Full-fat, skim, almond or soy milk? Friend’s birthday or husband’s work dinner? Job promotion or more time with the family? We’re constantly being asked to choose how to spend our time, our money and our attention. The “plugged-in” nature of modern life only intensifies this – and that’s before you even get to the big, life-changing decisions such as taking an overseas job or ending a marriage. So how can we make the best possible choices?
Eat the right foods
Looking after yourself is the foundation of good decision making, Jacqui Manning, The Friendly Psychologist, explains. “If we’re in a fit and well state, our mind will be better placed to deal with the array of mental challenges that come our way every day.”
A study published in the journal Psychological Science revealed that subjects who had higher levels of blood glucose chose a “larger but later” reward option that was presented to them, while those with lower levels of blood glucose took the “smaller but sooner” reward. The authors concluded that because the future is more abstract than the present, it requires more energy to process.
Try eating proteins and low-GI carbs for a steady supply of energy throughout the day – and don’t hit the supermarket when you’re hungry.
Take time out
Many important decisions are made in stressful situations. One study found that stress makes us focus more on the rewards and less on the risks of the decision we’re trying to make. “For instance, anticipating a hectic day at work may influence one’s willingness to risk speeding through a yellow light on the way to the office,” the study authors explained.
Dr Simon Kinsella, a clinical psychologist and director of the Institute of Performance & Wellbeing, says this applies to anything from weighing up a job offer to abandoning your relationship to pursue a different one. “That [new love interest] stands out because they have characteristics that are obviously different to the characteristics of the [current partner] you’re struggling with at the moment,” he says. “So there will be a leap to this other relationship without standing back and looking at the whole person.”
Kinsella encourages clients to book some time out – whether it’s a half-day off work or some alone time at night – to “do due diligence on the decision”. Try speaking to potential new colleagues or friends and family who may lend a different and helpful perspective on your choice.
Trust your gut
When it comes to bigger decisions, Manning says an individual’s intuitionis the number one indicator of whether something is right or wrong for them, particularly when it comes to a relationship that’s ended badly. “Inevitably [clients] say they knew they weren’t right for each other at the beginning but they thought [the other person] would change, thought they would be OK,” she adds.
A growing body of research also suggests that the human brain has the capacity to intuitively process large amounts of information without us even being aware of it, so our instincts shouldn’t be dismissed before the decision’s overall value has been considered.
“Don’t ignore your inner voice,” Manning advises. “Tune in to that frequency and even if you can’t explain why you feel a certain decision is right, hold your ground.”
Learn to prioritise
US President Barack Obama said in a magazine interview last year that he’d limited his suit choices to blue and grey in order to focus his decision-making energy on important choices. Take his lead by cutting down on trivial choices where possible.
Manning suggests asking yourself what’s most important in your life and using the answers as a base from which to make decisions. “If your relationship is the number one priority, that will have a bearing on where and when you spend your time. If your career is number one, then things will look a bit different,” she says.
Kinsella agrees: “It’s just as important to know what you’re good at, recognise your talents and work within your comfort zone. Having a fairly narrow focus helps – you pick something, work at it and give it your all.”
Be comfortable with your choice
“Resilient people appear to make good decisions, but that’s probably a reflection on their flexibility of thinking,” Manning says. “They’d have made mistakes, too – it’s how they deal with those and move forward that will be telling.”
On the other hand, she adds, “People who see the world as black and white or catastrophise the minute something goes wrong tend to get stuck for longer ruminating over a bad decision, rather than making the best of it.”
When struggling with big decisions, she suggests brainstorming every pro and con you can think of that’s associated with the situation. You then need to compare these to your own values.
“If you’re making a decision based on what you believe you ‘should’ do or what others think, you’ll end up unhappy,” she warns.