Decide Now!

The ability to make quick decisions in the face of ambiguity is the difference between living a life pro-actively and living a life reactively. Many times people are afraid to make a decision because they don’t feel they have enough information to go on. Unfortunately, by the time enough information does come around usually the opportunity to make the decision is long gone.

This problem of waiting too long to make decisions is largely based on a few false beliefs that many of us hold. These false beliefs keep us from making a decision when it is necessary.

The first false belief is that more information is always better. This isn’t always true. Once the brain reaches a certain threshold of logical information, giving it more rarely improves your effectiveness in getting the answer right. In fact, too much information can often decrease your ability to get the answer right.

In the book, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, the author points to a study that was conducted involving a new method to check for heart attacks. The older method involved the doctors reviewing the patients medical history and doing a complete exam. The new method in question only checked for four things before making the recommendation.

Most people would likely assume that the method that was more in-depth would give better results. However, the opposite was true! The new method which only checked four was on average 70% better at making a correct diagnoses.

Too much information can clutter up what is the most important. It turns out that only those four properties were significant in giving a recommendation. Looking at others would only obscure your decision making process. When this happens we actually become less effective at making decisions.

The second false belief that prevents us from making decisions is that we need to be right the first time. I believe that most of us have been taught that we cannot remake a decision once it is shown to be wrong. This is similar to how testing in schools work. If you get a question wrong on a test, you don’t have another opportunity to get it right, so you’d better get the right answer before filling it in.

I believe this needlessly prevents people from making decisions and taking actions when they need to most. If you find out you are wrong, then simply go back and redo it. Don’t waste time wondering whether a decision is right. Just make it. If it is wrong, you can always go back and change it.

I think another belief that prevents people from making decisions is that they don’t perceive the actual risk involved. Most of the decisions we have to make will have very little downside if we are wrong and potentially a huge upside if we are right. The decision to ask someone out on a date, for example. The worst case is that you will be rejected. The best case might be finding someone to spend the rest of your life with.

Even if the risks are high, however, taking too long to make a decision might not be a good idea either. Generally in these situations more information that could help you will not come. You are probably best just picking something and going with it, rather than waiting for more information.

One reason people hesitate to take action is because they are afraid of being wrong. People are afraid of wasting a lot of time and energy only to discover they should have done things differently. I never apologize to myself for being wrong or for decisions I made in the past. As long as I made those decisions using my best reasoning skills I had at the time, then they were correct decisions regardless of the outcome.

If I wrote a really bad article here (of course we know that could never happen 😉 ) I would never apologize to myself about writing it, so long as I felt I was doing the best I could at the time. By expecting perfection of yourself, you are guaranteed to do nothing. Instead, just expect that you will do your best.

While there is value in cautious thinking, usually it doesn’t apply. When is the last time deciding what to eat for dinner has had serious negative consequences for you? When is the last time deciding to start a diet has required cautious deliberation?

Another area of decisions that require us to face ambiguity is in planning. Today I recently did my rough plan for this website for the next two years. While I want to release as much free content as possible, I am going to try to turn this into a full-time business, which will require a little more planning than just a blog. Never having run a business before, however, I don’t have tons of personal information to go on (although I have read a lot 😉 ).

Now I was a little hesitant when making this plan because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was thoroughly convinced that I would probably make so many changes to my plan, if not complete revisions by the time the two years were up, that the plan that is successful won’t even resemble my plan today. But I made the plan anyways.

The key is that I accepted that my plan might need revising and restructuring, but the purpose of the plan is to move me to action. As soon as I learn something that would invalidate part of my plan, I will incorporate it, until then I’ll just work on my best guess. Either the approach of not planning at all, or the approach of expecting your plan to be perfect from the start, are not sensible ideas.

I don’t know whether my decisions are the right ones or not. But I have made them, and I will stick with them until I can get new information that will tell me otherwise. Plans are just more complex decisions when you think about it.

Decision making, and even more importantly, quickly making decisions, are skills. If you want to make better decisions, start making more of them and start making them faster. If you can get use to acting even when you don’t know what you are doing, then you will be able to know what you are doing a lot faster.

So go out there and make some decisions. Who cares if you don’t know how? The best way to learn is to start!

  • Rik

    Hey Scott,

    Have been reading your blog and like what I read. Keep reading and processing to this blog.

    I guess with a software development backround your plan to make this website your full time committment you will need a business model which is very close to whatever you are doing right now. Sounds more like continious improvement than innovation to me. Whatever you do, do your best ;). I will be watching.

    Have a great day,

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments, Rik. You have a great day too!

  • Les Nelson

    Excellent article.

    Consistent with all my experiences over the last 20+ years in aerospace and industrial corporate environments.

    In particular I think you have an “award-winning” quote because it gets right to the crux of the issue:

    “If you can get use to acting even when you don’t know what you are doing, then you will be able to know what you are doing a lot faster.”

    Also, the people who get ahead in the corporate world are often those who have plans ready to go during key meetings versus those who just sit in meetings vacillating. An imperfect plan that makes sense and is ready to go carries significant power, and following your advice will achieve that.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the thoughts Les!

  • SelpHelpSkeptic

    I liked this article. I think it ties into ‘just doing something’. Often, as a form of procrastinating, we plan…and….plan…pan…and revise…and then plan some more with the object of having complete information and a perfect plan before we begin. This just allows to us pretend we are doing something while actually taking some action.

    Similar to what you are saying, for most things, I make a 3 to 5 point checklist of what I feel are the most important things to get the ball rolling – then I focus on them and make educated guesses on the rest. I have also found it is the best way learn and forces me to do one thing -act!

    I think most doers, “do” with imperfect/little information and then gather more information as they attempt to move forward. Of course, one shouldn’t discount the value of gathering information and resources to make educated decisions, but as you said, usually the consequences of attempting or doing with limited information are usually not as drastic as people fear.

  • Elina McGill

    Deciding now is a crucial element to being a great leader. We should put a time limit on our decisions. Literally put a deadline on our decisions. I also have heard of the technique of flipping a coin to make your decisions for you. Even if the coin lands on a decision that we don’t like we will immediately get a gut reaction of what we truly want.