4 Bulletproof Strategies for Making Better Decisions
Need help making a decision? Try one of my proven heuristics for making decisions with confidence and clarity.
Put simply, a heuristic is a loosely organized plan based on rules of thumb, observations, and common sense. I developed these heuristics to help software teams navigate project decisions, but you can use them to make real-life decisions at work or at home.
Despite their common sense nature, reviewing these heuristics forces you to acknowledge your own decision making tendencies and to pick the right heuristic for your situation instead of relying on your reflexes.
In other words, there’s nothing magic about these common sense heuristics. The magic lies in knowing when to use them.
The Perfectionist: a heuristic for perfection at all costs.
When to use it: when your first attempt will be too expensive to repeat and you have ample time to make the right decision. Examples: buying the right car, starting the right business, choosing the right field of study, and picking the right career.
How it works:
- Find the best sources of information pertaining to your decision and consult them to exhaustion.
- Carefully weigh pros and cons.
- Overkill is the name of the game because failure is too costly to risk. So just when you think you’ve done enough research, do some more.
- Don’t stop researching until you’re sure.
Risks:The Achilles heal of The Perfectionist is the amount of time it takes – if you do not have time to be thorough, using this technique could cost you an opportunity.
Real Life: I spent 3 months researching before I built my deck because decks are expensive to replace and can have a big impact on the resale value of a home.
The Beta Tester: a heuristic for success through trial and error.
When to Use It: when heavy research is impractical, the cost of trial and error is acceptable, incremental progress is possible, and eventual success is critical. Examples: perfecting a recipe for a new cookbook, designing a user interface for a software application, and picking an advertising layout for your Website.
How it works:
- Quickly research your options.
- Pick the option that seems best at first glance and start working on it.
- If your approach is working, ask yourself: How can I improve this?
- If your approach is not working, ditch it quickly and try something else.
- Repeat until you’re satisfied.
Risks: If you can’t afford re-work and re-design, The Beta Tester heuristic will cost more than it’s worth.
Real Life: I use The Beta Tester heuristic to refine the look, feel, and performance of my blog over time.
The Drifter: the lazy man’s heuristic for letting a problem solve itself.
When to use it: when moving is riskier than standing still. Examples: running through a minefield for no good reason, or any other activity where the risk is greater than the reward.
How it works:
- Carefully watch the world affecting your decision (the standards bodies, the managers, the friends, associates etc.) and take cues from them.
- Resist the urge to act until finally there is only one course remaining.
Risks: Despite the fact that standing still really is the hardest (and the best) thing to do in many situations, The Drifter creates a passive mindset that may cost you an important opportunity or put you in a bad situation if you’re not careful.
Real Life:One time, my neighbor let the grass in his backyard get so high it became a haven for wildlife. Instead of risking our relationship by reporting him, I waited for him to mow the lawn on his own, knowing he eventually would.
The Jumper: a heuristic for high speed and high risk.
When to use it: when time is short and missing a due date is riskier than making a bad decision. Examples: choosing a term paper topic, selecting a Mother’s Day card, or choosing the right suit for an interview.
How it works:
- Quickly review your options, with little to no research
- Make a snap judgment
- Live with the consequences
Risks: Moving quickly may help you sieze an opportunity, but if it’s high risk, the sloppy results of The Jumper heuristic may cause more harm than good.
Real Life: I once received an impromptu job offer and accepted with no research because otherwise the opportunity would have vanished, and at that point in my life I really needed the work.
What’s Your Decision Making Style?
Chances are, one of these heuristics is more natural for you than others:
- If you’re a perfectionist, you will tend to treat every decision as an encyclopedia of research and analysis, despite missing out on many of life’s great opportunities because of your slow pace.
- If you’re a beta tester, you will tend to use trial-and-error for every problem, despite the enormous cost of failure and re-work.
- If you’re a drifter, you will tend to let life happen to you instead of taking it by the horns.
- If you’re a jumper, your impulsive nature ensures you’re always in the right place at the right time, but seldom with the right tools.
By nature, I’m a perfectionist. I must remind myself that The Perfectionist heuristic is only optimal when the cost of a second try is prohibitive and I have ample time; otherwise, one of the others will work better.
Regardless of your natural style, the key to making great decisions is acknowledging your natural tendencies, learning to trust them when appropriate, and learning to replace them when they’re not.
Over the years, I have learned to approach every big decision by reviewing these heuristics and asking myself: Which one is right for this decision?
June 20, 2007 Wednesday at 3:33 pm
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