13 Ways to Make Better Decisions in Life

Reduce the stress that decision-making can bring by following expert advice to identify smart choices.

Published November 30, 2022
Woman making decisions while looking out of the window

From the minute you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, you're responsible for making decision, after decision, after decision. Sometimes it can feel like the choices are endless. Sure, some decisions are small and simple, like how many spoonfuls of sweetener to put in your coffee. But those big decisions - like how much money to set aside for bills - can feel overwhelming and even exhausting at times.

When you feel pressure to make the right decision, or at least to make better decisions in life, it's easy to overthink and get in your own way. As a result, you might even make choices that aren't in your best interests. But there are several strategies you can use to learn how to make better decisions. Simple tips can make the process more streamlined so that you can make good decisions with confidence.

How to Make Good Decisions

What makes one choice a "good" decision and another choice a "bad" decision? It's a hard question to answer because what might be a good opportunity for one person may not be a good opportunity for another. Good choices are usually based on the individual. Only in fairly limited situations are there blanket "good" or "bad" options. In most situations, there are opportunities that are better or worse for a specific person.

The fact that there are no clear-cut, cookie-cutter choices can make the decision-making process more complex. But there are some techniques you can use to help guide you. Explore the strategies below to learn how to make better decisions that fit your needs and help you reach your goals.

1. Define Your Priorities

What is it that you want out of life? Defining your priorities can help guide your decisions. For example, you might desire abstract concepts, such as strong friendships, love, financial stability, or good health. Or you might find that your desires revolve around more concrete and tangible elements, such as owning your own home, buying a certain car, or even having a specific number of children.

Take some time to reflect and decide what you want. You can make a list of things on a sheet of paper, or write them down in the notes app on your phone. Try to be as specific as possible. It's okay to include those abstract ideas, but then try to define how that priority would look. For instance, if financial security is on your list, try to define how you would achieve a level of stability. Is there an income threshold you'd like to reach? Or perhaps financial stability is defined by your savings account. Your list can be as long or as short as you'd like. Just make sure it includes things that you really want.

2. Set SMART Goals

After you have decided what you hope to achieve, you can turn those priorities into goals. For example, if you wrote down "Buy a car" on your list, you can modify the language and change it to, "My goal is to buy a car." It might sound like a slight, silly, inconsequential tweak, but using the right kind of language can transform an idea into a wish, and then finally into an actionable goal.

One way to set yourself up for success after you have outlined your priorities is to use S.M.A.R.T. Goals. This concept was created to help people achieve their aspirations and establish clear expectations to guide them along the way. Each letter in a S.M.A.R.T. goal stands for a different element.

  • Specific - Make your goal as specific as possible. Use concrete details. Focus on one goal at a time for this step. For example, "I want to maintain good health" is not a very specific goal. However, you can change it to, "I want to increase the amount of physical activity I get each week" to make it less broad.
  • Measurable - How will you track the progress towards your goals? What measures will you use? Days, specific changes, how you feel? In the physical activity example mentioned above, one way to make the goal measurable is to track the number of days each week you work out, the number of minutes you exercise, or the number of miles you run.
  • Achievable - Be sure that your goal is reachable. If it seems too abstract or too far away, it might be a good idea to scale it down a bit. Then, you can work towards a goal that requires more resources. For example, a goal of, "I want to run a marathon" might not work if you don't run at all. But you can adjust it to, "I want to run one mile this week" and then gradually increase the distance over time.
  • Relevant - Make sure that the goal is important to you. Does it align with your other values and support your broader goals? If you don't particularly want to increase your level of physical activity, then setting a workout goal might not make sense for you. Be sure that you don't set goals to make others happy. Center your goals around your needs and priorities.
  • Time-bound - Set a time frame for your goal. Do you hope to accomplish it within the week, or will it take a few months, or even longer? Be as specific as you can. For example, if you do want to run a marathon, you can look for opportunities in the future, and then sign up for a race. This can help your goal shift from, "I want to run a marathon someday" to "I want to run a marathon in 6 months."

SMART goals are a great tool to keep in your back pocket. They can help you identify specific achievements and keep you accountable as you work towards them. Whenever you're faced with a difficult decision, see what it would look like to turn it into a S.M.A.R.T. goal. If it's something you value that is attainable, it might be a good opportunity to explore.

3. Identify Small Steps

The only way to get from point A to point B is to take the necessary steps. After you have defined your goals, identify clear and manageable steps so that you have a roadmap to achieve them. You'll follow this sequence of events and even celebrate your progress along the way.

For example, if you hope to eat more vegetables, there are numerous steps you can take to set yourself up for success. You can start to make grocery lists of the vegetables you want to have on hand, look up recipes that require those ingredients, or choose one meal each day where you will enjoy a serving of veggies.

Refer to your goal-inspired steps when you need to make a decision. Does the opportunity support your overall goals or will it set you back a step or two? If a certain decision helps you advance through your steps or doesn't take you off track, it may be a good choice.

