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How to make easy decisions
Today I thought I’d teach you one of my superpowers, which is making easy decisions. I think people are bad at making these, and in particular are bad at even noticing that they exist, and I’d like to help you fix that.
I should warn you that following this advice may transform you into a strange and alien creature. I think this is one of my more disconcerting traits for others, because fully embracing it causes you to stop doing a lot of social signalling that people pretend is necessary. In particular it often is in tension with the advice I proposed in Telegraph your moves, because it will sometimes limit your ability to predict your actions far into the future.
Ultimately, I think this is good, and it is possible to be both decisive and considerate to others, but getting to that point definitely involves some degree of norm violation.
Don’t be Chidi
I think of this newsletter as the “Don’t be Chidi” edition.
(The following video contains spoilers for The Good Place and I do not recommend watching it if you haven’t seen The Good Place and don’t want to be spoilered for it)
Chidi is a character from “The Good Place”, a show I highly recommend watching if you have not already. He’s a moral philosopher, and he is very concerned with doing the right thing and, far more importantly to him, not doing the wrong thing. As a result, he is terrible at making decisions.
If you haven’t seen The Good Place, that’s OK, just think of the following as the central Chidi exchange:
Chidi : So, making decisions isn't necessarily my strong suit.
Michael : I know that, buddy. You once had a panic attack at a Make-Your-Own-Sundae bar.
Chidi: There were too many toppings and very early in the process, you had to commit to a chocolate palette or a fruit palette. And if you couldn't decide, you wound up with kiwi-Junior Mint-raisin, and it just ruins everyone's night.
Chidi’s failing is not that he lacks the toolkit to make decisions - his whole speciality is in thinking very hard about complex decisions. Chidi’s problem is that he does not know when to stop using it. You cannot put the same amount of effort into making a sundae as you put into a life-or-death situation.
In Being disappointed in people, I talked about the anti-role model:
an anti-role model is someone who you can look upon with a certain degree of love. In your heart you are able to think “I see you, I respect you, I believe I understand you, I recognise that which is common in us. I am glad that you exist. I value you as a human being. Your choice are your own, and I acknowledge your right to make them, and I expect no dominion over you or your life. And, with all of this in mind, and with love in my heart and determination in my soul, I will dedicate my very existence to ensuring that I never under any circumstances become you.”
This post is about the skillset you develop as part of making Chidi your anti-role model, by setting out to become good at the sort of decisions that Chidi is bad at.
Why are easy decisions interesting?
It may seem strange to spend a whole long essay writing about easy decisions, but I think the subject is important for a couple of reasons. Principally:
People are actually very bad at making easy decisions.
If you struggle with easy decisions you end up spending a lot of effort on them that you could more usefully be able to spend elsewhere.
People often miss that there are even any easy decisions to be made at all.
Often the way to make hard decisions is to find a related easy decision to make.
I’ll go over each of these in more detail in a bit, but for now think of Chidi again as the extreme version of this: He is utterly paralysed by indecision in his day to day life. It makes his life worse in every way, because it makes him anxious and ineffective. Although Chidi is an extreme example, smaller versions of such experience are common.
Once one avoids the risk of being Chidi, there’s another level on top of that, which is what life starts to look like once you become actively good at making easy decisions, and start looking out for opportunities to find them. This opens up a lot of options in life that you would otherwise miss.
What makes a decision easy?
An “easy decision” in the sense that I’m using here is a decision for which there is a strategy for making that is low-effort, reasonable, and not substantially worse than any higher effort strategy.
There are two prototypical easy decisions:
Heads or tails?
Would you like the obviously strictly better option or the obviously strictly worse option?
For the first one, either of the strategies “pick heads” or “pick tails” are a reasonable low-effort strategy and there is no way to improve on them. Any increase in effort results in, well, an increase in effort, but no improvement in the outcome (because the outcome is entirely random regardless of what you do).
This illustrates an important point: An easy decision is not one in which there is a low-effort strategy for getting the right answer. You may not be able to get the right answer. The strategy simply cannot do much worse than any higher effort strategy. If no higher effort strategy gets the right answer either, it’s still an easy decision even if you’re just guessing.
