How to Make Great Decisions in Life: Top 5 Practical Insights

How to Make Great Decisions in Life

Making great decisions can be tricky: there are many hidden traps and potential roadblocks you need to be aware of. Here are 5 practical, actionable insights to help you make the best possible decisions to improve your life.

1. Value is in the eye of the beholder

How much is a gallon of water worth?

Well, if you’re reading this, you can probably get a gallon of water for pennies from your kitchen tap. Yet, if you were dying of thirst in a desert, you’d happily pay a hundred bucks for it, right? On the other hand, you’d pay a hundred bucks an hour for a plumber to avoid the water being there in the first place (in your flooded basement, that is).

Many people believe value is intrinsic to an object. Sure, water is water is water, but its value varies enormously depending on what you need it for.

Decision making is a very personal business — it’s about assessing what’s valuable to you. There’s no absolute best job, best car or best life to be lived: value is in the eye of the decision maker.

How to Apply This Insight

  • Always decide on your own. Sure, factor in other people’s opinions, but bear in mind that they may value things (very) differently. Blindly following other people’s advice may lead to disastrous decisions — even if they are based on “sound” advice from people with the best intentions of helping you.

2. Know your goals before choosing

As we’ve seen in insight #1 above, no decision outcomes are intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ — the outcome depends on who you ask, and there are never absolute answers. How do you make sure you’re making the best decision for your life, then?

It may sound obvious at first, but it all boils down to your goalsknowing what you want out of the decision.

But establishing a clear picture of your goals for decision making is not always trivial, and I don’t think people invest enough time to do it properly. Consider this dialogue from the book Making Great Decisions in Business and in Life:

Salesman: Hey, want to buy an elephant for $800?
Passerby: No, thanks.
Salesman: How about an elephant for $500?
Passerby: No! What would I do with an elephant? Come on, I live in an apartment.
Salesman: You drive a hard bargain. How about two elephants for $500?
Passerby: Make it $400 and you’ve got a deal.

The point is clear: if you have no use for an elephant (or for the latest shiny gadget, if you will), it will never be a good deal now matter how little you pay for it (unless you plan to make a profit reselling it, of course).

How to Apply This Insight

  • Be clear about your goals before deciding. A great way to ensure you carefully consider your goals before deciding is by using the PrOACT approach, which is a great, structured way of making decisions.
  • Beware of doing the wrong comparisons. To assess how valuable something is to you, the only comparison you should make is how it ties in with your objectives. If you don’t need, say, that latest phone in the first place, it’s meaningless to compare it with the model you already have, or with its “light” or “premium” versions! For more on how comparisons can lead you astray, check The Relativity Mind Trap.

3. Your decision outcome can be no better than your best alternative

Many people see decision making as an analytical process that, if done right, is guaranteed to lead to nice outcomes. They believe that if they just think hard and long enough, great outcomes will result from their decisions.

The truth is: no matter how much effort you put in, no decision outcome can be better than the best alternative you considered. And no amount of analysis or systematic thinking will change that.

Having a good amount of alternatives to explore and choose from, then, is essential for making great decisions. If you’re having a hard time deciding, it doesn’t mean you’re a poor decision maker: most likely you’re just out of decent alternatives.

How to Apply This Insight

  • Generate many alternatives. Before jumping in and deciding among just two or three options that first come to mind, spend time generating plenty of new alternatives. Use idea-generation techniques, such as lists of 100 or SCAMPER. Set yourself idea quotas. Don’t be shy about flexing your brainstorming muscles.

4. Make effort proportional to importance

The more important a decision is, the more time you should spend on it. ‘Duh, that’s just common sense’, you say. Well, just like with many other things in life, common sense does not equal common practice.

Here’s what often happens: we spend time on decisions not based on how important they are, but on how difficult they are. These are two very different concepts. Let me illustrate.

Suppose you’re buying a car, and you’re torn between two very similar models: One has slightly better transmission, but the other has a slightly better engine. One is slightly cheaper, but the other is slightly more reliable. You see, it’s a decision that is hard to analyze, with many complex tradeoffs!

Yes, it sure is a hard decision… but that doesn’t mean it’s an important one! After all, you’re probably going to be fine with either car as the differences are minimal.

The closest your alternatives are, the harder it is to decide. And, perversely, the less relevant your decision will be one way or another!

As a wise decision-maker, you will realize that if alternatives are very close to each other in value, it matters less which one you picks. You should save your energy for more important decisions — those with very different payoffs.

How to Apply This Insight

  • Pay attention to “hard” decisions. When you can’t make up your mind between two choices, chances are that they’re so similar that it doesn’t matter which one you pick. See if the tradeoffs you’re considering match your decision objectives (see insight #2 above).
  • Agree on a decision deadline. If you still find yourself bogged down on a decision of borderline importance, set a fixed block of time aside and agree to have the decision made at the end of it no matter what. Can’t really make up your mind for such a minimal difference? Toss a coin at the last second if necessary.

5. Taking a structured approach makes a big difference

Making great decisions is a process that involves many unique and diametrically-opposite “thinking modes”. For instance, to generate good alternatives, you must be creative and non-judgmental. But to ultimately make up your mind, you need to be judgmental. Knowing when to switch thinking modes is important, and it’s too easy to get it wrong.

In that context, I strongly advise that you see the decision making process as a chain of separate steps. Isolate each step, going into different thinking modes in turn in order to make the best possible decision.

How to Apply This Insight

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