The simple act of making decisions, says the researcher Roy Baumeister, progressively depletes our ability to make them well. We begin to experience something called “decision fatigue.” Worse yet, we’re often not even consciously aware of feeling tired and impaired.
Here’s how the brain compensates: As much as 95 percent of the time, it makes decisions automatically, by habit, or in reaction to an external demand. So what would it take to intentionally make better decisions in a world of infinite choices?
The answer begins with self-awareness. Our first challenge is resist being reactive. Many of our worst decisions occur after we’ve been triggered — meaning that something or someone pushes us into negative emotion and we react instinctively, fueled by our stress hormones, in a state of fight or flight.
That’s all well and good if there’s a lion charging at you. It’s not very useful in everyday life. Most of the time, it makes more sense to live by the Golden Rule of Triggers: Whatever you feel compelled to do, don’t.
If you respond out of a compulsion, you haven’t made an intentional choice. It may feel right — even righteous — in the moment, but it’s more likely to exacerbate the problem than solve it.
Here are three keys to making really good decisions:
1. The first key is not to make bad ones. That begins with self- awareness — becoming more attentive to the physical signs that you’re feeling a sense of threat. The most common ones are tightness in any part of your body, more rapid breathing, and the experience of anger or fear. The intensity of an emotion is not a reason to act on it.
Instead, when you recognize what’s happening in your body, take a couple of deep breaths — breathe in to a count of three, out to a count of six. Then feel your feet, which will ground you back in reality.
All you’re trying to do here is buy time. It’s only when you quiet your physiology that you can think clearly and reflectively about how best to respond.