On decision making

If you find yourself revisiting decisions over and over again, or just being unsure of decisions you have made, it might be because you’ve short-circuited the decision making process.

When this happens, it’s good to step back and follow a decision making process very explicitly. It doesn’t have to take a long time, but it’s important to be disciplined about it. Here’s one that works for me. It works for anything from decisions about software features or interface details, to where to go on your next vacation.

  1. Define the problem.
  2. Define the criteria to evaluate solutions by. Criteria can be performance, simplicity, completeness, memorable, understandable, fun, etc. All decisions are trade-offs, and you need to know what to trade. Together, step 1 and 2 defines what you want to achieve. It’s half the job. Really.
  3. Brainstorm. Generate as many options as you can think of. A surgeon told me to always find at least 17. That’s pretty challenging, but it’s important to get past the obvious ones. Suspend judgment, and list as many as you can think of.
  4. Evaluate. For each option, list the pros and cons, and evaluate them against the criteria you set forth in step 2.
  5. Choose. After you’ve done the above, making the actual decision is easy.

The great thing about the process is that making the actual decision becomes the easiest part. And if you still find that you need to revisit the decision, you can go back to your lists and find out exactly what went wrong: Was it the problem, the criteria, options or pros/cons that didn’t come to mind? Where does the new information put you? Then just make a new decision and move on.

Like I said, it doesn’t have to take long. Usually half an hour does wonders, though it could be much shorter or much longer. Whatever time it takes, the good news is that the effort you put in here will save you from bad decisions and from second thoughts about good decisions.


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