9 Ways to Make the Right Decision

Which path to choose?

A guest post by Patrick Burg from veryevolved.com

The landscape of our brain is not a rational place.

We still walk around with the same Stone Age brain our ancestors had – a mess of emotions, imperfect memories, and a short attention span. To top it off, it never has all the facts to make the “perfect” decision.

From here the story gets worse. We even make decisions without being conscious of having done so.

When neuroscientists examined brain activity during a simple decision-making experiment, they noticed people had often decided on a course of action 10 seconds before they were consciously aware of having made any decision at all.

How can we ever hope to make the right decision?
In reality things aren’t so bad, we make decisions all day, everyday. The world keeps turning and we feel like we are in control. S

The good news is that the field of neuroscience has made us well aware of the shortcomings of the human brain. By knowing these weaknesses, we can then use a simple strategy to work around them.

The 9 Ways to Make Good Decisions

1. Listen to your instincts but don’t let them boss you around.

We evolved instincts for a reason – they work really well. To our Stone Age ancestors the ability to make a snap decision could’ve made the difference between being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger and eating one. But how many tigers have you been faced with lately? We rarely need to make snap decisions anymore but still, you can’t stop yourself from making them. Don’t fight it, but don’t simply stop there. Ask “why did I think that?” or “why do I feel that way?”

2. List your alternatives.

The brain is the most powerful computer in existence, but it sucks at multitasking. It’s difficult to hold more than 7 different trains of thought in your mind at once, and impossible to concentrate on two of them simultaneously. The reason we don’t crash our cars while talking on our cell phones is because we can switch between tasks really quickly – but much slower, and less accurately than doing either alone. Write down every option you have for the decision you’re making, get it out of your head and spend some quality time on each one.

3. Rephrase the question.

You know what it takes to be a genius or a brilliant scientist? It’s not good grades and it’s not memorizing facts. It’s simply asking the right questions. Whatever problem you have, try writing it down in three or four different ways. Forcing yourself to think about the problem in different ways makes it easier to come up with different solutions.

4. Anticipate history.

Our memory isn’t as good as we think it is, and hence, we don’t remember how bad it can be. It’s this selective memory that lets you remember who you talked to today, but not what you had for breakfast on Tuesday last week. Using history to make a decision requires that we remember what happened last time we were in a similar situation. Go slow and be critical with your recall – beware of only remembering your wins vs. your misses.

5. Remember that time is on your side.

Distance gives perspective. It’s the oldest advice out there – separate yourself from the emotions of the moment. Unless you’re a character from Star Trek this is impossible to do instantly, so the next best thing is to put some time between now and when you actually make the decision.

6. Think of this as a test.
The human brain is not isolated – it’s hard wired to function in social situations with our peers. The upshot of this is that we devote a lot of time and energy to working in groups and maintaining friends and our status. Imagine that you’re going to be graded for the decision you’re making and you will automatically pay more attention to the process. Write down why you made your decision and follow this by thinking: “This is an exam. I’m handing this in, and I won’t get another chance to change it. Others will see it and grade my logic”. Doing this makes you more likely to examine the “why” of what you’re doing and weed out poorly made plans.

7. Common knowledge isn’t.

Spot those “taken for granted” moments and ask why that’s the case. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t swim after eating, but why is that? Is it actually true for everyone? What if you’re just wading in the water and you can stand easily enough? Question the assumptions you’re making and judge if they really apply to you.

8. Make the damn decision.
Are you deciding your career path or what brand of cereal to eat? Not all decisions are equal so don’t waste your time. You don’t need to follow steps 1 – 9 every breakfast time.

9. Make the decision concrete.
You can endlessly re-analyze and agonize over what you’ve decided. You have to stop sometime. Make it real, write it down. Once your decision is out of your head and in the real world, your brain can stop constantly churning through the options and get on with the next task.

Remember, the landscape of our brain is not a rational place. You shouldn’t even force your brain to follow this list from 1 to 9. The best decision you can make here is just do the steps that appeal to you, in any order. I’ll leave you with one final thought: Whatever you do, the only key to making the best decisions in life, is to want to.

Patrick is a neuroscientist who writes about the hidden biology behind everything we do. From the science of happiness to how viral behavior spreads through crowds, explore the hidden side of all of us at veryevolved.com

Original image by cuellar remixed by Patrick

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  1. Nice post Patrick, I especially agree with number four. Those who don’t learn from history are deemed to repeat it.



    Glen Allsopps last blog post..Be the Light that Gives Others Permission to Shine

  2. A decision usually involves three steps:

    1. A recognition of a need: A dissatisfaction within oneself–a void or need;
    2. A decision to change–to fill the void or need;
    3. A conscious dedication to implement the decision.

    Good tips on making a decision.

    Shamelle -EnhanceLifes last blog post..How To Cope, The Next Time You Are Caught In Verbal Hurricane

  3. CathD says:

    Some useful points here, although I differ on point nr 6:

    Think of it as a test.”Write down why you made your decision and follow this by thinking: “This is an exam. I’m handing this in, and I won’t get another chance to change it. Others will see it and grade my logic”. Doing this makes you more likely to examine the “why” of what you’re doing and weed out poorly made plans.”

    I get the logic that it helps you think through your decision by adding social pressure, although I’ve found that social pressure and the belief that there are “right” and “wrong” decisions that we’ll be judged on and worrying about what other people will think tends to take us into a stress response, where we make decisions based on fear of what other people think, instead of our authentic desires.

