Some Decision-Making Strategies

As college students, most of us have pretty big decisions we are responsible for, sometimes for the first time. (How should I prioritize my time? What kind of job aligns with my ethics? Do I drop this class?) Additionally, some of us recently made one of the biggest decisions of our lives: whether or not to attend Olin.

I want to share a couple of strategies I have used to make big decisions where I felt good about the outcomes. Hopefully these will be useful to you to gain traction on decisions where you don’t know where to start.

Before you begin

These things are pre-requisites for being able to think through a decision—if you don’t have them in place, you won’t be able to put any strategy to good use.

  1. Give yourself enough time to think. In the best case, this can be 2-3 weeks or more, so you can reflect on your decision prior to committing. If you don’t have weeks, give yourself a solid chunk of several hours to decide. Late night hours work well for me, because I can stay up and ponder without a definite deadline.
  2. Ask for advice. Not a requirement, but other people’s analysis can help give you context for your options. Try to talk to enough people (more than one) until you find at least one person recommending each option you’re considering. Another good rule of thumb is if you know what someone is going to say before you ask them, then they’re probably not a good person to ask if you want an honest opinion.
  3. Narrow down the list. Decision-making works best with two or at most three different options to choose from. If you have a large set of options, you can usually cross most of them off for easy reasons (too expensive, bad vibes, etc.). Make a list (physical or mental) of criteria that you care about, and use this to cross off options that are objectively worse. If there are still a lot of options that are equally good, you may need to spend more time thinking about what you really want—this is one of the steps that can take weeks. You can also use the strategies below to compare sets of options or one option against the rest.

What is decision-making?

When you make a decision, you are weighing variables. Even if you know the facts about every option, it’s often difficult for you to know how much to care about each factor (ask yourself—how much of a pay cut am I willing to take for a job that aligns with my values? It’s hard to put a number on it, no matter how specifically you define the job). The strategies below are helpful for making value judgments: determining what aspects of each option are really the most important to you, knowing how to weigh each of them, and ultimately comparing one combination of variables against another.

Strategy #1: Debate against yourself

Pick one option—it might be the option you are leaning more towards, if one exists—and convince yourself to choose that option. Pretend you know it is the right option, and you just need to tell the rest of your brain why it’s obviously the best choice. Give yourself time to lay out all the reasons for it in exhaustive detail. Talk to yourself until you’re out of arguments, and you don’t know what to say next. Take a deep breath.

Then take the opposite position and tear your first argument to shreds. Your job now is to convince yourself that the second option is really the best, and the first argument got everything wrong. Again, give yourself the time to build out your argument for the second option and to poke all the holes you can find into the first.

Now go back to the first option, and repeat the process. Talk yourself down; don’t hold back. Emphasize the good points of the option you are advocating for.

Go back and forth as many times as you need to. As someone who overthinks things, I often go three to six times on each side. Later rounds tend to go faster, because you’ve exhausted all the new arguments, and you’re just repeating things you’ve said earlier. This is how you’re making value judgments. Your arguments are coalescing around the points that matter most, and other details are falling out of the debate. At some point it will become clear which argument convinces you the most—congratulations, you have made a decision.

Strategy #2: Imagine you’ve already decided

Again, pick an option to try out first. Imagine that the deadline for your decision has already passed, and you have committed to choosing this option. It’s too late to go back. How do you feel?

Do you feel regret? Disappointed? Do you feel like you’re missing an opportunity you kind of wish you had?

On the other hand, do you feel excited? Relieved? If you’re lucky, you might realize that you always knew this was the right decision, you just never let yourself believe in it.

It can be subtle, so pay attention to yourself to judge your reaction. Give yourself time to sit with your imagined decision, and try hard to pretend it’s real. A few minutes may be enough time, but feel free to try out your decision for a couple of days or more. When you’re ready, pretend you chose the other option instead.

I have had good results with this method. I used it to decide whether to come to Olin or go to a traditional engineering school. I was lying in bed a week before decisions were due. I imagined going to OSU and convinced myself that I would be happy there. Then I imagined accepting my admission to Olin.“Shoot, am I really doing this? I mean, is this even a real school?” I remember thinking. “Shoot. Oh shoot. Oh… oh yeah.” I think I did an involuntary fist pump as I drifted off to sleep. The next day I committed to Olin. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

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