How to be Decisive? – Part 2

Sometimes it feels like we’re the first to face a particular problem. The fact is, however, that what you see as your problem may have already been solved by someone else. You just don’t notice it because their problem is slightly different.

When you find yourself wondering how to proceed with a certain problem, you should explore what other people are doing. For instance, if yours is a business problem, look at how your competitors handled it in order to find the best way forward. Another technique is to search for analogies, as they are effective in helping us to think about specific problems in a more general way, leading us to solve them.

It seems logical that, when making decisions, we choose those options that we like the most. Unfortunately, however, these aren’t always the best decisions. But though our preferences might bias our decision-making process, there are actually a couple of ways to shake off the influence that our likes and dislikes have on us.

First, make it easy for someone to disagree with you. Consider what would have to be true to make your least favorite option, or just the other options, the best choice. By doing this, you’re not arguing for or against personal preferences, but instead analyzing the logical constraints of the options and allowing for disagreement without generating antagonism.

If you can’t do this yourself, allow someone else to play devil’s advocate, and make a convincing case against what you (and maybe everyone else) believe to be the best option. Second, ask disconfirming questions to surface opposing information. Another option is to look at how a decision of ours has worked out for other people.

Although we often believe our situation is unique, it benefits us to look at how others in a similar situation have fared. We’re usually more alike than we tend to believe. Second, while it seems obvious to ask experts for predictions about your situation, you should look to them for base rates only. This is because they may also slip into the inside view when presented with an individual situation; they, too, might end up neglecting base rates.

So ask them indicative rather than predictive questions. But make sure not to let yourself take even informed opinions at face value. Instead, always be certain to take a closer look. In many situations it’s wise to dip your toe in the water, rather than dive in headfirst. This process of testing ideas on a small scale is called ooching.

Deciding upon something based on our belief that it will or won’t work is a bad strategy compared to trying it on a smaller scale. Furthermore, we’re bad at predicting the future. So, rather than guess, we should test.

But we don’t always have the option to ooch. Some situations will require our full commitment from the outset. For instance, we can’t temporarily quit our football team just to see how it feels. Doing so would violate our obligation to our teammates. And no one should go to university just to see if it suits them. Rather, we should try to find out beforehand whether we like the subject we plan on studying and only then commit to it.

Instead of mulling endlessly over whether you should commit to a certain option, it is a good idea to first give it a try on a smaller scale. Many of our choices are hijacked by what we believe is important in the moment that we’re faced with them. However, since these are often bad in the long run, here are some techniques for encouraging our brains to consider long-term consequences.

The first is to find emotional distance by imagining the outcomes from a future perspective. This is because present emotions are often very clear and precise, while future emotions are not yet well-defined. Salesmen often exploit this – they try to excite us so that we’ll make a purchase based on that short-term emotion.

One simple, effective method to equalize their influence is called 10/10/10: Actively consider future emotions by asking yourself how you would feel about your decision 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years from now.

The second technique is to take the observer’s perspective.By looking at your decision from an observer’s perspective – from a distance –  the most important aspects will seem obvious to you. Often, these aren’t even the ones you are preoccupied with in the thick of the moment.

In the end, one of the best questions to ask ourselves when facing a tough dilemma may be: What would I recommend that my best friend should do?

When we do a certain thing every day we often don’t notice the gradual changes that, over time, can amount to a drastic situation. Hence, we need a figurative “tripwire”: a signal that makes us aware of our behavior, and, if necessary, prompts us to correct it.

One way to do that is to establish clear signals to interrupt any “autopilot behavior.” For example, the American shoe seller Zappos offers their employees $4000 to quit. Once they feel they don’t like working there anymore, they’re encouraged to take the money and leave. This is a tripwire to help unmotivated staff see their situation clearly. It interrupts indecisive behavior that’s based on habit, and prompts conscious decision-making. (Bonus: It also gets rid of underperforming staff.)

Another method is to set deadlines and partitions to keep yourself from falling into bad habits. Deadlines help us enforce a decision that we’d otherwise procrastinate on. For example, one study offered college students $5 to fill out a survey. When given a five-day deadline to complete the survey, 66% collected the money, but without a deadline only 25% collected it.

Partitions work the same way. For instance, instead of handing out one huge sum, large investments are distributed by dispensing smaller sums over time, prompting conscious attention. Each round of partial investment serves as a tripwire to make sure that everything is going the right way. The final method is to use labels to recognize disturbing (or encouraging) patterns. As you can see, when what’s at stake are the lives of many people, even a nagging feeling can act as a tripwire prompting you to pay conscious attention to the situation.

When you make a decision, follow the WRAP-process: Widen your Options, Reality-test your assumptions, Attain distance before deciding, and Prepare to be wrong.

Check out my related post: How do you do something you don’t know how to do?

Interesting reads:


  1. Oooo an interesting one. Sometimes I can be painfully indecisive, but these are often over far more trivial matters. The more important, bigger things, well, I’m not so bad with strangely enough! I think the idea of playing devil’s advocate (with yourself or with help from someone else) and asking what you’d suggest to your best friend are ones that can be simple yet effective. Great post! x

    Liked by 1 person

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