October 18, 2018

Life Principle - Make the Best Decision You Can With What You Know Now

Make the best decision you can with what you know now.

My father

If you learn more later, you can make a better decision then.

Me (as a corollary to the above wisdom from my father)

In the world of STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), the inability to arrive at a decision is known as analysis paralysis. Those of you who don't live in that world may know it more simply as being indecisive. Either way it's a bad thing. It's frustrating to the indecisive one and those around them and at the end of the day it brings more problems than it avoids. Voltaire captured the heart of the matter with his saying "Perfect is the enemy of good". (And then the computer science world reduced it down to "Worse is better".)

Voltaire understood what most indecisive people do not, and that is that if you are trying to decide between two almost equally good options, then it really does not particularly matter which one you select in the long term. If the decision were between an good option and a bad option, there would be no indecision, so we can ignore this scenario. The closer the options are in expected outcome, the more likely most people will be to experience decision making paralysis. Yet, despite this truth, most people will agonize over their decisions, clinging firmly to the belief that they must make a perfect decision or they will have failed.

Decision making is difficult in many areas of our lives, but it seems increasingly difficult when the stakes increase. Choosing between two different flavors of cookie is not difficult and warrants perhaps ten seconds of careful deliberation. After all, the worst case scenario still involves eating a cookie, so how bad can that be? When the outcome is more significant, many people start taking progressinvely longer to make their decision. At some point, the consequences of the decision become sufficiently dramatic that most people will hit their point of analysis paralysis and everything grinds to a halt. That point will vary for everyone, but common sticking points include buying large items like a car or a house, choosing or changing a career direction and the always big decision of getting married.

With the magnitude of the change in your life that some of these decisions bring, aren't we wrong to do anything less than comprehensively think through every aspect of the decision? Counterintuitively, I believe that the answer is no. Let me explain why I believe this to be true.

The first reason is that we will never know everything that we could know. So that perfect decision you are trying to make is already imperfect because there will always be missing information. We need to accept this and hold that understanding in mind when we make any decisions. Secondly, analysis paralysis is typically only a factor when trying to decide between two (sometimes more) almost equally similar decisions. This means that if it was a case of deciding between a good outcome and a bad outcome, you would not be in a quandry. The fact that decision is difficult means that either outcome is likely going to be very positive for you. The moment you realize that, the decision pressure should be reduced and you can pick with little fear of making a mistake.

The worse thing that can happen when choosing between two good things is you might only make a good decision rather than a very good decision. And if that's the worse thing you do on any particular day, you'll be fine. Naturally, if you're choosing between two bad things, then either is going to be bad, so just pick one at random if necessary.

Taking this concept further, not all decisions are irreversible and some you make multiple times. When this is the case, always make the best decision you can and then, if you learn more information later, make a different and better decision at that time.

Example time! When my wife and I bought a house, our house selection preferences were really close, but just different enough that my wife started getting frustrated during the search. I realized this and directed her to take the first look at any house and only take me along on revisits to ones that she liked. I figured, correctly as it happened, that there would be houses that I liked in the set of houses that she liked. She started enjoying the search and I also got dragged around far fewer houses. Fairly soon after we switched to her viewing the houses first, we found one that we both liked. By letting go of having to look at every house available for sale and trusting that my preferences were close enough to my wife's that I'd like at least one from her short list, the house hunt became both easier and fun. Now, were there other houses in town that I may have liked better? Yes, there certainly were. But by selecting a house that we both liked, we were able to get on with making it our home and thereby the best house that we could have chosen anyway. We also had great neighbors, so all round it was an absolutely great outcome.

Tags: Writings Living Well