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Two Ways to Make Better Decisions

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Our world is complex, and it needs heuristics for us to be effective.

One heuristic that works when we’re young is “listen to your parents,” because otherwise, we might die. Another adult heuristic might be “find an expert, and do what they say,” although that’s getting more and more complex these days.

The other day I verbalized a heuristic that I’ve been living for years. It is what has helped me deal with a massive inbox, what has helped me recognize and grasp opportunity, and what I think has helped me move forward much more quickly than I anticipated I would.

As you’ve guessed by now, the rule is

decide quickly, and live with the consequences.

Many people freeze up when they have a lot of stuff to do. They get overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision. They worry about whether what they’re doing is right. But most of that doesn’t matter.

Your decisions are much less consequential than you think they are.

That’s why this rule is amazing. If you use it during times of stress you will find yourself whizzing by hard problems and leaving them behind. If you’re smart, it works, because it subverts your overthinking brain and lets you live with the decisions you’ve made.

Another rule that works alongside this one is

if you’re unsure, say yes.

This rule is great alongside the ‘fast decision’ rule because it lets you make mistakes quickly without missing opportunity.

If you make a mistake and say yes to something you shouldn’t have, then no worries– you’ve learned from it and you won’t be unsure next time… you’ll just say no.

These rules are just a small subset of a decision tree I use for daily life. It isn’t perfect, but it’s improving, and it helps me make the most of my day, and hopefully of my life.

Maybe one day I’ll unleash it on the world or something. Until then, I hope these help.

* Filed by Julien at 9:41 am under direction, simplicity, taking action


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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33 Responses to “Two Ways to Make Better Decisions”

  1. Ryan Critchett Says:

    I’m totally aligned with this Julien.

    I used to freeze up too. “What will happen?” Or the most ridiculous question ever, “What if it doesn’t work out?”

    Then I realized how much insight, and most importantly psychological and emotional strength I gain when I fail miserably at something the first time. It seems like the only way to truly grow.

    That Acceptance Thing:
    The challenge is that when you start doing something different, God forbid, all of the “normal people” look at you like you’re nuts. “What, you quit your job to pursue something that would actually make you happy and not leave you trapped in a beast of someone else’s design that doesn’t work anyway?”

    Sure did. What I found is that super effective people aren’t dependent on acceptance, but they get it. They don’t need to be liked, but they’re likable.

    Eustress is the thing to engage. Awesome post J.

    • Julien Says:

      Glad you think so Ryan, thanks.

      I think it just builds a series of experiences quicker than you might be used to, which gives you better decision making capabilities faster.

      As you do it more, the process accelerates.

  2. Mars Dorian Says:

    jeez, Julien, almost every post you write nowadays is a gold nugget for my mind. I’m the biggest procrastinator ever, and those two little tips really help me breaking through that unhealthy behavior.
    I’m going to try these tips excessively during the next weeks and tell you how my life changed because of it.

    Mars

  3. Chamika Says:

    Reminds me of a line in a Sopranos episode where Carmella tells Tony: “There is more lost to indecision than to wrong decision”.

  4. Matt Koyak Says:

    I’ve been a competitive volleyball player (and coach) for decades, and almost every theory I’ve applied on the court or while coaching a player is evident in my management style in the office.

    Julien’s logic in this post, when applied to decisions, is totally in-line with that style. On the court, you make a decision in a fraction of a nano-second and the result is instant – success or failure; you score or you don’t. Either way, the outcome becomes data for making your next decision. The point is, if you don’t make the decisions or act (react) you’ll never learn.

    I’ve always tell my players that any action is better than no action. Moreover, a decision on the court that results in a negative outcome will undoubtedly influence all future decisions. And for that reason, one bad decision is worth the countless good decisions that will come from what was learned.

    Outstanding post Julien!

    • Julien Says:

      Thanks Matt, I think it applies pretty easily to a lot of sports and physical activities. I might have learned some of this from Erwan le Corre, I’m not sure.

  5. Matt Says:

    Love it!

    I’m a firm believer in breaking major projects or issues into 3′s. Cut out the rest and focus on 3 majors that make the biggest splash.

