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How To Make a Difficult Decision: 6 Powerful Methods That Work

davidfallarme on May 6, 2014

Every decision we make, no matter how trivial, depletes mental energy.

Deciding what to wear to work might not faze you, but agonizing over a life-changing question like “should I quit Google to join a tiny startup” can mentally exhaust you until finally make a decision.

If your job requires you to constantly make decisions — or if you’ve got one giant decision to make — you’re going to be perpetually drained unless you have decision-making frameworks to help you decide.

In this article, we’ll go over 6 frameworks for decision making, see when to use them, then see how they apply to real-world situations.

1. Following your intuition

When deciding with intuition, you allow prior experiences to guide you toward a course of action. Recognizing when it’s acceptable to use intuition liberates you from thinking that you need to make a spreadsheet for every decision.

Intuition is useful when making a decision within an extremely limited time frame, like shortlisting candidates from a stack of applications or saving people from a burning building.

Subjective tasks that involve creativity and spatial thinking also lean on your intuition — if you’re choosing a logo among many options and simply can’t decide, don’t overthink the matter; trust your gut and move on to other problems.

2. Deciding with values

With a decision-making framework based on values, you’re looking for the “right” thing to do. You choose based on what best aligns with your personal principles or your organization’s mission. Aligning with values is important if the outcome of your decision will set a precedent for similar decisions in the future.

It can be hard to make a decision based on values, as it often directly conflicts with business interests. But that’s not always a bad thing: the entire Western legal system is built on a decision-making framework based on values. Setting principles and creating a certain image can be more important than losing money.

3. Pros and Cons (Cost-Benefit Analysis)

The exercise of making a pros/cons list allows you to measure potential decisions across two dimensions:

Speed: which column is easier to fill, pros or cons? If it’s extremely easy to think of negatives, but you’re straining to come up with positives, then the decision might be simpler than you think.

Length: which column is longer? Imagine a situation where one of the columns is overwhelmingly longer than the other.

This is useful when you have to make a binary decision between two options, where choosing one means giving up the other. It helps you get a handle on decisions like whether you should respond to negative press or if raising your prices will help or harm your business.

4. Decision matrix

When many factors or variables are involved, use a decision matrix to break down the decision into smaller parts. Consider the components of the decision, then weight and score them accordingly.

If this sounds complicated, it’s not. You’ve seen it before. This is how competition judging works, for everything from Olympic events to Iron Chef:

Creating a decision matrix is an excellent way to resolve those questions that keep you up at night, like choosing between job offers or choosing which car to buy. Instead of endlessly researching or asking friends, sit down and make a decision matrix to decide once and for all.

5. Make the minimum viable decision

Have you ever caught yourself in “analysis paralysis”, where you simply can’t bring yourself to decide? It usually happens when we have too many options and not enough information, like when we’re choosing a new shampoo or a new toothpaste.

This is what Louis CK does when faced with decision gridlock:

“…my rule is that if you have someone or something that gets 70 percent approval, you just do it. ‘Cause here’s what happens. The fact that other options go away immediately brings your choice to 80. Because the pain of deciding is over.”

It’s extremely rare to make a perfect decision — so don’t try. You’ll just end up wasting time researching and agonizing over the issue. Instead, pick one path and then spend your time making that outcome as good as possible.

6. Minimize regret

You’ve just received the job offer of a lifetime, but it likely means breaking up a happy relationship with your girlfriend of 6 years. What do you do? A list of pros and cons feels insufficient for a major life decision.

Jeff Bezos faced a similar problem when he was torn between a Wall Street job with a stable (and very lucrative) career path and taking a risk with his crazy idea for an online bookstore. In searching for a decision-making framework to guide him, he stumbled on the “regret minimization framework” seen here:

Watch the full video here.

This is handy for making potentially life-altering decisions that can’t be broken down into a component matrix. Which path will yield the least regret when you’re old?

(See more tips from Jeff Bezos here.)

Examples

With these in mind, let’s see how these frameworks operate in practice, looking at different situations.

Example #1: Should I quit Google to join a startup?

Decision Matrix

You’re a Senior Product Manager at Google. Life is good, but you’re a bit bored. One day, a friend approaches you and tries to convince you to join his small startup. His idea excites you, but you’re unsure about leaving a stable job.

In addition to using Jeff Bezos’ strategy of minimizing regret, we could also tackle this with a decision matrix.

After some introspection, you determine that your job satisfaction is simply a function of five components: your salary, your coworkers, your opportunities for advancement, your passion and the prestige you feel.

So you take those and score both options accordingly:

While Google offers you a stable income and a brand name on your resume, you realize that you’ve grown tired of the internal politics and lack of motivation at work. You’re willing to take a paycut to have a fire in your belly again.

What do you do when faced with a tough decision with no easy answers? With a rational way to make your decision, you hand in your two week’s notice and prepare for your new life in the startup grind.

Example #2: Should I ban Donald Sterling?

Values

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently handed Clippers owner Donald Sterling a lifetime ban over a controversial, leaked conversation. On the surface, this is a no-brainer: if Sterling is perceived to be getting away with a slap on the wrist, Silver looks like a pushover Commissioner and loses the respect of both owners and players associations.

However, digging into the legal and ethical issues makes the issue more complex. There are many unanswered questions about the origins of the recording, the motivations of the parties involved, not to mention that forcing someone to sell their property because of personal views expressed in a private conversation is a slippery slope, even according to another team owner.

There was no question that Silver was going to hand out a punishment — but deciding the degree of punishment was surely a difficult decision. At the end of the day, Commissioner Sterling viewed the situation as an opportunity to set a precedent and put the values of the NBA on display.

One final thought

By employing decision-making frameworks, we no longer have the problem of “deciding how to decide” — we can move to the next step of actually choosing a course of action and moving forward.

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