How to Be a Better Decision Maker

Find it hard to make up your mind—even about little things, like what to eat? Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of The Paradox of Choice, says the answer is... there’s no right answer.

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Photo by Peter Oumanski

Why is decision-making so agonizing?

There’s an explosion of options in all areas of modern life—careers, wireless plans, shampoo.

So we’re overwhelmed by choice?

Definitely. Also, people don’t really know what they want.

How can we narrow things down?

By focusing on only the factors that are most important to us.

You talk about two types of decision-makers: “maximizers” and “satisficers.”

Yes. A maximizer looks at every possible choice to determine the strongest contender. A satisficer goes with “good enough.” We found that satisficers are happier with their choices. They also have more free time, since they’re not laboring over the alternatives.

Isn’t choosing good enough akin to settling?

No. The choice should still fulfill the requirements most important to you.

Walk us through the process for, say, choosing a restaurant.

Narrow down the choices by asking what factors you care about most: “What type of food do I want? What price range? Can I walk there?” Look at no more than six options and pick the one that fits the bill. If more than one fulfills the criteria, go with the first one on the list. Forget about finding “the best”—that’s paralyzing. The worst that can happen is that you have a bad meal.

How do you break out of a lifelong maximizer habit?

Maximizers will feel uncomfortable when they attempt to go with good enough. But it will feel more natural the more often you do it. Realize that sometimes there is no right answer. For example, a person can grow into a job even if it’s not ideal. It’s up to the individual to tailor the career to fit him or her.

Why does making big decisions feel harder?

They’re more consequential, and we have less practice making them. But people actually tend to apply the same weight to decisions of where to eat and what toothpaste to buy as to what job to take and where to move.

Does creating a list of pros and cons help?

It works only if you assign weight to each pro and con. But it does get you to list all the factors, which helps you focus on what you ultimately want.

Tell us about “decision fatigue.”

Say you call the shots all day at your job. When you get home and your spouse asks about weekend plans, you’re going to feel tapped out and evade the question. Decision fatigue also saps self-control. It’s tough to resist cake if you’ve just made a lot of decisions. But when the day has been decision-light, you’ll have energy to say no.

What else affects decision-making?

Lack of sleep, being depressed, hunger. A study found judges in Israel were more likely to choose the default verdict of denying parole to prisoners an hour prior to lunch than an hour after.

What is the ideal time of day to make a decision?

In the morning, when you’re fresh, fed, and well rested.

How do you feel about intuition?

Often the gut knows more about what you care about than the head does. But you need a balance of gut and head. Sleep on a major decision to give your intuition a chance to respond. Maximizers often revisit choices later on. But that just undermines satisfaction. Once you come to a final decision, put on blinders. Just go with it.