    2 is also good! ;)

  6. Ben Ziegler Says:

    Julien, your 2 pieces of advice fit nicely with the research of Gerd Gigerenzer, “a superstar in the psychology of decision making”, and Director of the Max Planck Institute of Human Development in Berlin, Germany. In his book… “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious.” he says relying on your “gut feelings” (a.k.a. intuition or hunch and which equates with fast action!) may be your best decision; especially when thinking of the future, of things that are difficult to predict, and where there is little information. On the other hand, he suggests complex analysis (= slower decision making) may be preferable (to intuition) when one has to explain the past, when the future is highly predictable, or when there are large amounts of information.

    Also, with your 2nd piece of advice, say “yes”, I think that over time, the outcomes get internalized, and feed into your intuition… and further strengthen your maxims. I’d say you’re smarter than you think!

  7. Richard Says:

    I love the edginess and courage with such an approach. I’ve often found that if you’re erring towards a no, you’re better chosing a yes and the consequences will not be too hard to live with, if negative at all.

  8. Jason Sandeman Says:

    THis reminds me of the “Yes Man” movie, where he was required to say “Yes” to any request. In the movie, he did quite well. Perhaps there is something to this after all!

  9. Tamsen McMahon Says:

    “Not to decide is to decide.”

    My parents used to have a framed print of that hanging in their bedroom. I think it got taken down for some redecorating when I was five or six, and yet that phrase, and the concept behind it, turns out to have been one of the guiding principles of my life.

    Our actions, and those not taken, define us. I’d rather be defined by having done many things, most of them well, than by only a few things, done perfectly.

  10. Cindi Says:

    Very rarely are people comfortable enough to actually let go of control, but my goodness, does it lead to a much better life! Cudos. And it is soooo encouraging and refreshing to know that I’m not alone, nor crazy, that I live my life this exact same way. :)

  11. Andrea Says:

    I had a boss who had a variation on this, which was liberating. He’d say if you’re going to fail, fail fast–then correct it/move on. I think people are too afraid of failing (in any form) so they stop to analyze decisions to death. Having someone tell me explicitly it was ok to fail enabled me to move more quickly. I like the pair of rules you provided, thanks.

  12. Wayne Lamarre Says:

    Couldn’t agree more with this post. As far as the heuristic “decide quickly and live with the consequences”, I’d add that when faced with multiple good choices “decide quickly, mourn for what you didn’t choose… then move on and don’t look back”.

    Also love Tamsen’s “Not to decide is to decide” Powerful reminder…

    Things happen for us when we make choices.

    Awesome

  13. Teg Brar Says:

    Right on the ball Julien. The wrong decision is the one that was never made. The ability to decide and learning from our mistakes breeds self confidence. The more we do it…the better we get at it!

  14. DJ Waldow Says:

    Julien – Long time reader, first time commenter. Yippee. You’ve just earned a new Feedburner subscriber with this post. Brilliant. I turn 35 later this month and have always struggled with the “overwhelmed and paralyzed with indecision” part.

    The “decide quickly, and live with the consequences” heuristic is perfect. Words to live by starting … now.

    Hope we can meet face to face this year. We have a ton of mutual friends/acquaintances.

  15. Ryan G Says:

    Your calling me out Julien. I have been in freeze mode for several months. It sucks. And it is due to what you noted…being overwhelmed with things to do. Argh.

  16. Tom Says:

    Great advice, as always. My father used to say that when you’re confronted with a difficult decision, it is better to decide promptly and risk a wrong decision than to hesitate and make no decision at all.

  17. Dan Says:

    This works micro and macro. I’m embarking on all sorts of new long-term projects. This is exactly the kind of credo I can use to get through the doubts.

    I’m also getting more involved in the online conversation by leaving more comments on blog posts.

    Let this be “Exhibit A.”

    Keep up the great work, Julien. Thank you.

  18. DJ Waldow Says:

    One more thing, Julien: I think Godin read your post and created his own version today. Ha ha.

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2011/02/you-dont-need-more-time.html

  19. Mark Harai Says:

    People who get shit done make decisions quickly – whereas people who don’t wonder why they can’t get shit done.

