Practicing the Subtle Art of Making Better Decisions

how to become better at taking decisions

Life is like a box of chocolates: full of choices.

A study in 2009 stumped experts.

New York ranked at the bottom among cities in a Happiness Rating survey conducted across the US.

This finding contradicted most people’s opinion that New York was a ‘marvelous place to live in.’ The limitless options for dining, entertainment, arts, and shopping — who could feel unhappy?

Here’s the thing. These infinitesimal choices that people thought made New York a ‘marvelous place to live in’ were exactly what drove them nuts.

Could this be a one-off?

Not quite.

The 2018 World Happiness Report placed United States 18th, down seven places from 2012. In the same index, India fell from 95th in 2012 to 123rd in 2018.

What led to this sharp fall in happiness? (Trolls would love to blame Trump and Modi.)

The Real Reason for Growing Unhappiness

how to stop overthinking and make better decisions

Okay, let’s be rational here.

The most common causes for people’s unhappiness are dissatisfaction and fatigue. Dissatisfaction stems from FOMO, not living in the present moment and not doing what we enjoy. Fatigue is physical and psychological.

Mental fatigue is dominant these days. And it stems from our choices (or decisions).

The mind is like a muscle. The more decisions you take, the more it feels exhausted. And studies show that an adult takes up to 35,000 decisions each day.

Getting out of bed or hitting the snooze button. Choosing between the Reyes or Ludwig filters for your Instagram photo. Sparkling or plain water. Pizza or waffles. Exercise or Netflix, checking notifications on our locked smartphone screens — all these are decisions.

Each decision we take decreases our willpower a bit. Days when we take a lot of futile decisions or do unrewarding work feel draining. Yet, when someone asks us what we did to feel exhausted, we don’t have an answer.

What Caused A Surge in Our Decisions?

We didn’t take half as many decisions as now until the previous decade. What caused this sudden spike?

Information.

From 2009 to 2012, to 2018, one aspect has risen sharply: information. So much that it has become a commodity itself. We pay a steep price for this commodity — our time, money, and energy.

We compare our possessions and experiences with others because of ‘information’ on social media. We wait to gather more ‘information’ to solve problems at work. We keep searching for more ‘information’ for the holiday destination we want to visit.

Research shows that the more information we get presented with, the less likely we are to make a decision. We get mired in doubt. When we don’t take action, we increase our self-doubt further. It’s a vicious cycle, the result of which is unhappiness.

Can nothing be done? (Of course, it can. Or I wouldn’t write this post.)

2 Kinds of Decision Makers

Homo Sapiens always get divided into two types: Learners and non-learners, laggards and go-getters, leaders and followers, givers and takers.

Here’s another typecast: maximizers and satisficers.

Maximizers (or ‘optimizers,’ as they fondly call themselves) constantly try to maximize their work (hence the term). They focus on the best possible outcome, even if it means increasing complexity and the odds of unexpected problems. They compare their possessions and actions with others and often try to outdo the ‘competition’. They clog their to-do lists with tasks, most of which lie unattended.

“What do you want?”

According to research, maximizers are more prone to depression, regret, and low self-esteem.

Satisficers (also known as simplifiers) aim for simple results. While buying, satisficers evaluate goods based on their satisfaction threshold, which is fairly low. They choose goods which exceed this threshold. Satisficers put few tasks on their daily to-do lists and dedicate enough energy to work on them. Research states that they feel content at work, in relationships and life overall.

Satisficing sounds like fun. In our minds, most people believe that they’re satisficers, that they keep things simple.

But maximizing the new normal today.

We have a myriad of information on our fingertips. About diets, gadgets, entertainment options and everything else. We use all this information to ‘optimize’ our lives.

But this information makes us feel exhausted and stressed. Not to mention that most decisions we take never lead us to the outcome we desire — happiness.

We brainstorm. We read. We research. We go to bed with the question in mind and hope to wake up with insight. We talk to friends. We talk to ourselves. We pay coaches to talk to us. We ask our moms. We do a lot of thinking. But what we don’t do is decide. — Kris Gage

For instance, complex diets sound amazing on paper. But with time, the sheer volume of choices to make takes a toll on people’s willpower. They feel exhausted and give up.

Organizations buy expensive software with tons of features. But these ‘feature-rich’ tools are painfully complex to use. People stop using them and revert to their original ways. This is why many software tools turn into dead investments for organizations.

How to Make Decisions That Keep You Happy?

how to make better decisions and be happy

The secret to staying happy is making better decisions.

‘Better’ doesn’t mean perfect. It means decisions that move you forward, that lead you to results. A positive result energizes you while a negative result teaches you, which is still a form of progress.

The less energy you spend on unimportant decisions, the more energy you have to think deeper about important ones.

I use a simple motto to make decisions that keep me happy. ‘Good enough is good enough.’

While Buying

I’m not a gadget freak. If I have to purchase a new smartphone, I ask myself, “What do I need it for?” My needs are pretty basic — phone calls, texts, and a strong battery.

Next, I ask a knowledgeable friend what she recommends and go with her suggestion. Or I go for the same phone that I have. I don’t compare phones based on processor speed or whether they switch my air conditioner on. Nor do I feel like I missed out if my phone camera is 0.7 MP lesser than another one.

Once I make a choice, I don’t look back. And that lets me stay happy.

When you want to make a purchase, choose function over form. Ask yourself, “What do I need this for?” You’ll immediately narrow your options down.

You don’t need a 21-point surround sound system if a five-point will do. You don’t need a washing machine that offers 55 features if it fits your budget and performs the basic role of cleaning your laundry well.

Eliminate the question “Who knows what I might need it for someday?” What’s good enough is good enough.

At Work

Maximizers often burn out because they bite more than they can chew. This is because they romanticize the goal — the completed project, the potential for a promotion — without thinking about how they’ll get there.

But when the deadline approaches, their focus shifts from the rewards to the grueling work. That’s when they realize they’re way in over their heads. Everything falls apart and they fall apart along with it.

It’s important to embrace the ‘good enough is good enough’ motto.

When I’m approached with work that doesn’t align with my current goals, my first reaction is ‘no’. Because my current tasks are good enough to keep me busy the right way.

Common wisdom would call this action career suicide because it deprives me of many opportunities. But it offers two major benefits.

  1. I can focus my energy on existing tasks and do good work,
  2. I can pursue mastery in a few tasks instead of trying to be a Jack of all trades.

Before you take on a new task, ask yourself whether you can do justice to it. Be honest with yourself. Bill Gates said that we often overestimate what we can do in a month and underestimate what we can do in a year.

If a task syncs with your existing goals, take it up. If it doesn’t, turn down the request. You won’t lose out on much. instead, you’ll pave the way to achieve mastery and happiness.

In Relationships

The more “options” you look for, the more frustration you build. While choosing a partner, look for key aspects that matter to you (positive and negative).

When you get into an argument with your partner, ask yourself what you guys are really fighting over. Is it because you want twenty percent more?

Good enough is good enough.

Bringing it Home

Motivation comes from progress. Progress occurs when you take ten steps in one direction, not when you take one step each in ten directions.

Your life is a result of your decisions. Take decisions that make you progress without feeling guilty. Do it not to please others, but to please yourself.

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