Decisive is a book by Chip and Dan Heath on how to make better decisions in life and work. Decision making is hard. There are no silver bullets and the book doesn’t offer any. It does however provide a process for making better decisions. All quotes are from the book unless otherwise noted.
The Four Villains of Decision Making.
If you are making poor decisions in your life odds are one of these four villains is the reason.
The first villain is the Narrow Framing of our options as binary. An easy way to tell if this villain is in play is if you have to decide “whether or not” to do something.
The second villain is Confirmation Bias which is when we seek out data that fits our assumptions. Instead of looking for truth we go looking for reassurance.
The third villain is Short Term Emotion which can cause you to make long term decisions based on temporary feelings.
The fourth villain is Overconfidence in your ability to predict the future.
All of these villains work together to help you make poor decisions. This is how they operate:
- You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options.
- You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information.
- You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one.
- Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold.
Trusting our guts or conducting rigorous analysis won’t fix our problem. But a good process will.
In order to defeat the villains the keep you from making good decisions, there are four counter measures you can take, summarized by the abbreviation: WRAP. Widen your options, Reality test your assumptions, Attain distance before deciding, and Prepare to be wrong. Let’s look at each of these.
Widen your Options
Narrow framing is the problem of defining your options in a binary frame. There are multiple tactics that you can use to combat this, all are designed to help you see additional options.
The first is to understand the opportunity cost of the decisions you are making. Instead of asking “should I buy this car or not”. Ask yourself how else you could use the money.
The Vanishing Options Test is poses the question: What would you do if your current alternatives disappeared?
When evaluating a project you should find people who have done it before. This will inevitably lead you to more options.
Once you have more options to work with, you can use multitracking to consider them simultaneously. In order to get the most out Multitracking, you need to produce options that are sufficiently different, and you need to be careful of producing options that exist only to make your favorite option look better.
When life offers us a ‘this or that’ choice, we should have the gall to ask whether the right answer might be ‘both’.
Reality test your assumptions
Instead of backing up your decisions with selective data, you can beat confirmation bias by putting options in a test environment and seeing how they play out.
Because we naturally seek self-confirming information, we need discipline to consider the opposite.
Confirmation bias and ego go hand and hand. Adversarial situations can prove to be fertile ground for this villain as we go off seeking information to make us look better.
One way to fight confirmation bias is by ooching into a situation. Dipping your toe in before you make the plunge. Every year lots of students pick a major before having a good idea of what the related professions are like. Companies decide on product decisions before developing a prototype. Instead of making irreversible decisions, get more information by testing your hypothesis in real world scenarios.
Why predict something we can test? Why guess when we can know?
Ooching doesn’t work when your decision requires commitment. It works best when we genuinely need more information. It’s not for avoiding a decision because we are scared of outcomes.
Attain distance before deciding
Instead of letting our short term emotions rule, we need to make sure our long term values and goals have a seat at the table.
Distance yields clarity
Ask yourself what advice would you give a friend if they were in the same situation? Would you be happy with this decision 10 minutes from now? 10 months from now? 10 years from now?
Attaining distance is meant to help you understand and honor your core priorities. The urgent often crowds out the essential, so it’s not enough to simply pursue your core priorities, you must also go on the offense against lesser priorities.
The goal is not to eliminate emotion. It’s to honor the emotions that count.
Prepare to be Wrong
Instead of trying to predict the outcome of a project, view the future as a range of possibilities. Create a spectrum and try to understand the best and worst case scenarios.
Gary Klein uses the terms premortem to describe imagining the death of a project and asking “what killed it?”. Similarly, a preparade is imagining the future as a wild success and asking “how do we ensure that we’re ready for success”?
Assume that you’re being overconfident and give yourself a healthy margin of error.
One way to handle future uncertainty is to set a tripwire. A tripwire is helps wake us up to the fact that a decision has to be made. A deadline is a common form of tripwire: “If I don’t have 100 users in 3 months, i’ll pivot”. It’s meant to prevent us from coasting into oblivion.
Another benefit of tripwires is that they partition a safe space for risk taking. You don’t have to constantly wonder “Should I pivot”? You know that you’ll ask that question in 3 months, so you are free to think about other things.
Tripwires can be especially useful when change is gradual.
Decisions are progress. You may not make the right choice, but most choices are better than being indecisive.
Our decisions will never be perfect, but they can be better. Bolder. Wiser. The right process can steer us toward the right choice.
Since reading this book is i’ve noticed that i’m more skeptical of binary options and i’m more likely to set up decision tripwires. If you are struggling with a major decision in your life, i’d recommend testing some of these strategies for yourself.