The art of thinking clearly: 5 techniques to make better decisions

In Phoenix, Arizona in 2011, when former United States First Lady was campaigning for her husband, President Barack Obama’s second term, she said this about the art of making decisions:

“Don’t ever make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on hope and possibility. Make decisions based on what should happen, not on what shouldn’t.”

I think that this is such a great way to laser in on the reason why I’m inclined to make a particular choice. Am I doing it for the right reasons? Or am I doing it because I’m afraid something might happen if I don’t?

So how do we know if the decision we’re making is coming from a place of clarity, rather than a place of fear?

Here are five thoughts on making better decisions. 

1) Reflect on any poor choices of the past 

Making better decisions means learning from past mistakes and poor choices.

You won’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t take the time to reflect on them, says Maggie Wool from BetterUp

“That’s why you should make it a habit to carve out a regular time in your schedule for reflection,” she says. “This can help improve your mental fitness.”

This doesn’t mean you have to dwell or beat yourself up over any bad decisions, emphasizes Wool.

Instead, “use it as a time-boxed period to honestly review your day’s decisions and consider why some proved to be better (or worse) than others.”

It’s important to reflect on what caused you to make the mistake in the first place: perhaps an assumption you made was way off or you didn’t seek any input.

“Maybe you didn’t give yourself time to think or you acted out of fear,” says Wool. 

“Analyze the situation and look at the other possible alternatives you may have had. What did you learn? What will you do differently tomorrow [or the next time] as a result?”

Remember: you won’t be able to take back your mistakes, but you can learn from those decisions so as to improve your decision-making for the next time. 

2) Ask for advice

This doesn’t mean that you should seek out every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s opinion out there and completely ignore your own instincts, but sometimes it can be helpful to get insight from an expert or from someone who has lived through a similar experience. 

For instance, say you’re trying to figure out how best to navigate your relationship with a now ex-partner and there are children involved. 

You wouldn’t seek out the advice of a girlfriend who lives her life in the moment. Instead, you would want to talk to someone sensible who has gone through a similar experience and has come out the other side.

Or say you’re trying to make better financial decisions, then it makes better sense to talk to a financial expert to guide you, rather than a friend who has a lot of the same financial issues. 

“The right people with the relevant expertise need to clearly articulate their views to help the accountable decision maker (aka you) to broaden their perspective and make the best choice,” says Martin G. Moore from Ascend (part of The Harvard Review). 

“It will help you gain a greater understanding of the problem you are trying to solve and come up with smart, effective solutions,” he says. 

“For a decision to be properly formed, you need to consult with those who can contribute in a meaningful way.”

life decisions dont owe anyone an explanation for The art of thinking clearly: 5 techniques to make better decisions

3) At the same time, don’t overthink it

Overthinking can cause you to make a decision you might not normally have made and cause you undue stress at the same time, says the editorial team at Indeed

“The more you overthink, the more likely you are to bring doubt into your decision-making process, which can become a pattern and affect future decisions you have to make. If you’re struggling with your decision, take a step away from it and return when your mind is more clear.”

Every decision you make—especially when it comes to the big ones—should weigh the pros, cons, consequences, and all the options, says the staff.

“Overthinking can keep you from being able to make a final decision. It’s important to be able to come to a conclusion without too much time spent evaluating everything.”

4) Ask yourself if the decision is aligned with your goals

Let’s say you’re trying to save money for a down payment to buy a house. 

You’re doing pretty good in that you’re only spending money on essential things. You aren’t eating out, you’re making do with the clothes you have etc., etc. 

But then your cousin sends you an invitation to his destination wedding—which happens to be in Hawaii, your dream vacation.

The trip will set you back about $6000.

Do you go?

Sometimes making better decisions means making certain sacrifices because you’re focused on the big picture

Think of it this way: what do you want most? Do you want the dream holiday or do you want the house?

You might tell yourself that you’ll get back to saving after the trip. 

But think about it: if you can get sidetracked by the notion of a holiday, who’s to say that you won’t get sidetracked again down the road by something else?

Saying no to Hawaii shows that you’re committed to your goal of home ownership. You have to go for the bigger goal.

5) Verify your values 

Self-help author Mark Manson says that he gets a lot of people asking him what they should do in a given situation. 

In other words, they want him to make the decision for them. 

This can be anything from, “Should I stay in a relationship or leave and find a new one?”

Or: “Should I go back to school to get a better job or should I start my own business?”

Or: “Should I stop communicating with a toxic friend or family member or should I try to repair the relationship?”

Manson says the problem is that for many situations such as the above, there is no obvious yes or no answer. 

“Ultimately, they all boil down to the person’s individual values or what they prioritize.”

For example: Is family hugely important to them? Does their career matter more? 

There is no right or wrong answer. 

“The first thing you need to do before seeking any outside advice is to figure out your priorities,” says Manson. “What is at the top of your own personal hierarchy?”

Manson says that reflecting and truly understanding your values will help you to prioritize what is truly important to you so that you can make decisions based on those values. 

Manson says to think of it this way:

“If I had to give up X or Y for the next 10 years, what would I give up?” 

The answer will actually tell you a lot. 

The sad thing is that many people waste their mental energy and bandwidth on things that don’t even really matter when you look at the big picture or the grand scheme of things, emphasize Manson. 

“We worry about what other people think of us, we compare ourselves to others, and we try to control things that are ultimately out of our hands.”

Manson says that one way to make better decisions is to think about what’s most important to you in life and then make decisions based on those values. 

“For example, let’s say that one of your core values is ‘adventure’. You might be faced with a decision between taking a safe, stable job or taking a riskier job that offers opportunity for travel and excitement.”

So if you prioritize adventure, then the second option is most likely the best choice for you, even though it comes with more uncertainty and risk, says Manson. 

“By grounding our decision-making in our values, we can avoid getting bogged down by trivial details or external pressures. We can focus on what truly matters to us, and make choices that are true to ourselves.”

To know for sure, put yourself into the future…

Here’s a quote by Susan Wojcicki, former CEO of YouTube, that I like: 

“One way I think about some of the decisions is putting myself in the future and thinking: in five or ten years what will they say? If someone were to look back on the decisions we’re making, would they feel we were on the right side of history? Would I feel proud?”

Make the decisions of your life based on that. 

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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