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Does 'sleeping on it' really help you make a decision?

Image: iStock. 

Take that job or go travelling for a year? Dye your hair darker or go back to blonde?

Whatever it may concern, we’ve all been there: there’s a decision to be made, and you don’t know which way to go.

So what should we do when we can’t make a choice easily? The age-old response to that question is ‘take a little time and sleep on it’ — but does that really help?

We spoke to Dr Margo Orum, Principal Psychologist at Life Resolutions in Ryde, to find out. Here’s what you need to know.

Should you ‘sleep on it’?

One reason it can be so hard to make the right choice is that our conscious and unconscious minds can be in disagreement.

Dr Orum explains that our conscious mind is the part we’re aware of, that lets us talk about how we think and feel about things. The unconscious mind runs our physical systems, like breathing and the chemical reactions in our immune system, but we’re not aware of it. It also has a big say in the emotion behind our decisions — for example, maybe we’re fearful of change, or worried about approval or what others will think of us if we make a certain decision.

Watch: Cath Turner on the advice she wished she had known when she was younger. (Post continues after video.)

“When both the conscious and unconscious minds are in ‘agreement’, we get a great sense of ‘Yes’ and a decision is really easy.  When they pull in different directions, we find it very hard to make a decision, partly because we tend to remain largely unaware of the motives of our unconscious mind,” Dr Orum explains.

So, when you notice an inner struggle, it is good to consult your unconscious mind. One of the simplest ways of doing this is to sleep on it.

“You might be hanging onto all the reigns of rational thinking too tightly when you’re trying to make a decision, and when you sleep on it you let go of them because your unconscious kicks in. How you really feel about things can float to the surface in a less controlled way,” Dr Orum explains.

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When you go to bed at night, she recommends you ask yourself to solve a problem, or make a decision, just before you drift off.

“It can be a really good idea to say to yourself, ‘When I wake up tomorrow morning I am going to have a much better idea about how I really feel about this’. It gives you an opportunity then, when you wake up in the morning, to be clear-headed. Often you will just wake up and think, I’m going to do this, or I’m going to do it another way,” Dr Orum says.

We can't say for sure that an eye mask will help, but sleeping on it sure does.

There is science behind this, too. One study from the University of Massachusetts, published in Journal of Sleep Research, found sleep helps us facilitate and enhance complex decision-making.

The researchers analysed how sleep affects decision-making, especially when decisions are about meaningful topics and when subjects care a lot about the outcomes.

The subjects in the study were taught to play a card game for rewards of play money. Subjects who got to sleep between the game's brief introduction and the beginning of the game showed both superior behavioral outcome, as well as a better understanding of the game itself, than those who did not sleep between sessions.

"There is something to be gained from taking a night to sleep on it when you're facing an important decision. We found that the fact that you slept makes your decisions better," the researchers said in a statement. (Post continues after gallery.)

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Still on the fence?

If you're still on the fence after sleeping on a deicion, Dr Orum recommends four techniques to help you make the final call.

1. Pros and cons

Yes, the old pros and cons list can be helpful — but Dr Orum also suggests you keep the future in mind when you're drawing it up.

“For example, if you're making a decision about a new job, one of best ways to do it is to think, 'If I look back on this choice in a year, or in five years' time, will I be glad I made this decision?'" she explains.

You know what to do.

2. Think of what someone close to you would advise you.

It can be helpful to imagine what someone in your life, someone whose opinion you respect, would advise you to do. Instead of just asking them yourself, doing this can help you tap into the wiser part of yourself.

"If you have someone in your life, a friend, parent or anyone you know if looking out for you and wants the best for you, and wants you to grow and develop in the best way possible, think about what that person would advise you. Ask yourself, 'What would someone who really cares about me advised me to do with this decision?'" Dr Orum says.

3. Toss a coin.

But not for the reason you might think. "Sometimes it’s helpful to toss a coin and say, 'Heads, I'll do this; Tails, I'll do that'. It isn’t so much what the coin says, but when the coin says this, and if you feel disappointed, that can tell you that you actually really know what you want," Dr Orum says.

Clever, huh?

4. Visualise.

Another great way to make a big decision is to visualise a movie of your life, and compare the movie of one choice compared with the other. How does it affect the choice you might make?

How do you tackle tough decisions?

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