What Would the Range of Possible Outcomes Be?

Too many choices create decision fatigue

We make decisions all day every day about so many different things. By the time we get to work, we've already decided when to get up from laying in bed, what to have for breakfast, if anything at all, what we wear, take with us and pack, the road we take to work, whether to stop for coffee on the way, whether to drive or take the train into the city, and so on.

Showing up at a certain time and place is complicated. Once we're there, we may already be suffering from decision fatigue. In psychology, decision fatigue refers to the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual, after a long session of decision making. It's one of the leading causes of poor trade-offs because it leaves too much room for common biases to take over our reasoning process.

Which makes us vulnerable to going along with the decisions of others too quickly and when it is most critical for us to think for ourselves—at work. To see the forces at play, we should heed the advice we lost along with VHS tapes—“be kind, rewind.” What would it look like if our day were boring until we sat down to work?  

Picture this

Along with setting the alarm clock the night before, we pick and set out breakfast, clothes, itineraries, work tools and supplies, and so on. We also have “plan B” contingencies for rain, potential delays and unknown factors factored in. Keys go in the same place every day after use, same for umbrella, or have different ones along different routes, check coat and jackets for clean pockets if needed, especially for a client meeting. All of this as part of a routine checklist we establish ahead of time.

Being thoughtful about our decisions up front helps us develop routines that create better habits. Timing which decisions we need to make when, eases us into our days without having to tap our willpower (just yet.) Establishing better habits is like using stored energy before burning gasoline to building momentum.

Something else happens as well.

By learning to slow down the mental tape of our morning (and any other routine we can establish) we create the ideal conditions to make it super easy for us to pick a better course on the spot, the day or moment of we need to rely on it. When we learn to see decision-making as a process that factors in a range of possible outcomes, we can drive better results.

For example, I was driving along one of the three routes I take to the Barre studio this morning. Traffic patterns determine which one, and there is a specific traffic light when the decision I need to make also becomes apparent. Go right at this point. The allowed speed is also slightly higher on that road. All good. Experience should teach us something else—to be engaged with our driving style. Here's why—a big deer crossed the road right in front of me as I was coming down a slight incline at the top of the speed allowed.

Good thing I know when it's so early, sometimes I get a bit deep in thought to prepare for the upcoming class. There is a reason why leaving distance between us and the car in front is a great idea. If you've ever slammed into someone you know why—unpredictable things happen. The result is the same, a preventable accident. It doesn't matter if it's driver's error or a deer crossing in front of them.

In this case, the first thing I did was check the other lane and move over sightly as I miss the deer. Why? Because it takes a split second of taking my eyes off the road in front of me where the obstacle is before I can check the rear-view mirror and experience has taught me that the car behind me is usually right on top of me. Maybe they are paying attention and have good breaks. Maybe they aren't and don't. Why hand over our power to them?

Having a good range of possible outcomes helps us stay away from trying to predict.

Prediction is hard

Will it rain or be sunny? Weather predictions have gotten a lot better. That's because we've learned to factor in a range of possible outcomes. Nate Silver is a statistician and writer, and currently the editor-in-chief at ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight. In The Signal and the Noise Silver says weather forecasts have become much better than they were even 10 years ago.

When we view the process on the back end it's complicated, because it includes a lot of detail. Data modelling plays a role. But on the front end, unless we are the weather person, what we want to know is that it works if not too precisely, most of the time. In other words that it's right enough to give us a good range of possible outcomes.

To avoid predictions going bad due to biases, vested interests, and overconfidence we need both—good modeling and sound human judgement. Preparation and adaptability in how we behave help us get to better results.

Once the process we need to combine the two is down, we can learn to be less wrong. But beware of over-reliance on just the process. Because we may have not factored in surprise.

“But you are so wrong!” says the villain to Daniel Craig's Bond toward the end of the plot twist in Casino Royale. “Because even after I slaughtered you and your little girlfriend…your people would still welcome me with open arms…because they need what I know.” He's dead a few minutes after that.

He had not factored in what the people on his side would do to him if he failed them. Our mental tapes deceive us into letting our guard down. When we start using more nouns than verbs we may be relying too much on assumptions and what worked in the past and not factor in movement and surprise.

In Everything is Obvious* (once you know the answer) Duncan Watts examines what consultant Michael Raynor calls the strategy paradox. In examining the things that made some businesses successful and some fail, he says:

The main cause of strategic failure, Raynor argues, is not bad strategy, but great strategy that just happens to be wrong. Bad strategy is characterized by lack of vision, muddled leadership, and inept execution — not the stuff of success for sure, but more likely to lead to persistent mediocrity than colossal failure.

Great strategy, by contrast, is marked by clarity of vision, bold leadership and laser-focused execution. When applied to just the right set of commitments, great strategy can lead to resounding success — as it did for Apple with the iPod — but it can also lead to resounding failure.

Whether great strategy succeeds or fails therefore depends entirely on whether the initial vision happens to be right or not. And that is not just difficult to know in advance, but impossible.

This is why hard questions are worth pursuing, as long as we remain curious about the range of possible outcomes.  Yes, and also develop the discipline to strategize, which involves choice based on time dependent information rather than assumption.

We can learn to manage decision fatigue, saving our best energy for the appropriate situations.


[food shopping routine: pick a store that is convenient, has enough range of options for what we want in price, quality, variety, and makes the experience good is just one option. We can get more creative with food delivery services, or more socially conscious with supporting local producers. Curiosity and creativity can help up make better choices up front and take that off the table or evaluate periodically.]