Very good question from a reader -
Reading one of your latest blog posts you mentioned that you used to be extremely slow at making decisions. I was wondering if you have any advice on that. I usually have trouble making decisions when there is no clear pro's or con's to a certain choice. For example I'm not sure which programming language to use for my next (web) project.
Does it matter? No. All you need to do is output HTML, JSON or whatever data format you need it in. Python/Ruby have major sites written with them. I'm comfortable using both and don't really have a preference.
Somewhat frustrating that this holds me back when I could have built a prototype in the time I'm searching for "the right answer".
I could give you some tactical guidelines on the question you're asking - how do you become a faster decisionmaker? - but that's probably not the real question we're grappling with.
I don't know you so well. You just emailed me out of the blue. Maybe this is presumptuous of me, but I'm going to take a guess -
I bet you're afraid of failing.
No one likes failing. But intelligent people are sometimes terrified of it. So much so that they don't even realize that's what's going on.
I'm not being metaphysical here. I don't believe the universe vibrates things to you, or any such stupid nonsense shit like that. I'm talking plain old cause and effect behavioral things. I bet you don't want to look stupid, so you spend an extensive amount of time doing everything you can to not look stupid, and that's why everything takes so long.
Recently, I did something like 5x'ed or 10x'ed my productivity. Really, my logs of things I'm accomplishing now have around between five times and ten times as many entries in them. My everything has improved tremendously.
I'm also doing stupid shit about 3x more often than I used to. So, I'm accomplishing 500% to 1000% more stuff - life's amazing right now - but I'm making 300% more errors, mistakes, blunders, and feeling stupid.
Note, my error rate didn't go up 300%. My error rate actually went down. When you move fast, your decisionmaking actually gets better, because you're constantly immersed in action. You pick up trends and patterns a little faster, and you wind up repeating processes that work. I'm doing stupid shit less often as a percent of my overall work. And yet, I'm doing 300% more stupid shit than I was before I sped up.
And you know what? It's arguably a net-emotional-drain. I feel worse about the mistakes I make than I do the gains I make. I feel worse at the blundered pitch than the successful sale. Isn't that silly?
I think that's most people. I overcome it with logic. I figure the quality of my life will rapidly trend upwards, and eventually the primitive emotional system that I've got will catch up with my high-level logical decisionmaking and reasoning.
So that's the most important underlying thing:
1. You decide to go faster because you'll do more meaningful things in your life.
2. You accept that you'll make more errors overall if you do more things.
3. You know that'll feel bad for a while, because humans are usually more loss-averse than gain-oriented.
4. You realize that your error rate will actually go down.
5. You figure that your emotional system will eventually catch up. And hey, if it doesn't, you'll at least have a ton more money you can go spend on hookers and things like that to make yourself feel better after a particularly tough day.
So that's the philosophical, high level of getting there. Some tactics would be in order, as well -
1. Whenever you're doing something, define "adequately complete" - then ask, "What's the fastest way to adequately complete?" Then do that.
2. After adequate, there's a whole no-man's-land of "slightly better but still not amazing" - don't bother going there. Get to adequate ASAP, and then either decide to go to the top of the game (like Apple's hardware) or just keep moving. "Slightly better" often takes twice as long, for 10% more gain.
3. Consult, advise, or work for other people. It's damn near impossible to evaluate your own projects correctly - you get emotionally attached, you get stupid, you get blindsighted. This still happens to me. I'll probably do consulting forever, just so I'm working with other people and can be more clear-headed than when I'm doing my own thing. Whenever you give great advice to someone else about how much time to put into something or their decisionmaking choices, write a note in your journal or diary and refer to it later when making the same decision.
4. Additionally, this is why executives and big companies hire consultants. So someone less emotionally attached can tell them what to do. It doesn't always work, but that's a big part of why they do it.
5. You can get a free version of consulting by laying out your requirements and choices to an intelligent colleague, and asking what you should do. Then just do it.
6. Increase your schedule or move up your deadlines so you must get things done faster, and you will. This quote from Richard Hamming is relevant:
I am an egotistical person; there is no doubt about it. I knew that most people who took a sabbatical to write a book, didn't finish it on time. So before I left, I told all my friends that when I come back, that book was going to be done! Yes, I would have it done - I'd have been ashamed to come back without it! I used my ego to make myself behave the way I wanted to. I bragged about something so I'd have to perform. I found out many times, like a cornered rat in a real trap, I was surprisingly capable. I have found that it paid to say, ``Oh yes, I'll get the answer for you Tuesday,'' not having any idea how to do it. By Sunday night I was really hard thinking on how I was going to deliver by Tuesday. I often put my pride on the line and sometimes I failed, but as I said, like a cornered rat I'm surprised how often I did a good job. -From the "You and Your Research" talk at Bell Labs, 1986
So, them's some tactics. But again, you've just got to become comfortable with failing more often. Your failure and error rate will actually go down if you become a faster decisionmaker, but the total number of errors will obviously go up - so you accept that. It's the price to moving 5x to 10x faster in your life. But man, it's amazing moving so fast, even if failing feels bad in the moment. Try out some of the suggestions here and follow up with me, I'd love to hear how it goes for you.