For the second one, the best strategy is you immediately pick the strictly better option without thinking too hard about it. “Would you like a slap or £100?” shouldn’t require much in the way of thinking.Any effort you put in above “pick the obvious one” is wasted, because either you’ll get the same answer you would have got anyway, or you’ll convince yourself to take a strictly worse outcome in which case you’ve spent effort to make your life worse.
This illustrates a different important point: Easy decisions aren’t necessarily easy because they don’t matter. Sometimes easy decisions are very important, because the upside of choosing right is huge. They’re easy because they’re easy to ensure you decide in the right direction.
You can also combine these two points. If I said “Heads or tails? Also if you guess right I’ll give you £100” you now have a scenario where it is important that you guess right (you’ll get a reward!), but you still have no ability to improve on the strategy of picking arbitrarily. No matter how much effort you put in, you cannot improve your chances of winning that £100.
To a large degree all easy decisions look like one of these two patterns: Either it’s obvious which decision you should make, or it doesn’t matter which decision you should make and you should pick arbitrarily. Anything that doesn’t fit this pattern necessarily requires more work to make the decision.
The trick is learning to recognise when you’re in one of these situations, and then get permission to make them that way.
What makes a decision hard?
The opposite of an easy decision is, of course, a hard one: One where every reasonable strategy is high effort, or produces substantially worse results than a high effort strategy.
The central example of a typically hard decision is “Should I have children?”. Whatever you do, you have the possibility of regretting it, and there are no take backs.
Part of what makes such decisions intrinsically hard is that if you end up in one of those situations of regretting it, one of the things you will often regret is not having put enough thought into it. If you find yourself in a scenario which you regret, cannot fix, and could have anticipated with more effort, that’s evidence that the decision wasn’t easy.
Such decisions are out of scope for this piece, except to note this: Often the process of putting effort into making the decision consists of identifying and making many small decisions that support the broader decision making.
For example, you might make a decision: Should I talk to some parents about what the experience is like before I have kids?
To me, this seems like a “Do you want the strictly better option or the strictly worse option?” easy decision, but a surprising number of people seem to make this decision by picking the strictly worse option.
I should maybe note that I’m actually quite bad at making hard decisions, and this is where much of my expertise in easy decisions comes from - trying to play to my strengths, and to offset my weaknesses by finding more ways to rely on my strengths.
Why are arbitrary choices hard?
“Arbitrary choices” are choices which look like “heads or tails?”. People are terrible at them. How many times have you seen someone go “Heads. No, wait! Tails.”?
My Alexander Technique teacher has a trick he does with new students where he holds out a ball in each hand and asks you to pick one. Most students pause and think about this for a while - not necessarily long, but a second or two. They need to make a decision.
This decision is pure wasted time, because what ball you pick literally doesn’t matter, but people hesitate for two reasons:
A teacher asked them a question, and they don’t like getting the wrong answer to a teacher’s question (even though there is no wrong answer).
More importantly they want to demonstrate they are putting thought into it.
In Being, acting, and feeling responsible, I talk about the difference between behaving in a responsible way and behaving in a way that is perceived as responsible:
If you are making good well thought out decisions that taken into account the situation and the risks involved, you are being responsible.
If you are behaving in a way that makes other people think you are being responsible, you are acting responsible.
I also pointed out that whether we feel we are being responsible tends to be more about whether we’re acting responsible than whether we’re being responsible.
Often putting in a lot of effort into a decision that doesn’t warrant it is a way of acting responsible (if something goes wrong you can defend your actions as considered) when the reality is that you are consciously choosing to do something that is strictly worse than the alternative, which is not the responsible thing to do.
This sense of obligation that you need to put in the effort to show (either to yourself or to others) that you are treating the question seriously is what makes arbitrary decisions hard, because it forces us to adopt the strictly worse strategy where we put in extra effort without getting anything in return.
Why are obvious choices hard?
“Obvious choices” are choices which look like “Would you like the better option or the worse option?”. Surprisingly, these are often hard too. Usually people get the right answer, but typically with more effort and stress than it warrants.
