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3 Timeless Rules for Making Tough Decisions


Nov. 2, 2015 Harvard Business Review

I perused the restaurant menu for several minutes, struggling with indecision, each item tempting me in a different way.

Maybe I should order them all . . . 

Is this a silly decision not deserving deliberation? Maybe. But I bet you’ve been there. If not about food, then about something else.

We spend an inordinate amount of time, and a tremendous amount of energy, making choices between equally attractive options in everyday situations. The problem is, that while they may be equally attractive, they are also differently attractive, with tradeoffs that require compromise. Even when deciding between kale salad (healthy and light), salmon (a heavier protein), and ravioli (tasty, but high carbs).

If these mundane decisions drag on our time and energy, think about the bigger ones we need to make, in organizations, all the time. Which products should we pursue and which should we kill? Who should I hire or fire? Should I initiate that difficult conversation?

These questions are followed by an infinite number of other questions. If I am going to have that difficult conversation, when should I do it? And how should I start? Should I call them or see them in person or email them? Should I do it publicly or in private? How much information should I share? And on and on . . .

So how can we handle decisions of all kinds more efficiently? I have three methods that I use, two of which I talk about in my book, Four Seconds, the third which I discovered last week.

The first method is to use habits as a way to reduce routine decision fatigue. The idea is that if you build a habit —for example: always eat salad for lunch — then you avoid the decision entirely and you can save your decision-making energy for other things.

That works for predictable and routine decisions. But what about unpredictable ones?

The second method is to use if/then thinking to routinize unpredictable choices. For example, let’s say someone constantly interrupts me and I’m not sure how to respond. My if/then rule might be: if the person interrupts me two times in a conversation, then I will say something.

These two techniques — habits and if/then — can help streamline many typical, routine choices we face in our lives.

What we haven’t solved for are the larger more strategic decisions that aren’t habitual and can’t be predicted.

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