smart decision-making under pressure

How to quickly make smart decisions

June 23, 2023
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Would you be surprised to learn that you make somewhere around 35,000 decisions every day? That's about 2,000 decisions per hour, or one decision every two seconds.

From what to wear, to where to eat, to whether to "like" a friend's post on Instagram, decisions are everywhere. In fact, you're facing a decision right now: Should you keep reading this article?

We recommend you choose "yes" if you want to learn more about the science of decision-making, factors that influence decision-making, some decision-making strategies, and steps to help you make smart decisions fast.

Brain science of decision-making

Decision-making is a complex process that primarily involves two areas of the brain: the emotional limbic system and the rational prefrontal cortex. 

The prefrontal cortex handles executive functions, like planning and problem-solving, and it also evaluates potential risks and rewards of choices. The amygdala, part of the limbic system, helps us react quickly based on emotional memories and experiences.

Although they may seem independent, these systems constantly interact, influencing each other in the decision-making process. Other regions of the brain also contribute, highlighting the intricate nature of decision-making neuroscience.

Factors that influence decision-making

Beyond the brain science, there are many factors that can influence decision-making:

  • Time pressure: When faced with a limited amount of time, people tend to rely on their intuition and existing knowledge rather than weighing the pros and cons of all the possible choices. As a result, they may choose the familiar option or go with their gut instinct, regardless of whether it’s the most logical decision.
  • Social pressure: Social pressure also plays a role in decision-making. According to one study, people are more likely to make socially responsible decisions when they are in a public setting, whereas being in a private setting makes it easier to follow their own desires and impulses. A separate study demonstrated that people are more likely to make a risky decision after being told that their peers had made a similar choice. This phenomenon can be explained by the concept of "social proof," which states that individuals tend to conform to the behavior of others—even when it involves risk—when they are uncertain about what action to take. 
  • Emotions: Emotions can cause us to make snap decisions, such as when we act out of fear or anger, or to take longer to consider our options when we feel overwhelmed or uncertain. Additionally, emotions can make us biased towards certain outcomes, causing us to make decisions based on how they will make us feel rather than the potential consequences. Understanding the role that emotions play in decision-making is crucial for making informed choices that are best for us in the long run.
  • Biases: Speaking of bias, cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions quickly and efficiently, but they can also lead us astray. Common biases include confirmation bias (seeking information that confirms our existing beliefs), anchoring bias (being overly influenced by the first piece of information we encounter), and the sunk cost fallacy (continuing to invest in something that is no longer beneficial due to the resources already invested). Awareness of these biases can help us recognize them when they arise and make better decisions.
  • Stress: Research has shown that high levels of stress can impair our ability to make logical decisions. That's because stress can interfere with our ability to regulate our emotions, leading to less rational decision-making. When faced with high-stakes decisions, it is important to take a step back and assess the situation from a more logical perspective in order to avoid letting stress cloud your judgment.
  • Gender: Lastly, studies have found that women are more likely to consider the potential consequences of a decision before making it, while men are more likely to rely on intuition. This difference is believed to be due to the fact that women tend to be more risk-averse and emotionally sensitive than men. Additionally, research has shown that men are more likely to make decisions based on short-term gains, while women are more likely to focus on the long-term implications. Understanding these gender-based differences in decision-making can help us better recognize and address our own tendencies when making decisions.

Decision-making strategies

Just as there are many factors that influence decision-making, there are many strategies you can use when making decisions:

  • Avoidance: Avoidance involves either avoiding and ignoring decisions until they're either no longer relevant or someone else is forced to make them. However, the act of avoiding a decision is a decision in itself.
  • Balancing: Balancing involves considering all factors involved in a decision, as well as the pros and cons of each choice, and then weighing that information to determine your decision.
  • Compliance: Compliance involves choosing the most pleasing and popular option, thereby complying with the majority.
  • Delegating: Delegating involves pushing the decision off to someone else instead of making the choice yourself.
  • Impulsiveness: Impulsiveness involves running with the first option you are given or just making a choice on a whim.

Some of these strategies are better for certain situations than others. For example, impulsiveness works when deciding what flavor of ice cream you want. While balancing is more appropriate when deciding to buy a house.

Can you think of situations where you've used each of these strategies?

5 steps to help you make smart decisions fast

Here are five steps you can follow to make smart decisions fast:

1. Calm your mind

The first step to making smart decisions is to take a moment to slow down and clear your mind. This will help you gain clarity and perspective on the situation, allowing you to make decisions that are based on logic rather than emotion. If you're short on time, this can be as simple as taking a deep breath, and if you have a little more time, you could take a walk or try a meditation like those found for free on the Balance app

2. Clarify the problem

After you calm your mind, you'll want to make sure you fully understand the choice in front of you. Consider the situation from multiple perspectives, and identify whether it's a high- or low-stakes situation. Additionally, it's important to identify any underlying issues or problems that are causing you to face this decision in the first place, as this can help you determine the root cause and prevent similar decisions from arising in the future. 

3. Gather (just) enough data

The next step is to gather just enough data to help inform your choice. Jeff Bezos's famous 70% rule can be a really helpful model for this. He says you should make decisions with 70% of the information you wish you had. While you'll still be guessing on the remaining 30%, you won't over-index on accuracy at the cost of speed.

4. Balance short-term and long-term value

From an evolutionary perspective, we're wired to prioritize decisions that'll help us in the moment. However, to make smarter decisions overall, it's important to also take a longer-term view and at least consider the later outcomes and ripple effects of the decisions you make.

5. Practice, practice, practice

The best way to become a better decision-maker is to practice. With time and experience, you will become more comfortable with the decision-making process and learn to recognize and address potential pitfalls. Additionally, it can be helpful to reflect on your decisions after the fact, as this can help you identify any areas where you could have made a better choice and pinpoint strategies that worked well in the past.

Practice making quick decision-making with fun learning games for adults

Ultimately, becoming a better decision-maker is an ongoing process that requires practice. One way you can practice making quick decisions in a low-stakes, game-based environment is by playing the 40+ brain training games on the Elevate app. You'll choose which answers are right and wrong in both timed and untimed situations, strengthening your quick decision-making abilities and growing your confidence at the same time. You can try Elevate for free today by downloading it on your iOS or Android device.


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