4 Ways to Make Tough Decisions a little bit easier

by kyle maynard on October 19, 2012

As the political season is hitting its fever pitch, we’ve been reading a lot about the two candidates. While this post is in no way political, I did read an article about Obama that really got me thinking. No matter what side of the aisle we sit on, I think everyone has to concede that being the President is not an easy job. Major, and I mean major decisions must be made everyday, often without all of the information, that will affect millions (possibly billions) of people.

Talk about pressure.

And while most of us do not have to make the decisions that could send soldiers into battle or affect the global economy, we all have to make important decisions on a daily basis. Maybe we have to decide on the next product to release in our business, or if we should refinance our home, or what job offer to accept.

And everyday, on top of those major decisions, we are faced with thousands of smaller decisions. What should I eat for breakfast? Hot coffee or iced coffee? Paper or plastic?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the problem of choice and how having too many choices can actually make us less happy (i.e. shopping for a pair of the ‘perfect’ jeans at the mall). There is no perfect pair. And the more pairs we are exposed to, the less perfect we believe our choice to be.

What happens when you not only have to decide about which jeans to buy, but which credit card to put it on, which podcast to listen to in the car, which roads to take home to avoid traffic, what to cook for dinner, what to watch on tv, etc.

As it turns out, being bombarded with decisions (big or small) can have major consequences in our lives.

Scientists are learning that our ability to make decisions works just like any other muscle in our body. It gets tired. In fact, it has even been given a name. It’s called decision fatigue.

Recently, one of my best friends got married, and I was talking to him and his new wife about the process of planning the wedding. It was a stunning wedding, but boy did they have some long days planning it.

The number of decisions you have to make in planning a wedding are seemingly endless. You have to decide on the church, the reception, the day, the time, the flowers, the cake, the DJ, the dress… and on and on.

Then there are a million smaller decisions to make as well, and my friend admitted to me that sometimes he would just be too exhausted to make any more decisions. He would ask his soon-to-be-bride if she could choose for him, or he would just pick something seemingly at random.

This is classic decision fatigue and when this happens in our lives, just like with my best friend, we do one of two things.

  1. Give up and pass the decision-making responsibility to someone else.  OR….
  2. Just pick something without any thought.

Even the best decision-makers in the world suffer from this. It may not really matter in the grand-scheme of things if your wedding cake has vanilla or cream-cheese frosting, but there are decisions that we make that do matter. Like who we marry, for instance. They matter a lot and it is of critical importance that we are not emotionally and mentally fatigued when we have to make them. 

In a recent NY Times article, John Tierney describes a real-life example that makes life altering decisions- serving on a parole board. These are people that were required to decide if prisoners were granted freedom or not. After analyzing the statistics, what they discovered shocked me. They found out that prisoners who came before the board in the morning received parole about 70% of the time. The prisoners who came in the afternoon? They received parole about 10% of time.

That’s insane!

They looked at all kinds of data to make sure there weren’t other factors at play. Did the morning prisoners commit less violent crimes? Were they of a different race or ethnic background? After looking at the data, there was no statistical difference. In fact, two people approached the board on the same day who were convicted of the same crime, were of the same ethnicity, and had the same sentence. The guy who appeared in the morning was granted parole while the one who came in the afternoon was denied. There is no conspiracy or bias or malicious intent here. It’s a simple result of decision fatigue. The board members were simply exhausted at the end of the day, and chose to just make the quick and easy decision.

Now what can we learn from this? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen in our own lives?

I have 4 of my own ideas to improve our decisions, and therefore, our quality of life. But I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on whats helped you make important choices.

1. This may seem pretty obvious, but we can start by not making major life or career decisions when you we’re mentally drained. We need to make sure we are well rested. If you’re running on 3 or 4 hrs. sleep and dependent on caffeine to get through the day, make sure you get some shut-eye before contemplating the big ticket items. Personally, I feel much more effective and confident in my choices and actions when I get good sleep, even if that means spending less time doing something.

