Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

by Chip Heath, Dan Heath

Decisive tackles the thorny problem of overcoming our natural biases and irrational thinking to make better decisions about our work, lives, companies, and careers.  It offers accurate, practical strategies based on extensive studies, stories, and research to help us think more clearly about our options, get out of our heads, and improve decision-making.

Summary Notes

The Four Villians of Decision Making

“The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years. —Vitali Sklyarov, minister of power and electrification in Ukraine, two months before the Chernobyl accident.”

A normal decision process usually has four steps:

  1. You encounter a choice.
  2. You analyze your options.
  3. You make a choice.
  4. Then you live with it.

However, what we usually can’t see is the villain that afflicts each of these stages:

  • You encounter a choice, but narrow framing makes you miss options.
    When we ask, “Should I fire him or not?” “Should I do this or that?” we are stuck in a narrow frame. We place one alternative under the spotlight at the expense of all the others.
  • You analyze your options, but the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information.
    We tend to develop quick beliefs about situations and seek out information that bolsters our beliefs. This problematic habit is called the “confirmation bias.”
  • You make a choice, but short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one.
    When we have to make a difficult decision, our feelings stir. We replay the same arguments in our heads and agonize about our circumstances. We change our minds from day today. We have kicked up so much dust that we can’t see the way forward. In such cases, we need perspective the most since our short-term emotions have taken over.
  • Then you live with it, but you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold.
    We tend to believe our future will always serve our purposes. Sometimes it is the case, and sometimes it is not. We can never be sure about it.

Avoid a Narrow Frame

“Focusing is great for analyzing alternatives but terrible for spotting them. Think about the visual analogy—when we focus, we sacrifice peripheral vision. And there’s no natural corrective for this; life won’t interrupt our focus to draw our attention to all of our options.”

Stuck in a narrow decision-making frame can mostly be seen among teenagers. They try to make their choices based on “whether or not.” “Should I go to the party or not?” “Should I break up with him/her or not?”

But our options are often more plentiful than we would think. It rarely consists of only two choices. There are other possibilities like a third or fourth and often mix of them. For example, “Should I go to the party for two hours and watch a movie in the theater with my friends afterward?”

However, it is hard to spot these possibilities when we are in the face of making a decision. Focusing on our current options means that other things are out of sight. 

There are several ways to spot our narrow sightedness, like thinking about opportunity cost: don’t buy those new speakers if you already have one; save the cost of it for something else. Or, think about what you would do if your current options had disappeared.

Our lack of attention to opportunity costs is so common that it can be shocking when someone acknowledges them. Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1953, a few months after he took office in his first term, said: “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants each serving a town of 60,000 people. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

How much better would our decisions be if more people shared Eisenhower’s willingness to consider opportunity costs?

Actions to take

Multitrack

“Multitracking keeps egos in check.”

It’s worth cultivating multiple options at the same time. Decisions with a couple of alternatives turn out dramatically better than decisions with just one.

Exploring ideas sequentially–even though it yields multiple options over time, is not as powerful as exploring them simultaneously. Multitracking improves our understanding of the situations we’re facing. It lets us cobble together the best features of our options. It helps us keep our egos in check.

Developing multiple alternatives will sometimes be difficult because our minds don’t always think, “this and that.” For example, we’ll often get stuck in a mindset of prevention or promotion. If we can seek out options that minimize harm and maximize opportunity, we are more likely to uncover our full spectrum of choices.

This could be done with many things in life: You can interview three job candidates rather than one, or if you’re shopping for a house, you can visit ten rather than five. After all, you can’t move into the dream home you never saw.

Actions to take

Find Someone Who’s Solved Your Problem

“Again and again in his career, Walton found clever solutions by asking himself, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?”

To break out of a narrow frame, we need options. One of the most basic ways to generate new options is to find someone else who’s solved your problem. 

For example, if you’re unsure how to cope with a relative who has an alcohol problem, talk to someone else who has endured a similar situation (that’s why groups like Al-Anon exist). If you’re unfamiliar with the grant application process for a particular foundation, talk to someone who has previously navigated the process.

Actions to take

Consider the Opposite

“Beyond the mistake itself, the willingness to test your assumptions has its own value.”

Few of us are stuck in a bubble of power, and our hubris levels are mercifully lower, but we do have something in common with them: a bias to favor our own beliefs. Our “bubble” is not the boardroom; it’s the brain. The confirmation bias leads us to hunt for information that flatters our existing beliefs.

The confirmation bias is stronger in emotion-laden domains such as religion or politics and when people have a strong underlying motive to believe one way or the other. The confirmation bias also increases when people have invested a lot of time or effort in a given issue.

How many of us have ever consciously sought out people we knew would disagree with us in our individual decisions? Certainly, not every decision needs a devil’s advocate, but we must be skeptical of high-stakes decisions. While we may not want the discomfort of being challenged, it is preferable to the pain of making a poor decision.

When we want something to be true, we gather the information that supports our desire. The confirmation bias impacts not just what we seek but also what we observe in the first place. Consider a couple in a troubled marriage: If one partner has labeled the other’s shortcoming as “selfish,” that label can become self-reinforcing. The selfish acts become easier to spot, while the generous acts go unnoticed.

Assuming positive intent is what psychologists call “considering the opposite.” I think my spouse is selfish—but perhaps I should keep track of situations where the other is looking out for me. I think my colleague is being rude and abrupt—but what if he’s not being abrupt and is just trying to respect my time? (Oops, and what if he thinks I’m disrespecting his time when I try to chat?) This simple technique of considering the opposite has been shown, across multiple studies, to reduce many otherwise tough cognitive biases.

