The Simple Algorithm for Making Big Life Decisions

Recently, I shared the first lesson in a multi-part series on setting goals you’ll actually achieve. In case you missed it, you can read that lesson here:

Lesson 1: Why it’s so hard to stick to your goals (and how to make it easy)

In this lesson, I’d like to share an interesting algorithm, drawn from computer science, you can use to help make important decisions in your life. But first, let me set the stage…

Research or Action?

Imagine you’re facing a big decision in life, it might be:

  • Where to go to college
  • Who you want to marry
  • Which house should you buy?
  • Which career to pursue
  • Where to send your kids to school
  • etc.

A common trade-off in this situation is between doing more research and taking action.

The benefit of more research is that you’re more likely to pick the best option. If you interview more applicants for a job, you’ll be much more likely to find the ideal candidate than if you hire the first person who walks through the door.

The downside of more research is that it can lead to paralysis. You may spend so much time “thinking” about and “researching” options, that you never actually do anything about it, and the status-quo is often worse than most of the choices available.

This uncertainty can be paralyzing. Enough so, you may procrastinate until the useful time to make a decision has lapsed and now you’re stuck.

What do you do?

How Algorithms Can Make Hard Decisions Easier

In these situations, where you’re going to be faced with emotional uncertainty, a powerful tool are algorithms.

Algorithms are mechanical processes which pick a choice for you. They can simplify tense situations like this, particularly where you may be predisposed to rush into a hasty choice, or procrastinate with anxiety over a difficult one. They can also enforce a deeper rationality, when your instincts might be misleading.

There are many different algorithms you can use, both for decision-making and handling many other problems in life. We cover a lot of these in my course, Make it Happen!, which will be opening a new session next week.

For now, I’d like to cover just one.

Deciding the Right Amount of Research

This algorithm comes from a mathematical problem which was originally called the Secretary Problem. This problem imagines you’re trying to hire a secretary. You can interview each applicant, and after each person, you must decide immediately whether to hire the person or look at the next. No going back.

The question is, what process should you use to pick the best secretary, given that you don’t know what they will be like until you interview them?

Secretary Problem

It turns out there’s a mathematically optimal way to handle this problem. You start out by rejecting the first third of applicants (technically 1/e). It doesn’t matter if they seem amazing or not, you just move onto the next.

Then, once you’ve gotten through the rejection phase, you pick the first person who is better than all other people you’ve seen before. This algorithm will return the best applicant nearly 40% of the time.

How Can You Apply This to Your Own Decisions

My wife and I used this approach when deciding which apartment to rent recently. First, we imagined a total length of searching time (around three months of active searching). Then, at the start, we looked at apartments, but we didn’t say yes to any of them. Finally, after a month had passed, and we saw what the rough quality was like at our price range, we picked the first one we really liked.

The end decision was much better than if we had jumped on an early offer. Additionally, we avoided waiting too long for a place that may never materialize at the price we wanted.

This algorithm can be used relatively directly in cases where you have to consider offers one at a time, and either reject or accept them:

  • Dating: have you been in the singles scene for too long and need to stop being so picky?
  • Housing: should you make an offer or wait for something better?
  • Job offers: get hired, or wait a little longer for a better deal?

Of course, the actual reality doesn’t approach the exact assumptions of the math problem, so you can adjust it based on other factors:

  • Do you have some idea of what you can expect beforehand? Then you may shorten the rejection phase because you already come at the problem with some knowledge.
  • Might the quality of your options go up over time, in some unpredictable way? Then you may want to lengthen it to be more than one-third of your total time spent.
  • Do you have the ability to review past options (say you’re choosing which college to attend, or which major to study in)? Then you may want to lengthen it further.

This algorithm is just one thinking tool for handling tough decisions. In practice there are dozens more tools you can apply to make better decisions about the hardest choices in your life. In Make it Happen!, I’ll cover many of these tools.

Make it Happen! is a six-week course designed around one idea: how to make plans and set goals you’ll actually stick to. We’ll be opening for registration from January 14, 2019 to January 18, 2019.

In the next lesson, I’m going to switch from decision-making to focusing on how to work on your goals when you don’t have time!

AS SEEN IN