2. Hunger can also lead to decision fatigue since our brain runs off of glucose (aka blood sugar). So you don’t want to be making these big moves on an empty stomach. And if your diet is heavy in sugar or grains (wheat, rice, corn, etc), then your blood glucose levels are probably going to be less stable in general. Eating a diet that’s balanced correctly for you with a variety of lean meats, green & multi-colored veggies, some fruits and healthy fats such as those from nuts & seeds can go a long way in combating decision fatigue.

3. Whether you believe me or not, we’re almost all at our best in making choices earlier in the morning. I don’t traditionally consider myself a morning person, but the further we get into the day, the more decisions we face, and consequently, the more fatigued we can become. Think about each decision as being like doing one sit-up at a time. It might not be too hard for those first few, but gradually with each repetition it will get harder and harder.

But sometimes we do have to make big decisions late in the day. What can we do then? Well this is what I found so interesting about President Obama. Every morning, he makes sure that there are only two suits in his closet- a blue one and a grey one. A President is required to make important decisions all day every day. He can’t schedule when emergencies happen. So he also tries to limit the mundane decisions to save his energy for the important ones.

4. In my opinion, this final suggestion may be most important of all. We must ask ourselves “Is the decision I am making one that I feel strongly about or is it one that I feel I “should” make because of family, co-worker, peer or societal pressure?” We are all capable of being overly influenced by people, factors and forces outside of ourselves. And it can happen in many different ways and at different times in our lives. But it is critically important we know where these influences are coming from and how they are affecting us. For the truly important decisions we make in our lives, it’s O.K. to be given guidance, but we need to be good with the choices we make ourselves. It’s not enough to do something only to make someone else happy.

Take a look at this excerpt from my friend Randy Gage’s new book that launches this week, entitled “Risky is the New Safe” (http://www.randygage.com/riskyisthenewsafe/)

“When I was growing up, my mom told me to go to school, earn a degree, and get a job with a big company – then I would be set for life. That was the safe thing to do, and millions of other parents around the world were telling their children to do the same thing. 

“Today, however, that might be the riskiest thing you can do…

“Fortunately, I was expelled from high school, so I never got a chance to follow my mother’s advice. And not following that safe path has made me a very rich man.”

Randy’s life would have been much different had he taken the route his mother, and probably most of society, would have advised. But because he made his own path and took risks others would have warned him against, he’s been able to touch hundreds of thousands of lives. Randy is one of the best speakers on the planet and the only mentor or coach I’ve ever had in public speaking. And I am personally grateful he never bought into the lies when people said he’d be a failure if he didn’t take the normal route.

And there are different paths for all of us. No one can truly make a judgement one way or another for someone else on a decision like the importance of going to school. That’s something we need to decide for ourselves.

But I know for certain my path in life would have been much harder had my parents believed it when people told them I would be dependent on their help forever. They asked the question “why can’t Kyle lead a normal life?”

What about you, what factors and forces outside of us are weighing too heavily on your decision making? Is knowing what these influences are enough to change your path and take a risk? How about in your health, are you preparing yourself with good enough rest and nutrition to make the tough choices?

And what decisions are you making everyday that aren’t important and may be weighing you down? Is it possible to limit those decisions or make them ahead of time? What do you think about restructuring your day so you deal with the important issues first?

This week, lets all try to make one tiny change in our schedule or routine that could help us become a better decision-maker. I would love to see what that change is for you in the comments below.

The important thing to remember is that everyone makes bad decisions. I am no different and I could spend a long time writing out the wrong choices I have made. It’s a part of being human. The most successful people I know, however, can recognize when they are most prone to making them. These people know when they need to sleep on it.

Until next time,

Kyle

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And you can check out this 16-minute video clip where Randy describes his new book here: http://www.randygage.com/riskyisthenewsafe/  … The book is brash, brazen and you probably won’t agree with some of it, but I can guarantee it will make you stop and think. This should be required reading for people who want to take a chance in their lives and make a difference in the world.

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