4. Evaluate Current Choices

Where are you at in your life right now? Compare that to where you hope to be in the future. Do your current circumstances serve your future goals? If they do, then you're on track. But if they don't, then it might be a good time to reconsider your choices.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself are:

  • Am I doing my best to reach my goals and support my well-being?
  • Are my social relationships meeting my needs?
  • Do I have the resources I need to be successful?
  • Does my job provide me the financial, educational, and emotional support I'm looking for?

If your answer to any of the above questions is "no," then it might be a sign that you should make some changes in your life. When contemplating a new decision, make sure that it supports your ability to say "yes" to these questions.

5. Weigh the Pros and Cons

Every decision comes with a variety of consequences. Some of them can be positive and others might be negative. One way to evaluate a decision is to weigh the pros and cons.

Make a mental list or, better yet, write them down on a piece of paper so you have a visual picture of both lists. What are some of the upsides of the opportunity? What are some of the downsides? Compare your two lists and see which one outweighs the other. If more negatives come from making a decision, rather than positives, then it might not be the best choice for you.

6. Take Your Time

It's important to hit the brakes every once in a while and take some time to reflect. When a big opportunity arises, take as much time as you need with your decision. In most cases, you don't have to have a perfect answer overnight. And, the more time you have to weigh the pros and cons, the more informed of a decision you can make.

If an opportunity involves a time limit, gather information about how much time you can take. If you need to, ask for an extension. If the opportunity can't wait for you to make an informed decision, then it might be best to let it pass. You deserve the courtesy of being able to weigh your options.

7. Ask for a Second Opinion

Don't forget that you have resources! You don't have to make every decision on your own if you don't want to. Ask your friends, family members, co-workers, and other people you trust for their thoughts. A second opinion can offer new insight and perspective.

When we're too close to something, we can get caught up in our own biases and make decisions that take us further away from our goals. If you have a support system you trust to keep your best interests at heart, you might want to ask them about certain choices so that they can help point you in the right direction.

8. Think About Advice You'd Give to Others

Another way to distance yourself from a situation is to imagine that a friend is in your position. What advice would you give to a loved one faced with the same decision?

If you would tell a friend to go for it, then chances are good that you should seize the opportunity. If you'd suggest they pass, then it might be a good idea to turn it down. Sometimes the best advice comes from yourself.

9. Be Flexible and Open to New Experiences

Have you turned down opportunities in the past because they were different from what you were used to? If you have, it's okay, we've all been there. However, saying "no" to unhelpful opportunities isn't the only way to make better choices. It also involves saying "yes" to the right opportunities when they come around.

Try your best to be open when decisions present themselves. Being more flexible can allow you to see different perspectives and might even lead to you accepting great opportunities that you may have shied away from in the past.

10. Recognize Your Personal Pitfalls

We all engage in less-than-perfect behavior from time to time. We're human. But sometimes, it is hard to recognize the patterns we fall into that don't serve our needs. Although a bigger goal of yours might be to change bad habits, a good first step is to recognize unhelpful behaviors.

For example, you might dislike change, give up too soon when things become challenging, or become distracted by other interests. If you can identify the challenges you might face when presented with a difficult decision, you can make a plan to overcome them when they arise.

If you hit a roadblock in your decision-making process, take a step back and see if one of your unhelpful behaviors is getting in the way. If it is, unpack why that behavior has been triggered so that you can move forward.

11. Make Important Decisions Early in the Day

According to research, adults are faced with 35,000 decisions a day. Let that sink in for a second. That's a lot of choices that can create mental and emotional strain throughout the day. Psychologists refer to this as decision fatigue.

This is how it works: At the start of the day, you wake up (hopefully) refreshed and ready. You have the energy and patience to tackle whatever decisions come your way. However, as the day goes on and you're confronted with more and more decisions, your energy is slowly depleted making it more difficult to make good choices.

If you have an important decision to make, especially if it's timely, try and tackle it at the start of your day rather than putting it off until later. This way you can increase the chances that you have the energy and mental bandwidth to make the best choice possible.

12. Trust Yourself

One of the most important aspects involved in making good decisions is self-trust. But for many of us, trust in ourselves is lacking.

In order to trust yourself, you have to be honest. Are your goals truly important to you or are they goals that you think you should want? Are you internally motivated to reach them, or are external factors like money or social status influencing you?

We are all prone to second-guessing and overthinking now and again. But you still know yourself better than anyone else. Give yourself permission to trust your gut and be confident that you're looking out for your best interests.

13. Remember That Nobody's Perfect

No matter how many steps you take to ensure that you make good decisions, some bad choices might slip through the cracks. That's okay! Sometimes bad decisions ultimately lead to valuable life lessons.

If you find that you've made an unhelpful choice, take some time to reflect on why it wasn't a good fit. Then, make a mental note that that specific decision didn't serve your needs, and do your best to move forward. You can't change your past decisions, but you can do the best you can to make sure you make better choices in the future.

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13 Ways to Make Better Decisions in Life