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Three Tips for Making Difficult Decisions

Everyone finds themselves having to make tough decisions from time to time. Such choices are a natural part of life and often mean that we are transitioning into a new stage of ours. The biggest challenge with making difficult decisions isn’t the choice itself, it’s worrying whether or not we’re making the right choice: the choice that will be of the greatest benefit to ourselves and potentially to others. While we can’t really guarantee the outcome of our decisions any more than we can predict the future, we can take into consideration how exactly we make decisions and in what ways we can improve that process to our greatest benefit.

Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc. His company works to strengthen leadership in both individual people and in organizations through various programs and initiatives. Mr. Bregman is also just like you and I in that he, too, has to make choices, especially difficult ones. On his experience with decision-making and battling indecisiveness, Mr. Bregman says that: “We spend an inordinate amount of time, and a tremendous amount of energy, making choices between equally attractive options in everyday situations. The problem is, that while they may be equally attractive, they are also differently attractive, with trade-offs that require compromise.” This compromise is integral to the decision-making process and is something we must learn to accept. We can’t have everything all the time. We can’t choose to eat unhealthy and then expect to lose weight, nor can we expect that if we choose to make numerous expensive purchases that we will be saving money.

So in what ways can we try to make better choices, or to improve our decision-making process? Below are three ways that we can learn how to more decisive and be smarter about the decisions we make:

1. Use Habits to Reduce Decision Fatigue

Repeatedly having to make decisions, particularly if they are the same ones over and over, can be exhausting. After all, we all get tired of having to repeat ourselves, but sometimes it just seems unavoidable. So what can be done? They key to avoiding redundancy in decision-making is to use habit to our advantage. At first, this might sound suspicious. After all, when is the word “habit” ever associated with something positive? So let us use a different word – routine – instead. When we develop a routine, we no longer have to make the same choices over and over. They become habitual, practiced, and save us from the fatigue of having to come up with a new or even a similar answer to the same question. For example, if we decide to bring lunch from home, we save ourselves the task of having to decide where to go to lunch. If we learn to prepare lunches or meals ahead of time, we no longer have to decide at the same times each day what we’re going to eat. Spontaneity can be fun and exciting, but having to make the same choices every day makes going out to eat less spontaneous and more mundane. Not to mention expensive. Incorporate more routine in your life, and you’ll find decision-making to be much less exhausting.

2. Use If/Then Thinking to Routinize Unpredictable Choices

There’s the word “routine” again. Routine may have a bad reputation as being synonymous with “boring” but that’s not actually true. In fact, our daily routines save us a lot of trouble and can allow us to accomplish things in a timely manner to make time for spontaneity and adventure. If we didn’t have our routines for getting ready, the process of simply getting up would likely be more chaotic and take up time that we would prefer to spend on something else. Routine is a key element of not only making the decision-making process easier on ourselves, but also help us to make better choices overall. A good routine technique to incorporate when we have to make decisions is “if/then” thinking. This allows us to take into consideration cause and effect. For example, if someone is interrupting us in a conversation, we could think “if this person interrupts me twice/then I will say something” or, “if I want to go on a trip/then I will have to save money, not spend”. These two words: if and then, can significantly improve our decision-making by streamlining the process and making us address things directly, rather than setting choices aside for weeks on end.

3. Use a Timer

Now this technique is one of the more unconventional ones. Building off of the previous point, we realize that decisions, even simple ones, can end up taking a long time. In many cases, more time than is really necessary. Consider the question “should I go out to lunch?”, this question is direct, straightforward, and can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. But chances are, we will spend hours mulling over whether or not we should go, rather than actually making the choice. In a way, we’re stalling. This is where timing ourselves can be helpful. Mr. Bergman explains that: “If the issues on the table have been reasonably vetted, the choices are equally attractive, and there is still no clear answer, then admit that there is no clearly identifiable right way to go and just decide. It helps if you can make the decision smaller, with minimal investment, to test it. But if you can’t, then just make the decision. The time you save by not deliberating pointlessly will pay massive dividends in productivity.” Sure Mr. Bergman is speaking from a largely professional standpoint but his point remains, even when we consider personal decisions. When you find yourself struggling with a choice, give yourself a timeframe, like 3-5 minutes, to make that choice. By doing this we can learn to be more decisive and also alleviate decision-making anxiety which only increases the longer we wait. As Mr. Bergman states: “The best antidote to feeling overwhelmed is forward momentum.”

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