I learned a valuable insight that helped me understand what made making decisions hard. And also gave me a change in perspective that helped motivate making hard choices when necessary, which was to look forward to proceeding afterward.
I posted it here -- http://joshuaspodek.com/why_are_decisions_hard -- but briefly, the insight was that the root of decide, -cide, is the same as in pesticide, fratricide, etc. It means to kill. Most of us think about choosing meaning going toward something. Well, that's the easy part. The hard part is killing off the choice you don't make.
The motivation to look forward came from the phrase "you have to say no to a lot of good things to have a great life." Now when I say no to something, in my heart I'm looking forward to a great life.
Yeah, this has explained my confusion:
> "If choices are totally unrelated and not really comparable, it probably makes sense to sit and think about what your high level goals are. What would you be trying to get out of each one?"
Now I realized that it's not like the pro's and con's weren't clear, but my main goals; and that, it's up to me. Thank you.
Good post. Faster decision making is a valuable skill. If you've read "Yes or No: The Guide to Better Decisions" by Spencer Johnson I'd be curious to hear your take on it and whether it squares with your life experience in increasing your productivity.
It's a short book from the same folks as the One Minute Manager. But it's a deep dive into what makes a good decision and it distills into a few key characteristics. Time for me to read it again... Will probably get more out of it the second time.
Pretty good text. I was about send you a email asking exactly this. But, I still have one question.
"was wondering if you have any advice on that. I usually have trouble making decisions when there is no clear pro’s or con’s to a certain choice. "
What about life projects, when it takes a lot of effort and time? Fail can mean a late of a few months. And when are they mutually excludents? How do you take these decisions?
I'm a slow decision maker - I want to be faster, but I also find that weighing all the options carefully leads to better results and less mistakes (as you observed, too). I already figured out that I'm afraid of failing.
I mean, what if one of those mistakes will be so bad that you couldn't recover? For example, hurt your reputation in an industry so much that no one will want to deal with you again in the future? Or will people really forget what happened and you'll be able to work in that field again?
How long do your mistakes bother you?
I've been thinking about this lately. For me, it seems around 3-4 years. I'm still annoyed at a few of the larger mistakes I made in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Maybe a couple things from '07. I'm not bothered at anything from from '06 or earlier.
How about you, dear reader - how long do you carry your mistakes with you? I think instantly forgetting and moving on would be pretty dangerous, it's the negative feelings we carry around that helps us burn new patterns into ourselves.
On the other hand, agonizing over something that happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago... there can't be any sense to that, can there? Certainly, you can internalize the lessons after 5-7 years and move on... right?
I'm wondering lately if I should work to speed up the process of not being bothered at mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes. I do so much stupid shit. I say so much stupid shit.
Before I start, I should warn any readers that this post is probably going to be a bit all over the place. Or not. I don't exactly know since that's just it - I don't exactly know. What I'm going to write I mean, I don't know what I'm going to write.
'Today is only one day'...a phrase I tell myself quite often. Whenever I have a bad day, or something happens - an argument, a moment of distance, a day without seeing someone I wanted to see. Its only one day, that's all. And I've lived so many days (5290 to be exact) and have a lot left to live, even today was a completely shitty day...its only one day.
In fact, even if I have a totally shitty week...well...that's just all it is. A shitty week. Doesn't define me or my life, just a little dip that I probably wont even remember in a few weeks time.
Its this constant thought that allows me to even bother with things. Whether that's a relationship with someone, a class in school I'm flunking, some drama with my friends, its just by playing down the trouble at hand that I manage to convince myself to try again tomorrow. Or better yet, to wake up with a more awake, new, less depressed take on the situation the next day.
Of course I'm not saying this always helps, my mind seems to find it very easily to twist my words against me or quietly whisper back my fears and worries in response to me trying to smile. Which can sometimes get to me, constantly being told a lie will allow you to believe that lie. However constantly being told you're only lying to yourself will make you distrust everything you say.