How To Make Decisions When You Can’t Decide

by Stephen Mills on October 18, 2011

This article describes several methods of making quick decisions when you have a difficult time deciding or when you are dealing with a complex decision.  Our working memory can handle only a few bits of information at a time and many choices or many factors for each choice overwhelm it.  The four methods described here are:

  1. Flip a Coin With a Twist
  2. Compare Down a List
  3. Conduct a Tournament
  4. Let Your Unconscious Decide

I wouldn’t use any of these methods for a really important long-term decision like what home to buy except for the last one – “Let Your Unconscious Decide”.

Flip a Coin With a Twist

This method works best for deciding between two choices although it can be used in a series as well.  For example use it to choose A or B and then take the winner of that choice and choose between it and C and so on.

  • Flip a coin
  • If you find yourself hoping it comes out a certain way you have your answer
  • If you find yourself wishing it had come out the other way you have your answer
  • If neither then you simply go with the results of the flip

Compare Down a List

This is perfect when you have a medium number of items to choose from.  It is very accurate and it will order your choices.  For instance if you have six tasks you want to prioritize or six books to read it will order your items to your preference.  Here is how it works:

Say you have six tasks to complete A – F, and you want to prioritize them.

First list the items down a page in a column like this:


Now start with A and compare it to each item in the list below it.  So first you would compare A and B and choose between the two.  You choose A so put a tally mark beside it.  Then compare A and C and put a tally mark beside the winner of that choice.  And continue down the list until you compare A and F.

Then start with B and compare it with each choice only below it.  So you would compare B with C, D, … F.  Then do the same with C comparing it to each item in the list below it.  Your last comparison will be E and F.  When you are done you can use your tally marks to order you list.  It might look like this.

A   |||
B   |
C   ||
E   ||||
F   |||||

You now have a list prioritized as F, E, A, C, B, D

F was the big winner.  If you want to take the top three you simply choose F, E, and A in that order.

Conduct a Tournament

This method is very simple and fast and can be used to choose from a very large list.  I once used this to choose from a list of over 30 items because the choice was too overwhelming to analyze any other way.  Compare A/B, C/D, E/F, G/H and so on.  Then compare the winners A/D and F/G and so on until you have a winner


Let Your Unconscious Decide

This is not quick but there is research to show that in complex decisions it can be more accurate than other methods.  Experiments have been done with complex decisions with many factors that have objectively better answers and it was found subjects were more accurate going with unarticulated feelings.  I use this as a method in choosing a car for example.  There are many factors that can be used to judge a car such as safety, power, comfort, fuel efficiency, size, stereo sound, color, overall look, warranty, price, and on and on.  If you try to evaluate five different models with all those factors you will be quickly overwhelmed.  Your brain was not made to decide things like that.

If you try to reason it out on paper you will give undeserved weight to factors you can easily describe even if that is not what you really want.  Experiments have established this articulation effect.  People will be unhappy with decisions made this way and the regret will suck later.  For these kinds of decisions I think it is best to feed the data to your brain and let it percolate on the decision while you sleep or do something else to keep your mind busy on something else.  Then simply go with your feeling.

In the end, if you have that hard of a time deciding there must not be a clear winner so what difference does it really make?  Also, I’m a firm believer in we mostly don’t really know what we want in advance and so the idea that we can “accurately” decide is mostly a delusion.  It’s more important to be decisive and move on than it is to dither about these decisions.

You might want to check out a previous article How To Be More Decisive.


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Barb October 19, 2011 at 6:33 am

Stephen… love this… I learned the “Let your unconscious decide” method when I was in high school. Once in a while there where those math problems that I could never work out on paper no matter how hard i tried. I would keep trying, using the problems in the book that had the answers in the back of the text book, but I still could not ever get my calculations to work out to the book answer. Then after a day or so,…… I would wake up and the method would be “revealed” to me. Not in the same way like awaking from a dream, but that it was just there – a conscious thought – my first waking thought. I would then get up, go work the problem and came to the corret answer. Then I would work 5 or more just to make sure.. because how was it possible that I woke up with the correct methodology? Eventually I accepted the fact that my mind kept working while sleeping and doing other things – that it kept churning there in the background. Incredible.


Gayla October 19, 2011 at 8:32 pm

Sometimes both decisions would have been right or wrong… to some extent. If we wait for absolute certainty before acting then we may never act. Sometimes there are no ‘right’ decisions, only different or alternate decisions. Trying to make the ‘right’ decision assumes that life is always simple or even simplistic. But some people respond to decision making time like a rabbit snared in the headlights of a fast approaching car.
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ella October 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I’ll go with the unconscious plz
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Happiness Quotes November 1, 2011 at 8:36 pm

I like the first mehod 🙂


Mads Singers November 6, 2011 at 5:46 am

Good post, I like the coin part as well, but in the end of the day it’s about making the choice that you believe in the most – People fear failure which usually mean they dont pick what the want the pick the safe bet.


Jason Fuller September 16, 2013 at 4:56 am

I found my self “feeling” a lot of anomosity tward your assertions that “unconcious” decision making is a good choice but, at first, had trouble rationalizing why. After some unconcious reflection, it became apparent that I found your break down of when to use unconcious thought to make a decison to incomplete and potetntially dangers to be spreading around. I belive that when you are tying to make a decision about “wants” (like what features you want in a car) your unconcious brain is pretty much the only way you should be making a decison, and as described in other posts, trying to rationalize your “wants” will only confuse things. However, when you are trying to figure out what your “needs” are (car, a boat, or a snowmobile to get to work – perhaps all 3?) and no one choice can meet all of your needs, then concentrated rational thought about which of your needs to prioritize, and how you will evetntually furfill all of your needs (perhaps you buy and ampibious car) is your best option.
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts about decisions.

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