Actions to take

Zoom Out, Zoom In

“Base rates are good at establishing norms: ‘Here are the outcomes we can expect if we make this decision.’ Close-ups, though, create intuition, which can be just as important.”

Psychologists distinguish between the “inside view” and “outside view” of a situation. 

The inside view draws from information in our spotlight as we consider a decision—our own impressions and assessments of our situation. The outside view, by contrast, ignores the particulars and instead analyzes the larger class it’s part of. 

One example is when deciding whether to book a reservation at a hotel. The inside view relies on our own assessment: “Does this look like the kind of place I would enjoy staying?” The outside view trusts the other’s view, like looking at TripAdvisor reviews to see how much did people, in general, enjoy staying there. 

When we assess our choices, we’ll take the inside view by default. We’ll consider the information in the spotlight and use it to form quick impressions. “The hotel looks great.” “The restaurant is a sure thing.” We can correct this bias by doing two things: zooming out and zooming in.

When we zoom out, we take the outside view, learning from the experiences of others who have made choices like the one we’re facing. When we zoom in, we take a close-up of the situation, looking for “color” that could inform our decision. Either strategy is helpful, and either one will add insight in a way that conference-room pontificating rarely will. When possible, we should do both.

Actions to take

Ooch

“Rather than choose “all” or “nothing,” they chose “a little something.” That strategy—finding a way to ooch before we leap—is another way we can reality-test our assumptions. When we ooch, we bring real-world experience into our decision.”

To ooch is to construct small experiments to test one’s hypothesis. We tend to be awfully confident about our ability to predict the future. But that’s not the case. Ooching provides an alternative—a way of discovering reality rather than predicting it.

To ooch is to ask, “Why predict something we can test?” “Why guess when we can know?” Ooching means running small experiments to test our theories. Rather than jumping in headfirst, we dip a toe in.

Ooching is best for situations where we genuinely need more information. It’s not intended to enable emotional sneaking, in which we ease timidly into decisions that we know are right but might cause us a little pain.

One example is working a few weeks in a field before committing to a 4-year degree program. We should test whether we like to work for it or not.

Actions to take

Overcome Short-term Emotion

“It’s not that we should ignore our short-term emotions; often they are telling us something useful about what we want in a situation. But we should not let them be the boss of us.”

Perhaps our worst enemy in resolving conflicts is short-term emotion, which can be an unreliable adviser. When people share the worst decisions in life, they often recall choices made in the grip of visceral emotion: anger, lust, anxiety, greed. Our lives would be very different if we had a dozen “undo” buttons to use in the aftermath of these choices.

But we are not slaves to our emotions. Visceral emotion fades. That’s why folk wisdom advises that when we’ve got an important decision to make, we should sleep on it. It’s sound advice, and we should take it to heart. However, for many decisions, sleep isn’t enough. We need a strategy that would allow us to see the situation from a distance.

Actions to take

Honor Your Core Priorities

“When we identify and enshrine our priorities, our decisions are more consistent and less agonizing.”

The goal of the process of making better decisions is not to neutralize emotion. When all the rational mechanics of decision-making are removed—generating options, weighing data—emotion remains at the core. What drives you? What kind of person do you aspire to be? What do you believe is best for your family in the long run? (Business leaders ask: What kind of organization do you aspire to run? What’s best for your team in the long run?)

These are emotional questions—speaking to passions and values, and beliefs. There’s no “rational machine” underneath generating your perspective when you answer them. It’s just who you are and what you want. The buck stops with emotion.

Different people will have diverse answers to those questions, so this process can’t tell you the right answer to your dilemma. Two people making the same decision might make polar opposite choices—and they might both be wise to do so!

Actions to take

Bookend the Future

“When we think about the extremes, we stretch our sense of what’s possible, and that expanded range better reflects reality.”

The future is not a “point”—a single scenario that we must predict. It is a range. We should bookend the future, considering a range of outcomes from very bad to very good.

Our judgment can be erroneous. We might make mistakes if we don't anticipate difficulties, which is why we need premortems. We might also err by failing to prepare for unexpectedly good outcomes. When we bookend the future, it’s important to consider both the upside and the downside.

To prepare for the lower bookend, we need a premortem. “It’s a year from now. Our decision has failed utterly. Why?” To be ready for the upper bookend, we need a preparade. “It’s a year from now. We’re heroes. Will we be ready for success?”

Actions to take

Set a Tripwire

“In short, tripwires allow us the certainty of committing to a course of action, even a risky one, while minimizing the costs of overconfidence.”

In life, we naturally slip into autopilot, leaving past decisions unquestioned. When’s the last time you thought carefully about the way you peel a banana or take a shower? We gain a lot from this ability to tune out parts of our experience selectively. When we can take a shower on autopilot, it frees up our minds to consider other things.

It’s hard to interrupt these autopilot cycles because that’s the whole point of autopilot. We don’t think about what we’re doing. We drift along in life, floating in the wake of past choices, and it’s easy to forget that we can change direction.

A tripwire can snap us awake and make us realize we have a choice at exactly the right moment, compelling us to reconsider a decision or make a new one. Think of how the low-fuel warning in your car lights up, grabbing your attention. The goal of a tripwire is to jolt us out of our unconscious routines and make us aware that we have a choice to make.

Actions to take

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