By Eric Barker
June 21, 2016
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Life would be a lot easier if we just knew how to make good decisions. Research shows we all make a lot of bad ones.

With careers:

In our jobs:

And in our personal lives:

We get a lot of sketchy tips based on unreliable sources. So what does the scientific research say about how to make good decisions?

For starters, you might think you would be better off if you just had more information about the choice at hand.

And you’d be wrong…

 

You don’t need more info. You need the right info.

In the past 20 years we went from a world where information was difficult to come by to a world where we can’t get away from the stuff. The phrase “TMI” is now more true than ever.

When doctors are diagnosing heart attacks, the glut of information isn’t just a nuisance — it can be deadly:

Solution? Spend less time trying to amass all the information and more time better defining the problem so you can find the right information.

As Dan Pink explains in his bestseller, To Sell Is Human, research shows one of the hallmarks of great advances in both the arts and sciences is spending more time on clarifying problems.

Via To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

And people who focus on the problem instead of the answer end up more successful in their careers.

Via To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others:

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you more successful and happier, click here.)

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Alright, you’re clarifying the problem and focused on getting the right info. Good. So now you need to be ultra-rational and logical, unswayed by emotion in order to make a good choice, right? Wrong again…

 

Feelings Are Your Friends

Being calm definitely helps when trying to make good decisions — but ignoring emotions is silly.

As Stanford professor Baba Shiv explains, choices can’t be made without feelings.

Via The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive:

And not only do we need feelings to make decisions, engaging them also leads to better decisions.

Professor Timothy Wilson, author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, says feeling beats thinking when it comes to relationship predictions:

And matters of the heart aren’t the only place where feelings help. Empathy can be a big positive when trying to make good choices. Research shows doctors who feel empathy make better decisions for their patients.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of the bestseller Give and Take, told me:

Certainly there are times when we need to think things through and be very rational. So how do you know whether to go with your gut or not?

  • For simple decisions without many factors involved (What soda should I buy?) be rational.
  • For very complex or weighty decisions (Am I in love?) trust your gut.

Via How We Decide:

Now what about when you’re tired and it’s hard to think? Don’t worry — research says go with your gut.

And what about when you’re really really tired? Just go to bed. Studies show the old saw is true: “sleeping on it” works.

(To learn the #1 decision-making secret of astronauts, samurai, Navy SEALs and psychopaths, click here.)

Okay, you’ve defined the problem, got the right info and you’re not ignoring your feelings. What’s a key tool most people ignore that will let you know you should trust your decisions?

 

Know Your Strengths

Modern science is awesome but here you may wanna take a lesson from the ancient Greeks: “Know Thyself.”

There are few things that can truly guide powerful decisions more than knowledge of who you really are and what you’re good at. And the research agrees.

Definitely trust your gut on a subject — if it’s something you’re an expert at:

I know what some of you are thinking: But I’m not sure what my strengths are.

No sweat. All you need is a pen, paper and time. Keep a “decision diary.”

Peter Drucker, author of The Effective Executive, and one of the most influential thinkers on the subject of management, recommends monitoring what you do and noting what gets results over time:

Don’t trust your memory. Write it down. Make it a game. See where you score highly and not so highly.

Good at work decisions but bad when it comes to your personal life? Now you’ll know when you can trust your gut and when you may need some help.

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(To learn the 4 lifehacks from ancient philosophy that will make you happier, click here.)

All the ideas so far are great but there’s one critical thing that’s missing: when do you stop deciding? When is it time to pull the trigger?

Make A “Good Enough” Decision

Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful — and neuroscience backs this up. Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain and makes you feel out of control.

Via The Upward Spiral:

As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz said in my interview with him: “Good enough is almost always good enough.

Sound too easy? Too simplistic? Okay, let’s look at a real world example of how people at the highest levels make decisions.

James Waters was Deputy Director of Scheduling at The White House. (Word on the street is they make some pretty big decisions there.) What did James tell me?

“A good decision now is better than a perfect decision in two days”:

So focus on “good enough” instead of overthinking the problem. And if you do, you get an extra bonus: research shows your decisions are more likely to be ethical ones.

(To learn the four rituals that neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Alright, we covered a lot. Let’s round everything up — and learn the one simple question that can help you make solid decisions when you’re crunched for time…

Sum Up

Here’s how to make good decisions:

  • You don’t need more info, you need the right info: Clarify the problem and get relevant data, not all the data.
  • Feelings are not the enemy: For simple choices, use raw brainpower. For complex choices, trust intuition.
  • If you’re an expert in the area, trust your gut: Not sure if you’re an expert? Keep a decision diary.
  • “Good enough is almost always good enough”: Trying to be perfect makes your brain miserable.

And if you forget everything above, what one thing should you remember?

In my interview with Duke professor Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) he said you’re more likely to make a good decision if you “take the outside perspective.” What’s that mean?

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Just ask yourself, “What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”:

Yeah, it can really be that simple: thinking about how you would help others is often the best way to help yourself.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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