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On Making Decisions

February 1, 2019

Author: Bianca Yang
Email: ipacifics@gmail.com

There are two important statements about making decisions that I would like to remind or inform everybody of:

  1. Marginal improvements in quality of decision quickly falls off with time.
  2. It is normally very easy to resolve uncertainty.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from the first point is that we should all be making decisions faster.

The conclusion I’ve drawn from the second point is that we should all be making decisions faster.

Think about it, why do people resist making decisions? Because there is some uncertainty tied to the decision that they don’t know how to, don’t feel like, are afraid to, etc. resolve. “What if they don’t approve?” “We haven’t asked Abby yet.” “What if lightning burns down the house?” etc. etc.

Most of the time the uncertainties people deal with are irrelevant to the question at hand or are very easily resolved. For example, consider the case of a group of people trying to arrange a surprise birthday dinner for a friend. They’re stuck on what kind of restaurant to reserve a table at. Surely it’s easy to ask the birthday person about their food preferences in casual conversation. Or just choose a restaurant that doesn’t require reservations so you can easily go somewhere else if the birthday person has objections. Choose a restaurant in a busy city center so you have a lot of options nearby if things end up going poorly. Make the decision quickly and just move on. In the end, no one will care that much what kind of food you choose. The point of organizing the party is to get everybody together, to experience that mingling of happiness and gratitude and warmth that comes from people sharing in joy.

Or consider the case of a small product team debating whether or not to begin selling Amazon. They worry about the costs, the effort required to get set up, how many people they will need to hire to manage the campaigns, etc. etc. One, you haven’t even done any practical work to get first-hand experience of the Amazon ecosystem. Two, it’s not going to be that hard to get set up and list one product. Three, someone can work on this as a small side project. You don’t need to worry about campaign success until it happens. Delay as many of these projections as long as possible. Just get started, because you’re not going to resolve any uncertainty by speculating about how about hard it is. Besides, what’s the cost of this? Someone wastes a couple hours a week trying to get it going and nothing happens? You spent a couple hundred dollars shipping a couple products, doing advertising? Now you know what it’s like. You know the limitations, the advantages, when you will be better suited to pursue the Amazon strategy. Or maybe you now know what questions to ask an “Amazon expert”. There are some things you can know until you know more. So work on resolving the uncertainty. Get moving. Make decisions faster.

Or consider the case of a couple deciding where to buy a new house. They want it to be in a quiet neighborhood, near a good school, under a certain price, etc. etc. They currently don’t know which of five neighborhoods is better. They’ve talked to current residents of each neighborhood, done online research, talked to realtors, family, etc., but they still don’t think they can make a good decision. Why not just live in each neighboorhood for a week? Make a friend, stay in their guest bedroom for a week? Or commute and shop and perform daily rituals near that neighboorhood? Rent for a short time near the neighboorhood? Book a hotel nearby? AirBnb? In this case, the consequences of making the wrong choice are more costly, so it makes sense to be more sure about the decision. But at this point, they have already done all the research they can do. It’s time for them to make a move and get on with their lives. Worst case, they can sign a rental contract in one of the neighborhoods. This way, if they really end up hating that neighboorhood, they are less anchored than they would have been if they had bought a house.

I think we are all familiar with the feeling of “I don’t know what else to do but I still don’t know how to make this decision”. We know we’ve exhausted all the low-hanging decision-making resources and yet we still want to keep looking??? It’s just going to be harder and harder to find useful nuggets that can push us closer to a decision. So stop wasting time, mental energy, etc. and make the decision! If you have uncertainties that you can easily resolve, then resolve them! Ask whoever you need to ask. Declare something to be unimportant. Make a decision and move forward with your life to doing the important work of making your decision a reality. And if you fail? That’s great, because we learn a lot through failure. In fact, the tighter you can get the decide-act-feedback loop, the more you will learn. That’s another incentive for you to make decisions faster.

Comments, questions, stories, etc can go to my email.