4 Essential Decision-Making Tips You Need to Try

Astrid Baumgardner, life coach and co-ordinator of career strategies at the Yale University School of Music, shares her four tips to make choices that reflect your values.

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Making better decisions
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How to Do the Right Thing

Astrid Baumgardner should have loved her job: she was a partner at a law firm in New York and brought in a hefty salary. Her husband, a securities lawyer, woke up each day excited to head to the office. But she couldn’t muster the enthusiasm she saw in her husband-the position didn’t fulfill her need to help people or give her a sense of purpose.

So, in 2000, after 24 years in law, she left the profession, sacrificing prestige for passion. After a series of positions in different fields, she earned her certificate as a life coach in 2008 and promptly started her own business. Today, as a lecturer and co-ordinator of career strategies at the Yale University School of Music (a position she’s held since 2011-and loves), Baumgardner helps students make decisions as tough as her own.

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Guide to Making Better Decisions: Know Your Values

If you hope to shape your life according to your ideals, you have to know what those ideals are. Baumgardner begins her sessions by having participants identify the concepts that are most important to them from a list: honesty, structure, family and so on. “Those qualities are influenced by your parents, your culture and society as a whole,” she says, “but you have to take ownership of your own decisions.”

Here’s the tricky part: almost all of these qualities are things most of us aspire to hold dear. “There are a lot of ‘shoulds,'” Baumgardner says. For instance, we feel like we should covet adventure, even when, in reality, we spend our free time bingeing on Netflix series. To determine which principles are more than just aspirational, she asks her clients to reflect on situations that resonate with them.

For one of Baumgardner’s students, creativity and lifelong learning was key. “He felt that being in an orchestra would stifle that desire-he wouldn’t have autonomy over what and how he played,” she says. After graduating, he launched a career as a soloist and lecturer, and became the director of a new-music ensemble that premieres works by contemporary composers.

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Guide to Making Better Decisions: Find the Best Time

Identifying your values will steer you in the right direction, but a few strategies can help you follow through. Before you make a big decision, do something that will put you in a good mood: exercise, socialize with friends, or volunteer. Researchers theorize that such activities enhance our mood, which boosts dopamine levels in certain areas of the brain, improving our cognitive abilities and helping us weigh different options.

In one 2013 study, Ohio State University psychology professor Ellen Peters followed two groups: one that received small bags of candy and one that didn’t. The mild positive feelings inspired by the gift influenced subjects to make better choices and improved their working memory. “If you can make someone just a little happier, they may become a better decision maker,” says Peters, who is also the director of OSU’s Decision Sciences Collaborative.

Trouble is, the toughest decisions often arrive at the most inconvenient times. When you’re under duress, Peters recommends consulting a family member, a friend or, in certain cases, a professional. They can provide advice that’s not tinged by the work deadline, spousal drama or leaky roof sapping your mental energy.

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Guide to Making Better Decisions: Balance All Options

Of course, people make decisions that contradict their ideals all the time, no matter how single-minded or happy they may be. “There are lots of values we hold dear, and they frequently come into conflict with one another,” says Peters. “It’s not so much that people don’t know what they want; it’s that there are many things we desire, and we don’t always know how to make the trade-off.” A retired couple, for example, might be torn between yearning to be actively involved in their grandchildren’s lives and using their free time to travel.

While a single decision can seem like a tug-of-war between competing impulses, broader life choices don’t need to be a definitive either/or. That aspiring-globetrotter pair might temporarily put off an epic trip to explore locations closer to home, or commit to setting aside time for vacation with their family every summer, no matter what else comes up. An omnivore yearning to cut out animal products may find it easiest to make small-scale adjustments that support the principles that prompted his dietary shift. If he opposes factory farming, he could consider eating ethically raised meat; if he’s after health benefits, he can opt for what food guru Mark Bitt man refers to as a “vegan before 6 p.m.” diet and complement that with a more active lifestyle.

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Guide to Making Better Decisions: Stay the Course

At Yale, students often stumble into Baumgardner’s office when they’re grappling with major decisions or life changes. Though each case is unique, Baumgardner typically starts by examining what led her client down a path, then brainstorming ways for them to reclaim that inspiration. A pianist might benefit from listening to the composer who sparked her interest in the instrument or from watching a heartfelt live performance. Following that, surrounding yourself with people who share your passion can also prevent you from faltering. “A group can remind you, ‘Hey, we’re doing this because we love it,'” she says.

If you’re still struggling, even after revisiting your inspirations or seeking out community support, there’s no shame in revising your core values. If you’re determined to pitch in at an out-of-the-cold meal program but spend the evening with pals instead, it may be time to accept that camaraderie is more important to you than volunteerism. Better yet, find opportunities to give back with your friends.

You may also learn that what you believed was a core priority actually has much more to do with living up to the expectations of your parents, co-workers or culture. “If your values align with who you really are, no one will have to ask you to make those choices,” Baumgardner says. “It’ll just feel right.”

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