How Successful People Make Smart Decisions

A study at Strayer University found that most people think success is about achieving your personal goals.

Your days are filled with a constant stream of decisions. A study from Columbia University found that we’re bogged down by a good 70 decisions a day.

Some decisions are minor, like what to eat, which route to drive to work, or in what order to tackle tasks. Others are more difficult, like deciding between two job offers, whether to move to a new city for someone you love, or whether to cut a toxic person out of your life.

With so many decisions taking up each day, learning to prioritize them and make them effectively is essential to your success and happiness.

While I’m familiar with many strategies successful people use for effective decision-making, what follows are the cream of the crop.

They Turn Small Decisions into Routines …

Decision-making works like a muscle: as you use it over the course of the day, it gets too exhausted to function effectively. One of the best strategies successful people use to work around their decision fatigue is to eliminate smaller decisions by turning them into routines. Doing so frees up mental resources for more complex decisions.

Steve Jobs famously wore a black turtleneck to work every day. Mark Zuckerberg still dons a hoodie. Both men have stated that these iconic images are the simple result of daily routines intended to cut down on decision fatigue. They were both aware of our finite daily ability to make good decisions, as is Barack Obama, who said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”

… and Make Big Decisions in the Morning

Another great way to beat decision fatigue is to save small decisions for after work (when decision fatigue is greatest) and to tackle complex decisions in the morning, when your mind is fresh. When you’re facing a stream of important decisions, a great trick is to wake up early and work on your most complicated tasks before you get hit with a bunch of distracting minor decisions (phones ringing, e-mails coming in). A similar strategy is to do some of the smaller things the night before to get a head start on the next day. For instance, lay out your outfit at night so you don’t even have to think about it when you wake up.

They Pay Attention to Their Emotions

There’s an old saying: “Don’t make permanent decisions based on temporary emotions,” and it definitely rings true. Successful people recognize and understand their emotions (including their intensity and impact on behavior) so that they are able to look at decisions as objectively and rationally as possible.

Unfortunately, most people aren’t good at managing or even recognizing their emotions. TalentSmart has tested more than a million people and found that only 36% of us are able to accurately identify our emotions as they happen. Strong decision makers, on the other hand, know that a bad mood can make them lash out or stray from their moral compass just as easily as a good mood can make them overconfident and impulsive.

They Evaluate Their Options Objectively

When really wrapped up in a decision, successful people weigh their options against a pre-determined set of criteria because they know that this makes decision-making easier and more effective. Here are some helpful criteria to consider: How does this decision benefit me? How does it hurt me? How does this benefit ___? How does it hurt ___? Does the decision reflect my values? Would I regret making this decision? Would I regret not making this decision? Does this decision reflect my values?

They Sleep on It …

Sleeping on your decision ensures that you have clarity of thought when you approach it the next day. It also allows time for your emotions to run their course. When you act too quickly, you tend to react, but when you give more focus and time to your decision, you expose important facets of it that you didn’t see before.

… but Not for Too Long

Successful people know the importance of gathering as much information as they can, but at the same time, they make certain not to fall prey to analysis paralysis. Instead of waiting for the moons to align, successful people know that they need to have a timetable to follow in reaching their decision. Once they set that date, they are motivated to do their homework and some soul searching in order to meet the deadline.

They Use Exercise to Recharge

The stress of a major decision naturally produces cortisol, the chemical that triggers the fight-or-flight response. Cortisol clouds your ability to think clearly and rationally. When you find yourself stressing about a decision, try exercising. As little as 30 minutes is all it takes to get a good endorphin-fueled buzz and to return to mental clarity. Exercise also helps you get past that fight-or-flight state by putting the cortisol to practical use. Research shows that long-term exercise improves the overall functioning of the brain regions responsible for decision-making.

They Always Go Back to Their Moral Compass

Successful people know the importance of sticking to their morals when making an important decision. Morals serve as trusted guides when your emotions are pulling you in a different direction.

They Seek Outside Counsel

When approaching a decision, we have a natural tendency to pick an alternative and then to gather information to support that decision, instead of gathering information and then choosing a side (this is called confirmation bias). A great way to beat confirmation bias is to seek outside opinions and advice from people who bring different perspectives to your situation. Their perspectives help you weigh your options more objectively and to spot your subjective or irrational tendencies.

They Reflect on Previous Decisions

Mark Twain described the complicated nature of decision-making as follows: “Good decisions come from experience, but experience comes from making bad decisions.” This isn’t to say that the only way to become a great decision maker is to make a ton of mistakes; it just means that it’s important to keep past decisions front of mind. Successful people are aware enough of past decisions to use them to their benefit when something similar comes up.

Bringing It All Together

With repercussions that can last days, weeks, and even years, making great decisions is an effort that’s worth every bit of your time and energy.

By Dr. Travis Bradberry