and subconscious social influences that could be weighing on our choices. There can be a myriad of influences, including family, schooling and friendship networks affecting our decisions. To increase the capacity for strong decision making, it can be useful to bring greater awareness to their impact on our everyday decisions.

5. Learn to evaluate our habits

It can be beneficial to determine if the routines and structures that we have set up in our past are hindering our decision making process. Learning to evaluate our habits helps us to assess whether they have stopped serving our needs. Do we, for example, jump to conclusions and make hasty decisions?

Better decision making involves taking time over what to do. Giving ourselves this time has the potential to strengthen us in other ways as well, such as by reducing anxiety and building self-confidence. The old adage of sleeping on a decision holds true – the decisions we make will always be better for us when our mind has had time to reflect.

If there is a big decision weighing on you, or if you want to learn how to make better decisions generally, talking therapy can help. There is great scope for clarity and insight when you share your thoughts with a trained professional, who is neutral and has no agenda. Keeping a decision journal can help you to consider a fuller range of possibilities and keep abreast of your blind spots. As the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard said, “Life must be understood backwards… But it must be lived forwards.”

Your goal should be to realise when you enter your personal danger zone when important decisions are needed to be made and at that point to slow down and take time before finalising decisions. Stress, anger, fear and anxiety are all emotional states antithetical to quality decisions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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