When was the last time you were faced with a big decision?
Maybe it was to accept a job offer. To move cities. To end a relationship. To start a family. To undertake a risky medical procedure.
How did you make that decision?
Recently I was struck by the fact that despite how important our life decisions are, there's often not a clear process for how to make them.
We have our “pros and cons” list. We “go with our gut.”
But do these really produce good decisions?
I was intrigued then to find that the latest book by two of my favorite authors, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, was about this very subject.
In Decisive, they translate the findings of 40 years of research on decision-making into easy, practical action steps. (This is why I love them. They are amazing at making research interesting and applicable.)
Yet, I have to admit that Decisive was an uncomfortable book to read. I couldn’t help thinking of all of my own big life decisions, and seeing how I could have made some better choices along the way. Naturally.
This isn’t easy stuff.
The fact is that it takes courage to face big decisions. Next, it takes courage to choose. Then it takes courage to live with the results.
We all do the best we can, at all life’s intersections.
So it’s very humbly that I offer you today some of the best ideas I found Decisive. In case you might find them helpful you’re faced with your next big decision.
Human Nature vs. Good Decisions
Straightaway in Decisive, the Heath brothers break the bad news: “If you study the kinds of decisions that people make and the outcomes of those decisions, you’ll find that humanity does not have a particularly impressive track record.”
They cite the rates at which people abandon or change career choices and at which companies make costly missteps (such as with mergers or acquisitions). They look at personal decisions and how common it is for people to not save enough for retirement or to get romantically involved with someone who’s clearly bad news.
It turns out that our human tendencies (dang it, not them again!) bias us towards a decision-making process that is less than stellar.
Decisive sums these biases up as:
1. A “narrow framing” bias. We tend to train the “spotlight” of our attention onto one option only and thus fail to see all the other alternatives. You can easily tell if you’re doing this, write the Heath brothers, if you find yourself mulling over a “Whether or not” decision. For example: Should I take this job (or not)? Should I break up with my boyfriend (or not)?
2. Confirmation bias. We collect and pay attention primarily to the information that serves the decision we’re inclined toward. We all hate to admit it, but it’s true.
3. Short-term emotion. Often a decision brings up a swirl of emotions, and they can cause us to choose hastily or illogically.
4. Overconfidence. We think we know how our decision is going to play out in the future. But we don’t. After all, who can predict the future? (Anybody who’s invested money in the stock market can vouch for this one. )
Steps toward a better process
There are many ways that you can mitigate these natural human biases; you’ll find a whole array of them in Decisive, as well as in free resources on the Heath brothers’ website.
Here are the ones I found especially helpful.
If you notice you've got “narrow framing”
- Add one more option. If you find yourself contemplating a “whether or not” decision – try adding one more alternative. Research shows that you’ll make a better decision if you can bring even just one more option to the table. For example, if you are hiring for a position at work and have found only one excellent candidate for the job, find at least one more equally strong contender before making your decision.
- Find someone who’s done it before. Who has faced a similar problem? How did they deal with it? Talk to them, study them; their experience can open up possibilities for you.
If you notice you've got a "confirmation bias"
- Ask “disconfirming questions,” say the Heaths. A “disconfirming” question is one that elicits information that does not support (or “confirm”) the choice you’re favoring. This is a tough but brilliant practice if you can do it. Think about the last time you wrestled with a decision and somebody gave you input or a piece of information you didn’t like. Remember how you really wanted to just push it aside? The Heaths recommend that instead you embrace that information and start asking questions to find out more.
I see how this can be especially helpful when interviewing for a new job. For example, say you learn the position you’re applying for has had high turnover. Though you really want the job and are tempted to ignore this potential red flag, you instead ask: “What have been the reasons for the turnover? How has the situation changed since the last person left? What hasn’t changed?” You could even ask to contact the last person in the role.
- “Ooch” into the decision. Is there a way to try out your decision before you fully commit? For example, before you move cross-country to take a full-time job with a company, maybe you can do some contract work for them. Or, before you take out loans for a university degree, you take a couple of classes in the program.
If you notice you're being swayed by emotion
- Get a different perspective. Ask yourself, “What would I tell my best friend to do in my situation?” Or, in business, the Heath brothers suggest this question, “What would my successor do?” This is a way to test your “gut” decisions.
- Gain distance with the 10/10/10 trick. This “emotional sorting” test was invented by Suzy Welch, a business writer. “To use 10/10/10,” write the Heaths, “we think about our decisions in three different time frames: How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?”
Taking it forward
I hope you find something here that’s of help the next time you’re contemplating a big decision. If one of these tactics really appeals to you (or if you’ve used one successfully before), please feel free to share below. I’d love to hear from you!
No matter what decision is in front of you, or what you choose, know that you’re strong and resilient, and that there are people around you who will support and help you if you only ask.
Everyday we have such a rich variety of opportunities in front of us, if we only allow ourselves to open to them.