How to Expand Your Options

We are called to make decisions all the time — both in our personal lives and at work. The problem is that typically we are often in a hurry and thus under psychological stress and unable to consider more options, and grappling with a complex issue and thus our cognitive load or the total amount of our mental effort being used in the working memory is depleted.

Add to that incentives and you see why we come to regret so many decisions that seemed to be good idea when we made them. We should Think Twice, say Michael J. Mauboussin [h/t Shane Parrish]. Harnessing the power of counter intuition can serve you well, especially in the long run, which is where poor decisions' tail reaches.

Tunnel vision is one of the many traps we fall into because we may mistake it for focus. In the book, Mauboussin suggests a five-point checklist to avoid this trap:

1. Explicitly consider alternatives.

[…] negotiation teachers suggest entering talks with your best alternative to a negotiated agreement, your walkaway price, and the same two sums for the party across the table.

2. Seek dissent.

[…] ask questions that could elicit answers that might contradict your own views. The listen carefully to the answers. Do the same with data: look for reliable sources that offer conclusions different than yours.

3. Keep track of previous decisions.

[…] once an event has passed, we believe we knew more about the outcome beforehand than we really did. […] A decision-making journal is a cheap and easy routine to offset hindsight bias and encourage a fuller view of possibilities.

4. Avoid making decisions while at emotional extremes.

[…] Stress, anger, fear, anxiety, greed, and euphoria […] but also the absence of emotion.

5. Understand incentives.

[…] Financial incentives are generally easy to spot, but nonfinancial incentives, like reputation or fairness, are less obvious, yet still important in driving decisions. While few of us believe that incentives distort our decisions, the evidence shows that the effect can be subconscious.

Chip and Dan Heath provide some ideas and examples on how to widen options, the first of the four villains of decision-making they tackle in Decisive. They suggest using reframing as a technique. For example:

the question a college-bound senior should be asking, is not “what's the highest-ranking college I can convince to take me?” Rather, it should be “what do I want out of life, and what are the best options to get me there?” Those two questions are in no way synonymous, and once families start thinking about the latter one, they often find that they have many more good options than they ever thought possible.

Another angle that often goes unexplored is the opportunity cost. Yes and no answers can hide alternatives. For example, we can create opportunity in a buy an item vs. not buy the item binary choice by including the item's price. What else can we do with that amount?

Having options is such a deeply rooted aspect of American culture — and one would argue of modern-day expectations in many Western areas of the world. We should endeavor to make good use of it by creating better choices for ourselves, alternatives worthy of action.


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