"Many people don't know how they make decisions," says Yvonne Rappaport, who teaches decision-making at the University of Virginia. "If you asked some people how they decided what career to follow or what to eat for lunch -- they'd honestly tell you they don't know."

But people would make better decisions and wouldn't dread them," she says, if they followed these six rules for effective decision making:

1. Start with your gut feelings and opinions. Realize that it's impossible to get all the facts or to be totally objective when making a decision.

2. List options. Despite our tendency to boil a decision down to "a question of black or white," says Rappaport, "there are usually many more options available than we consider." Brainstorm as many different alternatives as possible.

3. Write down your standards. If you are deciding on a job, list -- in order of priority -- what you consider the five most important characteristics of a job. Then compare the prospective job to your standards.

(This technique is particularly handy when shopping, says Rappaport, whose daughters draw up a "standards" and "possibilities" list for each clothes-shopping trip. If they are shopping for a coat, they'll list the five elements most important to them -- price, style, fabric, color, detail -- then compare each coat they see with the requirements on their lists.)

4. Keep things in perspective. Ask yourself "What's at stake here?" You shouldn't expend as much time and energy deciding what flavor of ice cream to buy as you would deciding which person to marry.

5. Mentally practice the results of your decision. Image what might happen if your decided "X." If your fantasy turns out to be a nightmare, go back and try another possibility.

6. "Make a contingency plan," adds psychologist Irving Janis, author with Daniel Wheeler, of "A Practical Guide for Making Decisions." Having an alternative if your first choice doesn't work out may ease the stress of a tough decision.