Wouldn't it be great if we didn't spend our lives bogged down in a constant quagmire of decision-making?
Even after we've waded our way through the draining uncertainty of actually making a choice, we often find ourselves second-guessing it.
This nagging fear of having made the wrong decision seems to affect everything, even the trivial stuff ('should I have ordered a cheese toastie instead?' is the kind of question that has distracted us on many a lunch-hour).
With so many choices looming left, right and centre, it's perhaps little wonder that we often find ourselves fraught with indecision.
Like a rabbit caught in the headlights, we end up occupying a kind of cerebral hinterland.
We're unable to think clearly or make up our minds about anything, whether it's moving city, changing jobs, ditching a boyfriend or buying that £400 coat off Net-a-Porter.
The following tips and tricks come from psychologists specially trained in the art of good decision-making. They are simple, easy-to-follow steps that will help you make rational and informed life choices that you won't regret.
Read on and wave bye-bye to plaguing doubt forever more:
Be a 'satisficer' not a 'maximizer'
These terms were coined by psychologist Herbert Simon in the 1950s, and are neatly explained by The Happiness Project writer Gretchen Rubin:
“Satisficers make a decision once their criteria are met; when they find the hotel or the pasta sauce that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the best possible decision; even if they see a bicycle that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until they’ve examined every option.
“Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers expend more time and energy reaching decisions, and they’re often anxious about their choices. They find the research process exhausting, yet can’t let themselves settle for anything but the best.”
The bottom line? If you often find yourself drowning in choice, sometimes it’s better just to make a decision - even if you haven’t considered all the options out there. The cost of missing out will be made up by the time you save on feeling drained and overwhelmed in the long-run.
Make important decisions in the morning
There's a reason why people choose to "sleep on it" when making big decisions.
In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains how cognitive overload and physical depletion impair our self-control, leading to bad choices.
This is what Dr. Roy Baumeister and other decision researchers describe as "ego depletion"; in reference to the fact that we only have so much mental energy to exercise self-control or make good decisions in any given day.
Our energy levels are highest in the morning, meaning that this is the time we are most alert, attuned and capable of rational thinking. A series of studies done at Harvard University and the University of Utah also found that our moral compass is much more accurate in the morning.
So save any big or complex decisions to be mulled over in the morning; and the more important the choice, the earlier you should aim to make it. Write your choices down and re-visit them in the morning when you feel fully refreshed, to decide what to do.
Avoid 'narrow framing'
In their book Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, authors Chip and Dan Heath identify four "villains" that get in the way of making good decisions. One of the major culprits is something they refer to as "narrow framing".
This basically means you are defining the choices you have too narrowly, and limiting the alternatives open to you.
You may think of a decision in terms of a simple two-way yes or no situation, instead of considering the other, potentially better options.
For example you think, "should I stay with him or not?" rather than "what can I do to improve my relationship with xx?", or "should I move to London or not?" rather than "how will a change of location affect my career chances and lifestyle?"
In order to avoid seeing decisions in this way, you need to widen your options. This can be done via "the vanishing test"; imagine your two main options have disappeared, in order to help you to recognise the other choices you are just not seeing.
Subject your decision to public scrutiny
Leadership adviser Mike Myatt suggests laying your decision - or choice of decisions - before an imaginary panel of friends, family, colleagues or even strangers to gain a little perspective and see how it holds up to scrutiny.
"There are no private decisions," he says. "Sooner or later the details surrounding any decision will likely come out. If your decision were printed on the front page of the newspaper how would you feel? What would your family think of your decision? How would your shareholders and employees feel about your decision? Have you sought counsel and/or feedback before making your decision?"
This process will help to avoid "confirming bias"; one of the common enemies of decision-making whereby you only seek out information that confirms what you already believe.
Pretend you're giving advice to a friend
We are better at giving advice to our friends than ourselves, according to a new study from the University of Michigan. Researchers Igor Grossmann and Ethan Kross divided participants into two groups, and asked them to consider a scenario of fidelity either from a first-person perspective or via a friend affected by the issue.
They found the group who gave reactions and advice to a friend rather than themselves were able to provide wider reasoning that took into account things such as other perspectives, future change, and the importance of compromise. In other words, we are better able to deal with decisions when we're not immersed in them.
So to make a decision effectively, it may help to think about what you would tell a friend faced with the same choice. Not only will you be kinder to yourself, you'll also be able to assess the situation more critically and intelligently.
