How to make decisions

· by Steve · Read in about 6 min · (1236 Words)

Decisions are hard. Well ok, not all decisions are hard - given the choice of whether or not to receive a swift kick to the gentleman’s area, most of us would politely decline without having to give it much thought. So let’s rephrase - making an important decision for which there is no clear optimal answer is hard. And yet, making these kinds of decisions, in a theoretically unbounded possibility space with uncertain and/or unknown variables, is the one thing we humans still do considerably better than machines, and it forms the basis of pretty much every important event in our lives - who your partner is, what you do for a living, what projects you work on, what your hobbies are, where you live, and so on.

The thing is, in the developed world in particular, our options are almost limitless - in practice we have very few real constraints on what we choose to to, barring a few fairly sensible laws. Barring a small number of hard factors, such as poverty, discrimination, and oppression (which should be fought wherever they are found), the only limits to most people’s decision making are those which they impose on themselves, resulting in a large number of options. This is a good thing, but it does make decision making complicated. How on earth do you sift through all those alternatives?

Opportunity Cost

Understanding the concept of opportunity cost is vital to any decision making process. It’s just as important to consider what you won’t be doing as a result of a choice, as what you will be doing. Picking contract project A might mean you don’t have time for personal project B, taking that corporate job might mean you can’t dedicate time to developing that business idea you have, and so on. For a while, I tried to defy the reality of opportunity cost by ‘cheating’ - I would do multiple things at once, and just put in very long hours. I worked on projects in my spare time while being employed, I would multi-task between many projects (contract, open-source and personal). That works to a degree, but it’s important to realise two things:

  1. There’s a limit on how long you can burn the candle at both ends.

    I speak from experience here, burn-out and work/stress related health problems are very real, whatever you might think as a young, healthy, workaholic programmer. You can work 12-16 hour days for a while, but eventually you’re going to have to stop, or something will make you stop. If you need to do it to bootstrap, fine, but always remember the clock is ticking - plan for that.

  2. The more you divide your time, the less efficient / productive you will become.

    If you spend 10 hours a week on each of 4 projects, in 4 weeks you will have done a weeks worth of work on each, right? Wrong. In fact, you’d probably be lucky to get half that. The more you divide yourself, the less you’re going to get done on each thing, just because of a lack of focus and a need to keep context-switching.

So, my message here is that you can’t cheat opportunity cost - things conflict, and it’s best to not to pretend that they don’t. This should not only inform your decision process, but it should also bring it into sharper focus - accepting that you can’t have your cake and eat it means you’re less likely to let yourself wiggle out of making an actual either/or decision when really it’s there.

Evaluating the options

The logical person’s approach to evaluating their options tends be be analytical, gathering as much information about each option in front of them, and quantifying each of the pros and cons, risks and opportunities, and so on. This is fine, as a starting point, and teases out a lot of fundamental ‘hard’ information that you need to have available. But in my experience the best you can hope for from this kind of process is that you will eliminate the outliers; those cases which will never work, or which you definitely don’t want to do (although it’s of course worth making sure you understand your own assumptions and biases here), leaving you with a pool of ‘maybe’ options. It  won’t, in any non-trivial decision space, provide you with an absolute dead-cert answer; or if it does, you probably haven’t considered enough alternatives 😉

The simple reason for this is that for any significant decision there are bound to be many factors and variables which are unknown, poorly quantifiable, subjective, or incomparable with each other. There won’t be some magical formula which you can plug all the variables into and come out with a single best answer, nor will the factors usually be clear enough even for you to rank them in any sort of objective order - or if you can establish a discrete ranking, it probably just means you’ve identified some more to discard, or you’re kidding yourself.

Making the decision

OK, so assuming you’re now left with a bunch of ‘maybe’ options, all of which have many uncertainties and incomparable pros and cons. How do you make that decision? You’re probably going to think this is a cop-out, but here’s my personal answer; sleep on it, and then follow your gut. Seriously, forget the analysis, and turn off your brain; it’s already contributed as much as it’s capable of doing in the previous step. Hard as it may be, particularly if you’re a naturally logical, analytical person, there are some things that simply cannot be analysed and quantified. Probably any of the remaining options in your list are good (or if this a case of choosing the lesser of N evils, equally bad) - so going with the one that you have an emotional attachment with is usually the right one, because that’s the one you’ll fight hardest for when things get tough. Which they probably will at some point, right? Never underestimate the power of emotional attachment and enthusiasm to the success of any endeavour when things get difficult. You can’t engineer this kind of affinity, and your gut will tell you when it’s there, more reliably than any checklist can ever hope to do.

Living with it

While it’s important to be nimble in many respects (in business, you can’t sit still and periodic course corrections are essential), you do need to give any decision a fighting chance to develop before you change tack. Try not to second-guess yourself too much in the early stages - it’s hard, and this is something I struggle with all the time, but it’s ultimately counter-productive in the shorter term. By all means it’s important to reflect periodically and learn from what worked and what didn’t, using that experience to influence your future decisions, but equally for your own sanity you have to be able to drive a metaphorical stake into the ground representing a decision you make, and only look forward from that point, for long enough to see what happens, for better or worse. Glancing over your shoulder from the outset wondering if you made the right decision is never helpful and is likely to undermine what you’re doing.

Conclusion

So, that’s my 2 cents on the decision making process. Thanks to @GeekAndDad for triggering me to finish the half-written post I had on this subject 😀