Let’s go back to the “Toss a coin, get £100 if you pick the right answer” example and throw in a slight variant. Instead, I’m going to roll a six sided die, and you have to predict if it’s going to be a six or not. You don’t have to predict what number it will be if it’s not a six, your options are just six or not-six. Once again, you’ll get a reward if you guess right.
If you have a lick of sense you pick not-six of course (it’s five times as likely as the six). But then if I roll the dice and it comes up six, what happens?
You probably feel like an idiot. “I knew it! Should have picked six!” you might say. But, of course, you shouldn’t have. You made the right choice, it just didn’t work out. This possibility of it not working out no matter how good your decision was is one of the ongoing difficulties of making good decisions. Even when one option is obviously better, we risk the possibility of it going wrong, and we will blame ourselves when it does (and possibly others will blame us)!
An example with a similar structure: Do you want to go to McDonalds or the nice reasonably priced local restaurant? Oh no, turns out you caught a cold at the restaurant, now you’ve lost a few days as a result of your decision. Should have gone to McDonalds, right?
This is the fallacy of resulting: Judging the quality of a decision based exclusively on its outcome. The outcome is rarely so totally under our control that we can make a decision well enough to guarantee it is good, so the fact that we got a bad outcome (while worth learning from) doesn’t mean we did anything wrong, but we treat outcomes that our downstream of our decisions as our fault.
The problem here is the same as with the coin flip or dice toss: There is no way to make the decision better by putting in more effort, but by putting on a performance that you’ve tried you can emotionally protect yourself against any negative consequences.
Would you like to procrastinate?
The most common example of an easy decision that people make wrong is “Would you like to do the thing now or would you like to procrastinate and let the situation get much worse before you do the thing?”. This is an example of the “Would you like the better thing or the worse thing?” where people routinely choose the worse thing.
Somewhat unrelatedly to why I’m writing this piece, I’m reading Moral Mazes (a book about the behaviour of managers at large firms in the USA in the 70s and 80s) at the moment, and it it has a great example of this in it:
Consider, for instance, the case of a large coking plant of the chemical company. Coke making requires a gigantic battery to cook the coke slowly and evenly for long periods; the battery is the most important piece of capital equipment in a coking plant. In 1975, the plant’s battery showed signs of weakening and certain managers at corporate headquarters had to decide whether to invest $6 million to restore the battery to top form. Clearly, because of the amount of money involved, this was a gut decision.
(“gut decision” in context means “big scary decision” not “instinctive decision” )
No decision was made. The CEO had sent the word out to defer all unnecessary capital expenditures to give the corporation cash reserves for other investments. So the managers allocated small amounts of money to patch the battery up until 1979, when it collapsed entirely. This brought the company into a breach of contract with a steel producer and into violation of various Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pollution regulations.
The total bill, including lawsuits and now federally mandated repairs to the battery, exceeded $100 million. I have heard figures as high as $150 million, but because of “creative accounting,” no one is sure of the exact amount.
This simple but very typical example gets to the heart of how decision making is intertwined with a company’s authority structure and advancement patterns. As Alchemy managers see it, the decisions facing them in 1975 and 1979 were crucially different. Had they acted decisively in 1975—in hindsight, the only substantively rational course—they would have salvaged the battery and saved their corporation millions of dollars in the long run.
In the short run, however, since even seemingly rational decisions are subject to widely varying interpretations, particularly decisions that run counter to a CEO’s stated objectives, they would have been taking serious personal risks in restoring the battery. What is more, their political networks might have unravelled, leaving them vulnerable to attack. They chose short-term safety over long-term gain.
This is a clear case where what should have been an easy decision was made hard by the fact that there was no way to avoid blame for doing it the easy way, and so the situation was allowed to decline until the decision was not just easy but defensibly easy.
A more day to day example that people run into is quitting. Typically people wait for things to get bad enough that they can justify quitting, when in reality it was obvious six months or more ago that things were going to get bad enough, and they should have quit at that point rather than waiting to get burned out.
Stepping back from judgement
The thing that makes easy choices hard, as we have just seen, is that there is a fear of being judged for treating them as easy.
