Making decisions is often a difficult task for me. It’s common for me to get stuck on simple decisions that aren’t so important such as “Which movie should I watch?”. It’s even worse when the decision is important – I can take days to decide.

While talking with some friends about it, I noticed that this decision making bullshit is much more common than I thought and almost all of them have no idea how to handle it. Here’s an interesting excerpt from Psychology Today:

“Chocolate or strawberry? Life or death? We make tons of quick decisions unconsciously; others we hem and haw over in agony. We choose actions and form opinions via mental processes which are influenced by biases, reason, emotions, and memories. Some question whether we really even have free will; others believe it is well within our power to make choices that will lead to greater well-being.”

So, we can say that two behaviors are quite common on decision making: the quick decisions — which are often done unconsciously, influenced by biases, reason, emotions, and memories — and the hard decisions — where time spent can be a major problem. Although we don’t want to waste time in our decisions, making them unconsciously is not the way to go. We really need an efficient and effective way to decide.

There are numerous techniques to help the decision making process. I’ve tried some of them, but none was as fast as I wanted. For instance, a simple and quite common approach is the weighted list of pros and cons. It’s an interesting idea and often helps to make smarter decisions. However, I find writing pros and cons on paper and assigning weights annoying and very time consuming tasks. In addition, the more information we have about our question, the more difficult it is to synthesize them and make the decision. I think this kind of strategy is only worthwhile in very important decisions, where time spent is not a problem.

The timeout strategy

The solution to stop wasting time with our decisions came up to me while chatting with a friend, who said: “Whenever I find myself stuck with a decision, I define a timeout. So, I think about the question during that time and when the time runs out, I decide based on what I thought”. As crazy as it may sound, it really works! It is efficient and effective. You just need to focus, think during some time and decide. Simple as that.

Making decisions better and faster

The timeout strategy isn’t all we need. The list of pros and cons has a big advantage that should be noted. Despite time consuming, writing our previous thoughts on paper lets us forget about them for a while and focus only on adding new thoughts to our decision. We just need a faster way to make these records. A simple solution is to keep a score for each option during the decision time. That is, instead of describing each reason that you think of with text, for every new reason that comes up you just increase the score of the option which it benefits.

We can also decide faster by adding a confidence threshold to our decision model – which is a value between 0% and 100%. Consider a confidence threshold of 80% and a question with three options. Thus, even if the time limit is not over yet, if some option has at least 80% of the votes, the decision can be made. Of course, we also need to define a minimum number of votes, so that no decision can be made with a small number of votes.

To demonstrate that ideia, I built a prototype called DecMac. I made it in just six hours, so it still can be improved in many aspects. But it works! You just need to set the timeout, the decision threshold, and the minimum number of votes. After that, just add the possible options for your decision and, for every new reason that comes up to your mind, increase the score of the option which it benefits just by clicking on its button. Try it and let me know your thoughts about it.

If you want to contribute, the code is available on GitHub.