When faced with a tough choice, how do you make your decision? Do you think about it deeply or just wing it based on your gut feeling? The majority do both — they start by thinking deeply, depending on the time, and then they get tired of all the thinking and, in the end, wing it. Funny, right? The eternal fight of the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
The orderly thinkers take out their notepads. They list the pros and cons. It is likely you didn’t know that this was a technique that has been in use for hundreds of years. The smarter folks, like Benjamin Franklin, took this one step further and added weights to each point, calling it “moral algebra.” There are others who assign a numeric value to each pro and con and come to a decision using the highest points. In Farsighted: How We Make The Decisions That Matter Most, author Steven Johnson explores the different forms of decision-making and draws us a map of how to do it effectively.
A value score
Take a problem you face for which you need a good decision. Take, for example, changing jobs. Make a list of jobs, locations, and then make a list of values that you deem important in your life. These values could be the culture of the company, the impact your work/organization has on the world, and so on. Assign a number to each value, increasing it based on how much the value means to you. Add them all up, and you get a calculated solution. This can be easily done in a spreadsheet.
This works well when you just have one specific decision to make, like: “Do I need to change my job?” But in real-life scenarios, one decision is combined with several others. A change in your job is accompanied by a change in your lifestyle (if the pay varies), a change in location, a change in the workplace, co-workers, routines, commuting, and so on. When more than one decision is assessed using this methodology, it gets complicated and cumbersome. Is there a better way?
First, comes mapping. In this stage, you don’t try to conclude and narrow down your options. Here, you explore all the dimensions of your decision. Consider other options that you might not have thought of before. Alternate solutions, like is it really a job change that you’re looking for, or is it just a case for wanting a break. Jot them all down. This step broadens your thinking instead of making a simple yes or no answer. Then, take a break. Clear your mind. Come back the next day, and cross out options that are a sure “no.” Now, you’re left with the top choices.
This is the fun, creative part. Decision making essentially means to make predictions on what the future implications hold for each choice. But beware of your personal bias here. Do not keep focusing on the things you like to happen. A refined method, according to Steven Johnson, is to go about this step by making different stories for each decision based on a good outcome, weird outcome, and a worst-case scenario. Set a time limit for each task if you tend to overthink during the process. Along with this, mention the probability that this will likely come to pass.
The common advice would be to include people who are affected by your decision to be part of your decision-making process. But involving people who have stakes is going to involve emotion, and emotion affects judgment. So try involving people who have no impact on your decision. These people must be reasonably unbiased and must have stable character traits that you know can be depended on, i.e., they have made good decisions in the past.
Then, pull in the people who are affected by the decision. The more people you have, the more diverse ideas you will be exposed to. Assemble people who will oppose your decision and bring up the worst-case scenario every time. These people will bring in the experience from the opposite perspective and give you a good foundation on whether your idea is worth it.
After you have plotted all possible outcomes, begin with a weighted model of analysis, as mentioned before. Take your time because good decisions often need plenty of afterthoughts.
Take enough time, proportional to the impact the decision has on your life. Measure the values you find meaningful in your life, and calculate yourself to the right answer. Decision-making is a process everyone needs to know all throughout their lives. The more you do the process, the better you get at it.