This is a real risk, and I don’t want to downplay it, but I think it’s important to be able to separate oneself from this a little bit, by asking the following questions:
Are the people I’m worried about judging me real? Is this a decision that actually matters to anyone but me.
If they are real, do I care about their opinion of me at all?
Often the answer is that nobody whose opinion you care about will judge you for the decision, especially when it’s genuinely quite a small decision, but the fear of judgement looms large in your mind as a legacy emotional response. It’s worth examining and trying to defuse that response, by acknowledging that the fear was valid in the contexts where it was learned, but that it doesn’t actually apply here.
In the case where the judgement is real and something you do need to take into account, it’s still worth separating from it a bit, because once you have recognised that the decision is easy, you can still do the work to provide receipts and justify the decision in order to avoid blame. You can even make the worse decision if that’s what you need to do in order to deal with the environment around you (although, personally, my recommendation is to fix or exit environments which force you to make bad decisions in order to avoid blame). Just don’t conflate the social performance you need to make around the decision with the decision itself.
With all this in mind, I’m now going to switch to talking about some common patterns of easy decision and how to make them.
Uncertainty in your mind
Sometimes the uncertainty you’re experiencing is in what you know about the world rather than the world itself.Such decisions are often treated as hard (you need to find out more before you make the decision), but should often be treated as arbitrary instead.
For an example of this, suppose you need to choose between two restaurants. You’ve heard both are good, but people tend to have strong opinions that one is better than the other, they just can’t agree which. As a result you’re pretty confident that you will think that one is obviously better than the other, but you don’t know which. So, which restaurant would you rather go to?
This is not a coin toss, there is a right answer. You’re just uncertain what it is. You could, with more effort, find out the right answer and make the correct decision to go to the better of the two restaurants.
But what does that more effort look like? How do you figure out which of these two restaurants is better?
Well you go to them and see what they’re like, naturally.
One of the important features of easy decisions is that you tend to make similar easy decisions over and over again, and each time you make them you gain information, and this changes future decision making.
As a result, when you don’t know what to do, but you know that all of your options are basically fine, frequently the most sensible strategy is to just pick arbitrarily - either you’ll pick right, or you’ll know more for next time you make the decision.
Partial uncertainty with safety
Let’s continue the restaurant example: You’ve been to one of the two restaurants, you know it’s great. Now you need to decide again, which of the two do you go to? Do you go to the one that’s a known quantity, or do you go to the other one?
I think either of two easy strategies are pretty reasonable here: Treat the decision as still arbitrary, or go to the one that’s the unknown quantity. I think the strategy of always going for the known quantity is too risk averse for this sort of easy decision, because it leads you to avoid low-cost opportunities for learning new information. What if it turns out that although the known restaurant is great, the unknown one is even greater?
Another example: If a friend invites you to something that you’re not sure if you’ll like, you have the energy for it, and the cost is low, why not say yes? Worst case scenario, you now know more about whether you like it or not.
In general, this is a pattern found of easy decisions where you have high confidence that all options are basically safe. It’s not that nothing bad can happen (you might go to the restaurant and find it kinda disappointing), but that nothing very bad can happen. The worst case scenario is just not that bad, and the risk of it is worth the potential upside.
Such decisions should be treated as in some sense easier and more arbitrary than they actually are, because they’re opportunities to explore in a low cost way that teaches you more about the world.
One consequence of this explore mode is that later decisions become easier than they are. After you’ve tried both restaurants, or gone to the weird experimental theater thing your friend invited you to, you now have enough information that a future decision is easy in a different way: You can just choose the better option, because you now have the information to know what it is.
Extracting experiments from hard decisions
An interesting example of this is something I helped a client with recently. They had a big scary decision to make in which they wanted to make a major change to how they were working. It had very large upsides and downsides attached to it, and it was a little unclear how large each was and whether it would be worth it.
Eventually after a long discussion it emerged that actually there was nothing stopping them from just trying the new way of working for a couple months and seeing what happened. This wouldn’t give them a perfect picture of the situation, because it worked by skipping a lot of the broader changes they would make to switch everything over to the new way, but it had very limited downsides, and would be revealing of the upsides.
