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How to Improve Your Decision-Making Process, Part 1

Angel Eduardo

Illustration of sticky notes, question marks, check marks, and a sun-shaped clock | How to Improve Your Decision-Making Process
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.

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In Part 2 we’ll cover three more methods for managing stress and making sure you’re keeping System 1 at bay.

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Angel Eduardo

As Career Content Coordinator & Writer for Idealist, Angel uses his skills as a storyteller and designer to craft and edit everything from blog posts, marketing copy, email campaigns, landing page layouts, and more.

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