How Do We Make Decisions?


We all make hundreds of decisions every day. It starts with questions such as: What do I wear? What do I eat for breakfast? Do I take the bus to work or walk?

Some of these things are habits, meaning we made a decision about them at one point in the past and now we’re just executing this decision. For example, I eat toast with peanut butter every morning. 🍞😉

Other things we decide as they come up. Steve Jobs might have worn his black turtleneck sweater every day to work, but most of us are wearing something different every day. For me, it always takes a few minutes every morning to decide what I shall wear. Even though 90% of my clothes are blue, they are all different in their own blue-ish hue. 😉



So today at You Might Also Like we’re going to ask: How do we make decisions? How do we make choices, big or small?

The Yellow Pad Situation

Some choices are easy, or at least not very significant. It might not be so difficult to decide whether you want to watch Westworld or Game of Thrones. You will probably watch both of them anyway. 😉

But sometimes choices are hard. Should you quit the job you like and move in with your boyfriend in another city? Should you get married or not? Should you have kids?

If you are facing a choice like this you have encountered a classic “yellow pad situation”.


If you are like me you take out your yellow pad to make a good old fashioned pro and con list. Then you re-arrange what is on either side and think about how much you really like everything on the pro or con side.

Sometimes we have a choice between two or more options which seem equally good. Two possibilities of how our lives could turn out.

Ruth Chang talked about this problem in her TED Talk “How to Make Hard Choices”:

“If only I knew what my life in each career would be like. If only God or Netflix would send me a DVD of my two possible future careers, I’d be set. I’d compare them side by side, I’d see that one was better, and the choice would be easy.”

As there still is no service like that we have to figure out what the best choice is.

How do we do it?

Living in Sync With Personal Values = Good Decisions

Making a good decision means deciding on something that is in tune with our personal values.

What does that mean?

We all have these little micro-identities which shape who we are or who we want to be.

These micro-identities are governing our thoughts and actions throughout the day.

If I think about myself as a fun and outgoing person who enjoys bars, restaurant and the theater, then going to bed every night at 9pm is out of the question.

I don’t want to be the person who goes to bed at 9pm.

Instead, I decide every day to stay up late, a decision which influences my daily schedule, my eating and drinking habits, my cultural and societal exposure, and my circle of friends.

Making a good choice means to decide on something that reflects our own personal values and is in sync with the person we want to be.

Let’s take the US election for example. People decided for Trump because they either felt

  1. Their own personal values were met by something he said (this could be anything ranging from healthcare to gun rights or national production) or
  2. Voters did not feel Clinton represented their values and voted for the lesser evil (in their view)

All Trump voters had different, personal values which created reasons for them to vote for their candidate.

The Circle of Decisions

A decision can feel good or bad. We either feel good about a decision, which means what we decided it was in sync with our personal values. Or we regret a decision, because we feel that it was not really how we should have decided.


For example: You love to live in the city, but all of the sudden you inherit a house in the countryside and decide to move there.

You have an incentive which stands in contrast to your identity, but it is big enough to convince yourself that it is “the right thing to do”.

If you had been a city person before you might think after a few months

  1. the countryside is not so bad after all. And little by little your identity changes. In a few years, you start talking about house renovations, carports, and school taxes.

Or you might

  1. hold on to your city identity and complain about having to drive everywhere, the lack of wine bars in walking-distance, and the constant babbling about “country-side problems” of your neighbours.

Of course, things are rarely black and white, and even if you would be ready to move back to the city, you would probably recognize a few advantages the country holds for you compared to the hustle and bustle of crowded city supermarket aisles.

But in the end, you decide how you feel about your choice and if it was a good or bad choice to move to the back country.

Now you might think: Ok, that makes sense. That’s how we make decisions.

But deciding along your personal values is only part of the puzzle. Timing, sequence and what you had for breakfast also plays an important role.

Yes, you read that correctly: your scrambled eggs with bacon or anything else edible are very important when it comes to making decisions. Here’s why.

Why We Get Tired After Making Too Many Decisions

Studies have found that making decisions is related to our mental energy. The term used for this state of mental depletion is decision fatigue.

