Illustration by Marian Blair
From what to eat for lunch to which way a work project should go, we are faced with an overwhelming number of decision points every day. And whether the choices are small or call for more thoughtful consideration, they all require some degree of mental energy and can leave you feeling depleted.
This decision-making stress can lead to mistakes and poor judgment—which in turn makes us even more stressed and exhausted.
So, how can we break this cycle and make better and more balanced decisions? Here are a few ways to ease your mind and improve your decision-making process.
The two systems of decision making
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that there are two systems in the brain focused on decision-making.
- System 1 is in charge of quick, automatic responses that are either instinctive, like fearing snakes, or inculcated, like being able to improvise on a musical instrument.
- System 2, on the other hand, requires deliberate attention because it’s designed to solve more complex and novel problems, such as when you’re trying to multiply 38 x 57 or parallel park in a tight spot.
You may assume that System 1 and System 2 operate in tension, but they actually work in tandem—helping you get through the day with a combination of what Kahneman calls “fast and slow thinking”:
System 1 continuously generates suggestions for System 2: impressions, intuitions, intentions, and feelings. If endorsed by System 2, impressions and intuitions turn into beliefs, and impulses turn into voluntary actions. When all goes smoothly, which is most of the time, System 2 adopts the suggestions of System 1 with little or no modification. You generally believe your impressions and act on your desires, and that is fine—usually.
The word “usually” there is important. Part of what makes System 1 so efficient is its automaticity—but as anyone who has been hangry can attest, automaticity doesn’t always work out well. When we are tired, stressed, or burnt out from work, System 2 requires too much effort for us to handle, and System 1 tries to cover for its counterpart. However, because thinking slow isn’t its forte, System 1 causes us to make rash—and often poor—decisions.
How to improve your decision-making process
It can be difficult to overcome the System 1 takeover in the moment, but with a little bit of self-awareness, it’s possible to improve your decision-making process even when you’re under pressure. Here are three tactics to practice:
1. Learn to pause and assess
This seems about as simple and obvious as any piece of advice can get—but that’s because you’re reading this with System 2 at the wheel. System 1 is far less enthusiastic about stopping and looking around before moving forward. You can, however, train it to do this through repetition.
Try making a list of times when you tend to make quick, instinctive decisions. Just before lunch? Toward the end of the day? Keep a pen and pad or the Notes app on your phone handy, and whenever you realize you’ve let System 1 take over—whether you were right or wrong—mark that instance down. Eventually, you’ll begin to notice the moments just as they occur, giving you the chance to shift to a more deliberate decision-making process rather than going on auto-pilot.
Pro Tip: You can also use verbal cues to help yourself get into this mindset. An old professor of mine used to say, “Just a minute,” whenever he was about to pause and assess something a student had said or asked. Vocalizing phrases to coincide with specific actions makes the behavior more real to you in the moment, and can help new habits stick.
It’ll take some effort, but eventually you’ll develop an instinct for hitting the brakes in your mind when you would otherwise speed through a decision. This will then begin to manifest itself in more challenging circumstances and prevent you from letting System 1 take over when it shouldn’t.
2. Practice mindfulness
Part of what you’re doing when pausing and assessing is being more conscious of your mind in the moment. It’s easy for us to get carried away by the current of our thoughts and emotions, but mindfulness—the practice of paying close attention to our thoughts as they arise—is a tool for keeping ourselves from being pulled into that current.
With mindfulness meditation apps like Waking Up and Headspace, as well as free guided meditations on YouTube, there’s no shortage of resources to help you develop a healthy mindfulness practice. Take 10-15 minutes per day to sit and examine the nature of your mind. How do thoughts and feelings arise? Where do they come from? Where do they go?
Through mindfulness, you can train yourself to pause and assess more often and more effectively—especially in those moments when you’re likely to let System 1 run amuck. It can also help you recognize when you’re not in the right frame of mind for decision making. Imagine being able to say, “I have a bit too much on my plate to give this the proper consideration right now. Can we discuss it on Monday morning?” That simple act of self-acknowledgment can make all the difference.
3. Write about it
Big decisions can be daunting, but one thing that may help you make better choices is writing about the process. Getting the whirlwind of thoughts out of our heads and onto the page—literal or digital—not only helps settle our emotions, but also lets us see the situation more clearly.