Unplug to make your mind relax
Intuition or "trusting your gut" is often cited as an important factor in decision-making, but it's hard to come by if you spend hours sweating a problem out in front of a computer screen, or chatting about it on the phone.
In order to tap into your intuition properly, you need a bit of time and space - or "active procrastination", as experts refer to it. Get out of your office or any space associated with your decision, and try to do something completely different, such as a long walk, a swim or meditation. This will help to harness your unconscious, an important factor in decision-making.
"Your intuition is going to speak to you when your mind is relaxed," says mind coach Simone Wright. "Intuition is the natural intelligence that allows us to see ahead of the curve. We’re all intuitively wired."
"One of the biggest barriers to accessing your intuition is noise and distractions," agrees Jess Constable, of the wellness blog The Every Girl. "So be sure to put yourself in a calm space with plenty of time to think and let your mind relax. Once your mind has a chance to let go of distractions you can begin to focus your mind’s attention on your gut."
Listen to your heart
A good decision isn't always related to what makes you happiest, but it's certainly an important measure to factor in. And the easiest way of judging this is to pay attention to how various outcomes make you feel.
"I encourage my clients to pay attention to their hearts," says life coach Eve Cunningham. "When they imagine spending time doing a particular thing with a particular person – or even alone – does their heart lift or sink? It sounds simplistic but can be pretty radical.
"It’s not that we can necessarily eradicate all the heart-sinkers from our lives but, by being aware of what energises and depletes us, we can do our best to do more of what works and cancel our emotional energy suckers
"Look at your diary for the day or week ahead and just tune into your heart’s response. Which activities and people raise your spirits? And what makes your heart sink? Is there leeway to incorporate more of what lifts you and to cancel what doesn’t?"
Although this advice pertains to how to feel more energised, the same process could be applied to decision-making; what choice makes your heart lift? Pay heed to this and you will have moved a step closer to making the right decision.
Read more books
We don't really need an excuse to read more, so it's music to our ears to hear that literary fiction can enhance decision-making skills.
A 2013 study by University of Toronto scholars found that frequent readers are better able to embrace ambiguous ideas and avoid snap judgments, ridged ideas and bad decision making. By becoming immersed in literature and stories, people have less need for "cognitive closure", they found. And this in turn leads to greater creativity and more sophisticated thinking.
"Exposure to literature may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds," the researchers wrote in the Creativity Research Journal. "These studies show the importance of literature as a developmental tool for better thinking and better empathy."
Reading more won't lead directly to a decision, but it will give you the skills needed to make better quality decisions over a long-term period. It will give you a better understanding of how to accommodate other perspectives in making your decisions, as well as being able to assess the choices before you in a broader frame of mind.
Take an extra moment
And we really do mean a moment. A 2014 study from Columbia University Medical Center found that pausing for even a fraction of a second led to more accurate decision-making among subjects making rapid choices in a test environment.
“Postponing the onset of the decision process by as little as 50 to 100 milliseconds enables the brain to focus attention on the most relevant information and block out irrelevant distractors,” said study researcher Jack Grinband, assistant professor of clinical radiology at the centre.
“This way, rather than working longer or harder at making the decision, the brain simply postpones the decision onset to a more beneficial point in time.”
He added that the finding could be particularly useful for people making “fast high-stakes decisions in complex realistic environments.”
Don't look back
Heidi Halvorson, associate director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, has written extensively about the benefits of making a psychological commitment to the decisions you take.
"Once we make a final, no-turning-back decision, the psychological immune system kicks in," she says. "This is how psychologists like [Harvard scholar Dan] Gilbert refer to the mind’s uncanny ability to make us feel good about our decisions. Once we’ve committed to a course of action, we stop thinking about alternatives. Or, if we do bother to think about them, we think about how lousy they are compared to our clearly superior and awesome choice.
"Human beings are particularly good at rearranging and restructuring our thoughts to create the most positive experience possible in any situation. The psychological immune system protects us, to some extent, from the negative consequences of our choices. Because after all, almost every choice has a downside. The key to happiness is to dwell as little as possible on that downside.
"When you keep your options open, however, your focus is on the downside - because you’re still trying to figure out if you made the right choice. The psychological immune system doesn’t kick in, and you’re left feeling less happy about whatever choice you end up making.
"So keeping your options open leads to less happiness and success, not more. Ironically, people don’t actually change their minds and revise decisions very often. We just prefer having the option to do so, and that preference is costing us. Assuming that your choice is carefully considered and you’ve weighed your options, you will be both happier and more successful if you make a decision—and don’t look back."
Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Think Stock