This is one of the key ways that hard decisions can often be improved by easy decisions: You essentially hack away at the big scary thing until you find something small enough that you can safely adopt novelty seeking behaviours and just try it and see what happens.
Easy decisions in unsafe environments
Another way safety plays in to decision making is that sometimes you have a choice between doing things the safe way and the unsafe way, and the safe way is low enough cost that it’s obviously better.
My two main examples of this are car related:
Do you lock your car when walking away from it?
Do you wear your seatbelt?
These have the same basic structure: You are deciding in favour of a low-cost safety behaviour in order to avoid something that probably won’t happen but would be very bad if it did.
One thing worth noting, that I talk about in more detail in There’s no single error rate, is that it’s worth treating these decisions this way even when the answer is “wrong”. You should lock your car and wear your seatbelt even in cases where there’s no risk (which is a very small subset of the cases where nothing bad happened), because the cost of making an error in that direction is very high, and the cost of performing the action when you didn’t need to is very low.
Another reason to treat these as easy decisions is that the cost of making them in the moment is very low if you’ve already decided on the correct answer in advance. Spending a couple seconds thinking about these time is significantly more annoying than just developing the habit of doing the right thing.
Looking for opportunities in safe environments
Another category of easy decision that people often miss (because it requires actively generating the decision rather than just running into it) is opportunity seeking.
My central example of this is putting out a tweet saying “Hey, anyone want to hire me to do XYZ?”.
These have almost the opposite structure of the car example. They probably won’t work, but they will cost you little to do, and the upside when they work is very high. As a result, you can keep doing them until they work.
You do need to make sure that you’re actually choosing ones that are worth doing though. The following are not really examples of this:
Buying a lottery ticket (the cost is lowish, but the expected upside is so low that it’s not worth it)
Sending out that tweet when nobody follows you.
Whether a given action is an instance of this pattern is a little hard to tell, but this is another example where safety lets you choose novelty-seeking: If you’re sure the cost is low, the easiest way to find out whether the reward is worth it is to try it a bunch of times and see what happens, refining your actions based on the feedback you get from that.
Becoming an expert in your decisions
There is a little bit of a sleight of hand in my definition of an easy decision, did you notice? In fact, arguably all decisions are easy according to this definition, in that they admit the easy strategy of just picking the right answer.The hard part is deciding among the possible such strategies when you don’t know what the right answer is.
So, the real way to make easy decisions is to know what the right answer is… which is to say, the way to make easy decisions is to have already made the decision. Thanks, David, A+ advice, good job.
But, in fact, this is good advice, because this is a lot of what developing expertise is: An increasingly large body of knowledge about what the right thing to do is, and what decisions don’t matter at all. You learn which decisions are obviously correct, and which things you can half-arse because it doesn’t matter.
When I say that you can and should get good at easy decisions, what I really mean is that you should develop this sort of expertise in your life. You should recognise the sorts of decisions that crop up over and over again, and if they are not easy you should make them easy. A repeated problem is worth overthinking, and instead of treating decisions in your life as intrinsically hard, you should just try getting good at it.
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Chidi is also bad at life-or-death situations, but that’s a slightly different problem.
Unless you’re into that, or value the funny story you’d get to tell as a result more than £100.
I’ve heard it argued that it’s actually an easy decision, because if the answer isn’t obviously yes then it’s obviously no. But this doesn’t really exhaust the possibilities because that “no” is often a “I’m still making the decision” rather than “I’ve committed to no”.
I do try not to backseat parents because I am acutely aware of how easy it is to underestimate the ease of parenting, and the number of different pressures and people telling parents what to do, but I do think this complaint in particular is valid, particularly because of how it ties in to a general pattern that people fall into with many other hard decisions. For example, before deciding whether to work at a company, how many people at that company have you talked to who are not part of the official interview process?
This distinction is often described as epistemic vs aleatoric uncertainty - the former is uncertainty in your knowledge, the latter is “true randomness”.
There is some ambiguity as to whether this counts as a “reasonable” strategy.