Researchers Winston Sieck and Frank Yates conducted a set of studies at the University of Michigan to test this very idea. What they found was that people built a much more comprehensive and unbiased assessment of a given problem—and were therefore more confident and content with their eventual decisions—when they took time to write about it first.
Try journaling about some big decisions you have to make. Let your thoughts flow and don’t worry too much about having a goal, or even making sense. The idea is to get your thoughts out; you can always go back and review things later. At the very least, writing things down will allow you to decompress and get some of your anxiety out. Every now and then, though, you might end up discovering an angle or potential solution you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. If that sounds like a win-win, that’s because it is.
In Part 2 we’ll cover three more methods for managing stress and making sure you’re keeping System 1 at bay.
Whether it’s at work or at home, decision-making is an important part of our lives. Learning how to be a more efficient and effective decision maker is a critical skill—not just for making the best choices, but also for ensuring our own well-being. A healthy state of mind is critical to self-care, and the stress that comes from indecision can be a significant drain on our mental health. Since May is Mental Health Awareness Month, there’s no better time to bone up on how to improve your decision-making process.
In Part 1 we discussed Daniel Kahneman’s concept of System 1 and System 2 thinking to help recognize the differences between “thinking fast” and “thinking slow,” and three ways to prevent System 1 from hijacking our decision-making process. Here, we cover three more methods for ensuring you have both the mental and emotional energy necessary to make sound choices, even under pressure.
1. Narrow your options and make smaller decisions
We can all appreciate the wisdom of “less is more,” but we rarely apply it to our decision-making process. Our tendency is to think that the more options we have, the more likely we are to make the best and most satisfying choice. However, the research shows that the exact opposite is the case. Having fewer alternatives to choose from and committing to a decision once we’ve made it often leads to a less stressful decision-making process—and more satisfaction overall.
If you’re faced with an overwhelming number of options, break them into smaller chunks and treat the process like a tournament bracket. Focus solely on one group at a time, putting the others out of your mind until later. Follow this elimination process until you’re left with one last list of the “winners.” Now that your options have been narrowed, you can more confidently move forward with a final decision.
2. Ask others for input
Part of what makes decision making so emotionally exhausting is the pressure to make the right choice. A great way to relieve that pressure—especially if you don’t have as much time as you’d like—is to ask colleagues for their thoughts.
Much like writing things down, getting the opinions of others is a great way to find alternative perspectives you may have neglected to consider. Sometimes, the simple act of explaining the problem can refresh your own understanding, getting you thinking differently and shaking loose some ideas you may otherwise not have had.
Hearing what others have to say can also help you preserve your own energy and ease some of the pressure of trying to handle the deliberation by yourself. Even if the decision is ultimately yours, sharing the weight of the process with others can help you avoid wearing yourself out—which leads us to the final tip:
3. Avoid decision fatigue
Decision fatigue is the name given to the diminishing returns we get when we’re required to make too many choices in close succession. Our minds can only handle so much before our decision-making process begins to deteriorate, which is why pacing ourselves and learning to say “no” when we are beginning to feel overwhelmed is crucial.
If you have a lot of big decisions to make, try to space them out so you have the time to recharge. Put meals or breaks between decision points so you can make sure you have the energy to be mindful. If you can, spread important meetings out so they aren’t back-to-back, or try to defer the actual decision making to time outside those meetings. Say something like, “I want to review all the information more closely before making a decision on this. How about I get back to you with an answer by Thursday?” This will give you a chance to employ the other tactics we’ve covered and ensure you’re making decisions with System 2 in the driver’s seat.
We know it would be silly to expect our cars to run well on an empty tank and without proper maintenance, but we often lose sight of this when it comes to ourselves. That is why perhaps the most important piece of advice for improving your decision-making process is avoiding burnout. System 1 thinking tends to go haywire when we’re stressed, under pressure, or sleep-deprived, so getting enough rest and minding our health is integral to staying on track. When it comes to improving your decision-making process, as with most considerations, the first and most important step is self-care.
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And be sure to check out Part 1 for more tips on improving your decision-making process.