    Cheers Julien!

  20. Momekh Says:

    If quick decisions is the desired outcome, then saying ‘No’ would be much more effective.

    This will keep the clutter away, and help you focus on your ‘main opportunities’, things that you have supposedly figured out and working on.

    I mean, youwouldn’t say ‘yes’ to do a speaking gig when you are in the middle of writing your book, would you? No I mean, seriously, would you? :)

  21. Jennifer Says:

    First time commenter as well!

    I’m just coming out of a freeze period and this post hit a (good)nerve, mainly because since I’ve started making decisions it’s amazing how easy the next decision I have to make comes. It’s like jumping into a cool pool; shocking at first but then you feel right at home. It’s amazing how making a choice can be so freeing.

    I’m a lifelong equestrian, and you are constantly making quick decisions; not making them really isn’t an option, especially working with horses. That has always come natural to me. I’ve noticed that I let doubt creep in most when I’m unsure of the situation. This is an excellent reminder for me to embrace that confidence in one aspect of my life and apply it to another.

  22. Edgar Ochoa Says:

    Just what I needed to push me through in making an unusual decision today.

    The thing is… many times I get too overwhelmed with the many options that I encounter. With the many things to do. Trying to figure out which one is the ‘correct one’

    I should know better that we’ll never know which is the correct decision to take. We just need to choose one and go with it. If we fail, we’ll learn. And on to the next one.

    Thanks for the post Julien!

  23. Michele Nicholls Says:

    I wish I’d understood this when I was as young as you! As you get older you realise the truth of the cliche ‘when you’re on your deathbed, it won’t be the things you did that you regret, but the things you didn’t do.’ Better late than never for me, but I’m old enough to regret not skateboarding when my body was able!

  24. Kyle Reed Says:

    yes this does help.
    It was a powerful moment when a mentor told me that it was okay to trust your gut. I do not know what it was, but I had this grandiose idea that revelation or inspiration had to happen before I did anything.

    Thanks for giving me and others the permission to make a quick and decisive decision.

  25. Cynthia Says:

    Great post. I agree with Momekh though… As someone with a “caregiver” pattern I have had to learn to say No, and in fact have made it a practice to say No to everything for periods of time, creating much needed space, time and energy for my own development. Saying yes to everything would be complete disaster for me, and perpetuate overwhelm rather than resolve it..

    For habitual nay-sayers however, switching to Yes could be quite liberating because it forces one toward trust rather than control..

  26. Stanley Lee Says:

    What’s wrong with using the radical exclusion method for opportunities that you’re unsure about? If they are really that good, I don’t think it would be limited to that instant in terms of opportunities to capitalize.

  27. Julien Says:

    hey Stanley, i think it’s because saying yes to opportunities leads to more experience and opportunities. then it’s easier to shut them down later when you have more of them.

    does that make sense?

  28. Todd Becker Says:

    Excellent article, Julien. Your point about making rapid decisions and living with them reminds me of the great fighter pilot and business strategist John Boyd. After an incredible military career in which he developed a concept of “energy maneuverability” whereby he could shoot down enemy craft and always escape unscathed, he formalized this in a concept called the “OODA Loop” involving making quick decisions and quickly adjusting in response to the outcomes. Being light and fast and often wrong always beats being big and plodding. There are several great books on how this applies to business and life, but for a quick intro, read this Fast Company article – I think it resonates with your blog post: http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/59/pilot.html

    If you like that, check out this biography about Boyd:
    http://www.amazon.com/Boyd-Fighter-Pilot-Who-Changed/dp/0316881465

    ..and this application of Boyd’s theories to business strategy:
    http://www.amazon.com/Certain-Win-Strategy-Applied-Business/dp/1413453767/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297442555&sr=1-3

    Cheers,

    Todd

  29. Jeff Goins Says:

    I love these. Very reminiscent of Seth Godin’s “shipping” concept. I heard Dave Ramsey recently say, “I make a decision, and if I don’t like that decision, I make another one.” Good words to live by.

  30. Collette Says:

    Brilliant.

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