The idea is that we get tired of making too many decisions. Imagine you are ordering a sandwich. Here is what you have to decide:

  1. Which bread: rye, sourdough, wheat, gluten-free, toast
  2. Which cheese: Swiss, American, blue cheese
  3. Protein: ham, tofu, tuna, steak.
  4. Whether you want any extras such as: tomatoes, pickles, salad

That is a lot of choices for a single sandwich. After making so many choices you would be usually drained for the rest of the day.


Eating this sandwich (or anything else) actually restores your decision making powers.

This is also the reason why at IKEA the restaurant is located in the middle. People are tired from trying out new beds in the showroom and need some nutritious help to make the decision to buy that new futon.

Why Timing Is Shaping How We Decide

Decision fatigue is a serious topic though. It decides, for example, the approval or denial of asylum cases or parole hearings for prisoners. Researchers found that a randomly assigned time slot had a huge impact on whether refugees were granted asylum or had to go back to the country they were fleeing from.

Jonathan Levav and Shai Danziger published a paper a couple years back where they found a judge’s ruling depended on the sequence of decision as well as on his or her food break and was not solely based on laws and facts.

Imagine if the only thing keeping you from getting parole or asylum was the fact that your hearing was taking place at 11:50 am and the judge had been handling half a dozen cases before yours.


Deciding many cases in a row depleted the judge’s mental energy and made him or her prone to make the “easiest” choice, which in many cases was to decline asylum or parole.

Another less serious example you might be familiar with is the question why people sign up for credit cards at the airport.

Here’s an explanation: Travellers are already stressed out and overwhelmed from travelling, delays, meeting relatives or saying goodbye to loved ones.

All of this can be so exhausting that getting a credit card at the airport seems easier than not getting one.

And yes, alas, I speak from experience. 😉

Decision fatigue doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not deciding anything, but that you are making the easiest choice. And sometimes that is to say “yes” to everything.

Making decisions requires energy and energy diminishes over time. Especially if you are faced with many decisions in a short time period. Picking out furniture at IKEA, shopping for a large dinner party at Cosco, planning your wedding. These things are all sucking at your decision making power.

How We Relate Our Decisions to What Had Happened Before

You might have noticed this yourself: we base our decisions on prior experiences. What we decide now gets evaluated against the backdrop of our past experiences.

For example, you decide to get new shoes.


Your old ones were black so now you decide:

  1. You want something new and different than the old pair or
  2. You loved your old shoes so much that you think black is such a great color, you will buy black shoes again.

Our past decisions influence our future ones. We evaluate choices based on our subjective experiences before.

In the 1980s, two professors conducted a lab experiment with some students.

Participants had to evaluate the attractiveness of their classmates.

The result was that college students rated pictures of their classmates to be less attractive after having seen videos of more attractive actresses.

In other words, students related their current experiences to their past ones and made a choice based on that.

So many things – externally and internally – influence our decision making-power that it sometimes seems to be easier not to make a decision. That’s when we make a non-decision.

Making a Non-Decision

You know the feeling. You should make a decision, but you are not doing so and thus, you are drifting and living with your non-decision.

Getting back to our example of moving to the back country: Maybe you are thinking of moving back to the city, but you can’t quite make the decision.


You want to, but deciding to move back seems so stressful: you would have to hire movers, rent the place, find a new place to live in the city. Besides, you are so busy at work every day and come home tired, how could you possibly plan all these things right now?

That’s what it means to be drifting.

Everyone is probably a “drifter” in some areas of their lives.

Image: Growing hair: I should really get a haircut – I really should – my hair is getting worse – ok fine I’m doing it.

There are also big decisions people drift into: jobs, marriage, having kids. You would think that people would really sit down to think about these big aspects of your lives, but everyone is probably drifting in some areas here.

Some people want to start their own businesses. But it’s just so much easier to stay in their current jobs. Other people don’t know if they want a baby. So they are “letting fate decide”.

Drifting can also have another reason: we don’t think our decision matters. That is probably what a lot of people think before an election.

In the latest Trump vs. Clinton battle, the polls were so heavily in Clinton’s favor that some people decided not to vote at all. Well, 47 Percent of them.

If they had made a decision, the election results might have been different.

We want to hear from you. What decisions are you struggling with? Are you a decision making superman or a drifter? Tell us in the comments.

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