Life is a neverending series of decisions: Who to play with at recess, who to take to the school dance, what to major in, where to go for happy hour, where to live, whether to end a relationship. Some of these decisions bear little weight on the rest of your life, but others can have huge consequences. Choosing to relocate across the country for a job, for example, has a ripple effect, impacting finances, routines, and, ultimately, happiness.
Much of this decision-making is difficult. Weighing options is especially hard due to certain biases that can lead you astray, says Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, host of the podcast Choiceology, and author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.
These biases can include over- or underestimating the likelihood of something happening to you (like getting ripped off on a big purchase, or being the victim of a crime) based on whether your friends have experienced something similar or how much you see it covered in the media. Another reason why decision-making is hard, Milkman says, is the propensity to overweigh the instant gratification or the instant pain of a decision over the long-term consequences. (Who hasn’t gone food shopping hungry only to later realize nothing they purchased could pass for an actual meal?)
The fact is, people make a ton of choices a day, from the micro (what should I wear today?) to the life-changing (do I buy this house?). The sheer number of decisions that require attention can be taxing. Decision-making “is made harder when we have more choices, and that can feel overwhelming,” Milkman says. “It can be hard to actually do the work necessary to cut through the noise and get to the information when we have a large number of choices to make. It’s that much more exhausting.”
Rest assured, none of these challenges are insurmountable, and you can learn to make smarter decisions. Vox spoke with three experts who explain how.
Zero in on what you really want
Without clear objectives for what you want to achieve with a decision, you might focus on the wrong things, says Ralph Keeney, a decision-making consultant and the author of Give Yourself a Nudge: Helping Smart People Make Smarter Personal and Business Decisions.
Keeney advises asking yourself, “What do I hope to achieve by addressing this choice?” and focus on aspects that aren’t easily quantifiable. This can even be applied to smaller decisions, like where to grab dinner with friends. If your goal is to have a meaningful conversation, you should choose a quieter setting. If one of your friends needs to get home early to relieve the babysitter, you should opt for a spot near their home that takes reservations.
When it comes to the bigger things, this approach still works. For example, when weighing multiple job offers, think about what aspects of a new job would make your life better, aside from salary: work-life balance, commute time, benefits.
Don’t dwell on small choices
While it’s worth taking time to settle larger decisions, don’t expend too much time and energy on the small stuff, Milkman says. “People can get freaked out by thinking, ‘I have to take all these approaches, I’ll never get through the day,’” Milkman says. “What to make for lunch or what to wear in the morning or who to have drinks with — it’s reasonable to not worry about this stuff.”
And don’t stress about the quality of your decision-making on these small choices either. Although the term decision fatigue — i.e., the more decisions you make during the day, the more likely you are to make bad ones — is buzzworthy, Milkman says research doesn’t support its supposed effects. “Having to make 10 choices a day versus two choices doesn’t mean your 10th choice will be worse,” she says. “There’s no evidence of that.” So don’t spend too much time thinking about what ice cream flavor to get after a long day: It won’t be the wrong choice.
Decide as much as you can in advance
In some instances, making a decision before you’re actually in a specific scenario can help you avoid being swayed by outside forces, or ending up overwhelmed by the number of choices available. Going to the grocery store armed with a list can help you get everything you need and not just three cucumbers and some cheese. Choosing how much money you’re comfortable spending ahead of a night out, or opting to use protection before having sex, are other decisions worth making in advance, Milkman says. “There’s all sorts of situations when, in the heat of the moment, you might make a decision you later regret,” she says. “Pre-committing to a plan can prevent you from giving into those urges that could be bad.”
Get a second (and third, and fourth) opinion for the big stuff
Don’t make a major decision in a vacuum, Milkman says. Get a handful of opinions — ideally from people with prior experience in the topic at hand. “The more expertise they have, the less likely they are to base their evaluations on a bias, and they’re more likely to come up with something that’s reasonable,” Milkman says.
If you’re thinking about adopting a puppy, ask friends and family with pets about the biggest challenges of animal parenthood, and whether they think you’re cut out for the job. Talk to each person individually, Milkman says, so you’ll get their opinions without any outside influence.
Be mindful of your emotions
Emotions get a bad rap for negatively influencing decision-making. However, Leonard Mlodinow, author of Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, says it’s impossible to divorce emotions from logic. The key is to understand how emotions are impacting your choices. For example, it’s not a good idea to make big decisions when you’re grieving, or after you’ve just gotten into a fight with your partner, since you’re not going to be in the best headspace. Understanding that, for example, anger makes us take more risks can help crystallize why you may want to aggressively tailgate the car that just cut you off on the highway.
Realizing your emotions are pulling you in a certain direction can make you better equipped to accept these feelings for what they are, Mlodinow says, and to eventually regulate them. “Do not try to suppress your emotions,” he says. “You’re not really successful at overcoming emotions, and all it does is put stress into your life.” Instead, regulate the emotion through a process called reappraisal, where you create new contexts for a situation. For instance, instead of seething in rage because your boss left you off a meeting invite, reappraise it, and tell yourself that they were in a big hurry and didn’t realize they forgot to add you. Another tactic is called expression, which could look like getting all your emotions out by journaling. From a decision-making perspective, this might look like venting to a friend about your frustrating day at work, and then revisiting the idea of whether you actually want to quit your job.
Be thoughtful about how you use pros and cons lists
Mlodinow isn’t a huge fan of pros and cons lists. “What you really want is not that simple,” he says. “It’s based on very complex and very subtle beliefs, memories.”
However, Milkman thinks they can still be a useful tool. When you force yourself to spell out the good and the bad in each choice, you have to slow down and think about your priorities and values. For example, when deciding whether to skip a friend’s upcoming wedding due to the high cost of attending multiple nuptials in a year, a pros and cons list would push you to think about how highly you value this friendship versus your goal of putting more money into savings. Your actions should be authentic representations of your needs — and a pros and cons list can be a helpful way of zeroing in on what you really want.
Think of decisions as opportunities
Don’t think of decisions just as protective measures meant to prevent you from making your life worse. You can make choices that make a good situation even better, Keeney says. Deciding to take a pottery course or to form a book club can be net positives that enrich your life. “What decision can I make to make my life more interesting in the future?” Keeney says. “If you think of some alternatives and you pursue one, your life didn’t get worse because you decided to think of that.”