Every day is a decision day.
Some decisions are trivial, such as deciding what to have for dinner. Others are more important, such as whether to change career. Most people are frightened of making important decisions because they think they’re harder than the trivial ones. In fact, they can both be approached in exactly the same way, and if you become accustomed to this technique, the important decisions become just as easy as the trivial one.
No decision, not even trivial ones, are simple equations. What I mean is that no decision is ever quite as simple as Action A resulting in Outcome A. There will always be multiple potential Actions, and multiple potential Outcomes, and even trivial decisions require you to consider all of them before making a decision. The reason a problem seems trivial is often not because it is less complex, but because you assign less subjective importance to the difference between the Outcomes.
Let’s take the example of deciding what to eat for dinner as an example of how to approach even a trivial problem with a degree of intellectual rigour:
Step One: What is the Scenario?
You must clarify what the situation is, and what are the outcomes by which you’ll measure the success of your decision. Let us set the scene:
- back home, feeling tired after a long day at work
- craving something gloriously unhealthy and greasy
- plenty of raw ingredients at home, but nothing ready to eat
Step Two: What are your possible Actions?
- Go out to a restaurant for dinner
- Get a takeaway burger
- Cook something at home
Step Three: What would be the Outcomes of each of my Actions on the variables I identified in the Scenario?
- would have to go out again, but would then be served, but still take longer than a takeaway.
- Satisfy hunger
- Could be suitably satisfying
- would have to go out again, but would be fast and simple
- Satisfy hunger
- Definitely suitably unhealthy
Cooking at home:
- no need to go out again, but would take time at home
- Satisfy hunger
- Would probably satisfy at least part of the craving
Step Four: Assign Values
Assign an arbitrary emotional value to each outcome, and add up the scores for each option. Highest score wins, and so is the option you should choose in order to maximise your happiness. This allows you to apply a subjective weighting to each outcome based on how you feel about them. If you really, really have a craving for a burger, that would favour the takeaway option to such an extent that it would override almost any other option.
This technique sounds ridiculous when used for a trivial decision, but the basic approach is incredibly powerful. It can be used for even the most complex decision, with the direst potential consequences.
It is called “Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis” (MCDA), and is used by governments and other large organisations to try to sequentially consider every variable that could be affected by each potential course of action. The value assigned to each variable’s outcome is weighted in proportion to the importance of the variable and severity of the change. This value can be modified to allow some changes to becomes near-absolute “dealbreakers” or “dealmakers” where the outcome caused by the change is either so unwelcome or so wanted, that it almost mandates the choice.
For instance, in our trivial example, the satisfaction created by getting the burger is a virtual dealmaker, overriding the other options, and – crucially – the drawbacks of this option on other variables.
On the other hand, suppose we introduce a new variable in the Scenario. Suppose you are on a diet. In this setting, you might assign a high-enough value to your long-term objective of weight loss that the loss of points created by eating the burger would override the points gained by satisfying the craving. The burger now becomes a dealbreaker instead, because of the high value assigned to the diet variable.
The power of this technique is that it allows for a comparative analysis of multiple actions and multiple outcomes on multiple variables, whilst allowing the decision-maker to assign subjective values to those variables. It is neither wholly scientific nor wholly instinctive, but a powerful amalgam of the two. Emotion is allowed and valued, but kept under the watchful brief of Reason. It also encourages the development of better self-knowledge and insight.
In most problems, each action has both positive and negative consequences, and it’s often a case of picking the “most best” (or “least worst”!) option. Only a multivariate technique like this allows for a decision to be made with a clear conscience.
In short, one reason is rarely enough to make a decision, but the corollary is that a good decision tends to have mutiple benefits.
Next time you have to make a decision, try this technique out; the more you use it, the easier and more powerful it becomes. You will refine your ability to identify both variables and outcomes, and your intuitive sense of how much value to assign to each outcome.
Astute readers will have noted that the technique would break down if it becomes impossible to identify at least most the Scenario variables, or if Outcomes resulted in a recursive feedback effect on those variables. This is the root of so-called “wicked problems”, the solution of which I’ll talk about next time.