    I used to think everything was a test I’d get graded on and that there were clear right and wrong answers. These days, I’ve experimented with holding the idea that perhaps there are no “right” or “wrong” decisions – perhaps I can have happiness and a rich life regardless of the decision I make. I’ve found this a much more liberating place to make decisions from and I’m enjoying the results of the decisions I’ve made (but then, I’m sure I’d be enjoying the results of the other decisions I didn’t make!)

    CathDs last blog post..How to Reduce Your Stress by Challenging Yourself

  4. Adrilia says:

    Thank you for this, Patrick. My favorite points are 3 and 5: Rephrase the question and Give yourself some time. Asking different questions can open up many new possibilities and perspectives, quite powerful. I also find that allowing yourself some distance from the issue helps us to quiet “the noise” so that what’s real/important can more clearly surface.

    Adrilias last blog post..President Obama’s Call to Service: Setting us up for Success

  5. @Glenn and @Shamelle – Glad you liked it, and I think that it’s always a good thing if we spend more time thinking about HOW to think.

    @CathD – You are indeed correct (and great personal example BTW).
    That’s why I say in the last paragraph that you shouldn’t follow all of these from top to bottom or even all of them. Some times it’s enough like Glen has done, and just pick a favorite. Choosing breakfast cereal is not a test 🙂

    I would like to refine your point though about worry what other people will think:

    You should care about what people think, if they are people that care about you. And if they do care about you, then some of these 9 steps will help you explain your decision to them in a way they will understand.


  6. Hi Patrick!
    I’m so happy to see your post up on GLZ! The moment you showed me your draft, I thought, “Oh – that’s a lovely article. It would sit well at Goodlife Zen!”

    What I find particularly fascinating is that we make decisions – without actually noticing that we’ve done so.

    I wonder whether we can become aware of the decision-making moment through noticing a subtle change in the body? (You can see I’m deeply immersed in the Virtual Zen Retreat on Awareness that’s happening at the moment!) 🙂

  7. hersh says:

    Hey Mary,
    Great post by Patrick. Glad to be back to your blog after a mad few months.
    Okay I have recently taken one of the biggest decision of my life- I think the reason I could take it and dn’t regret is because I found the WHY answer. I analysed WHY am I taking this decision until I was happy with the answer. As soon as I had an answer-thats it.

  8. Great post Patrick,

    It used to really frustrate me, how many times I would make the same bad decisions over and over again. It was a problem I had to address and work on.

    I learned to base decisions on personal principles. I also look at the effect of each decision from a price point of view – what will this decision cost me or benefit me and in what ways?

    I used to run a business with someone that would get an idea, decide on it, and implement it right away. This led to many needless problems for the business. After a while, when he would come to my office with a quick decision on something, I would ask him to go outside, walk around the block thinking about it, and see if anything changed. About 75% of the time, the decision was completely different when he came back.

    Sometimes the frustration of not being able to decide forces us to move too quickly, if we step away for a short time, we may get a better perspective and decide more wisely.

    Chad Prigmores last blog post..Stop Racing and Start Living

  9. @Mary – Thanks for having me over at GLZ, it’s a great resource!
    It should indeed be possible for us to become more aware and more rapidly aware of the decision making process, as it is accompanied by physiological changes – that’s how researchers could see it with fMRI scans identifying a change in blood flow in some brain regions.

    @Hersh & @Chad – great stories and examples. One of the things about doing any of the nine things I outlined is they will also help remove doubt about your decision, because you’ve actually considered as much as you can and then said “yep this is it, this is the right decision to make”


  10. Puerhan says:

    Great tips, I find particular value in 2 (list alts) and 3 (re-phrase the question).

    They apply externally also I think, i.e. for *getting* the right decision as well as making the right decision. For example, there are numerous times when, as an Architect dealing with a Structural Engineer, I get “no” answers back and need to rethink my question so both myself and the Engineer actually get to the bottom of what is really needed!

    Thanks Patrick and Mary.

    Puerhans last blog post..…to be a ‘nothingist’

  11. Phaoloo says:

    Nice list of tips. I think don’t try to make the right, the best decision and deciding will is much more effective and easier.

    Phaoloos last blog post..Two Simple Ways To Keep Your Inbox From Junk Mails

  12. […] you would like more information, you can visit Goodlife Zen, and read more about each step. This site was very helpful when trying to decide on a very hard […]

  13. joevie jean says:

    Hi mary in what year was this article created?

  14. wahid says:

    thank u sir for your brillant posting.
    i like your final word most, that to make the right decision i need to know what i really want……i like it because i believe man gets whatever he wants. if he can identify what he really wants he is sure to achieve it. in the process of achievement decision making is simply a part. once i know what i want i will take such decision to fulfill my want ……….& for that instant that is the right decision.
    we wish you a better continuation,
    thank you.

  15. […] don’t know what to do? Get great practical advice from Goodlife Zen on increasing your chances of making the “right” […]

  16. A decision that is made with less knowledge about it is always difficult to apprehend.

  17. i need more decisions techniques

  18. Kassidi says:

    I am the most indecisive person. That really helped me.

  19. […] the Right Decision; his first five recommendations will get you off to a good start and then follow this link for more of Burg’s advice. Burg’s Ways to Make the Right […]

  20. Marc says:

    really enjoyed reading this…i agree with many of this although the problem is that one often doesnt think so objective.too many decisions are made emotionally. i for myself found a method which helps me improve my decision making by asking as many people as possible! for that i use an internet plattform..maybe it helps someone here http://www.sodene.com/

  21. […] love to hear your story. What was the one decision that changed everything for you? Maybe you haven’t made it yet. That’s okay too. Tell your story as […]

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