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How to Make Better Decisions: A Summary of 'Decisive' by Chip & Dan Heath

“Success emerges from the quality of the decisions we make and the quantity of luck we receive. We can’t control luck. But we can control the way we make choices.” - Chip & Dan Heath

2020 has been a year of novel, devastating and whack events. As we eulogise the year that was, perhaps the silver-lining that has emerged from this nightmare is that it has put our lives in perspective. 

A parking ticket doesn’t seem so frustrating when mass graves are being dug in New York. A stressful day at work doesn’t seem so bad when so many people have lost their jobs. A noisy, inconsiderate neighbour doesn’t seem so annoying when you have somewhere safe to call home. 

There is a sense of perspective and clarity that comes from connecting your daily existence to the wider, chaotic world that can be summed up in one simple, overused adage: Life is short. Make the most of it.

For me, making the most of it starts with making better decisions, so I picked up Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath. I found it to be one of the most practical decision theory books out there. If you’re like me and bouts of indecision can render you action-less at times, you might find some of the key ideas helpful too. Here’s my breakdown of some of the central ideas. 

Pro and Con Lists Don’t Work

The pro and cons approach to decision-making is flawed. It’s fundamentally open to too many heuristics, biases and a plethora of other problems.

Too often we limit our options because of the spotlight effect - we only see what’s right in front of us, and as Daniel Kahnemans says in Thinking, Fast and Slow, what is right in front of us is all there is. 

We should avoid one or the other questions, as this hurts our decision-making. Instead, see if you can make it an “and” i.e. this and that instead of this or that. 

The Vanishing Options Test

Another technique that avoids narrow framing is the Vanishing Options Test. This involves taking all the current options you’re considering completely off the table and asking yourself, if these weren't possible, what else could you do?

“When people imagine that they cannot have an option, they are forced to move their mental spotlight elsewhere—really move it—often for the first time in a long while. Until we are forced to dig up a new option, we’re likely to stay fixated on the ones we already have.”

Confirmation Bias

We tend to develop a quick view on a situation which leads to confirmation bias - we seek out information that agrees with our preexisting attitudes, beliefs or actions and diminishes information that conflicts with it. 

Considering the opposite can help. Constructive disagreement is vital for many businesses to function and can help us make good decisions in our personal life too. Test your confirmation bias by asking disconfirming questions and testing your assumptions. 

Overcome Short-Term Emotions

Despite our often detailed analysis, we tend to be influenced more by fleeting feelings. An effective way to overcome this can be consider what someone would do if they were dropped in the situation with no prior history or emotional bias? Or consider using the 10/10/10 strategy to question: how you would feel about your decision in 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years from now? 

Zoom Out

Consider reviews for big decisions (for example, changing jobs or choosing a degree) not just for small decisions like which restaurant to go for dinner. Some of the startling statistics to back this up from the book include:

- An American Bar Association survey found that 44% of lawyers would recommend that a young person not pursue a career in law.

- More than half of teachers quit their jobs within four years. 

- Samuel Johnson once described a second marriage as the “triumph of hope over experience.”

Yikes. After making a decision we tend to feel more certain on how the future will turn out. But don’t assume that your situation is special or not typical, check the facts and stats first. 

Set a Tripwire 

Set deadlines and tripwires to get yourself from delaying making decisions or to prevent yourself from doubling down on bad ones. We spend much of our life in autopilot, so set yourself a tripwire to kick yourself out of it. 

While the ideas in Decisive aren’t particularly new, it’s an easy read without much boring academic jargon (although the middle was a little laborious), it’s full of fun anecdotes and provides a practical framework for decision-making. 

Whether it’s making important choices in your life professionally or personally, I recommend this book to start analysing in an organised way and develop solutions without ego or bias. God knows 2020 was a shitshow, and we all need a few better decisions and outcomes in 2021. 

Words by Senior Brand Leader, Imagene Callinan


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“Success emerges from the quality of the decisions we make and the quantity of luck we receive. We can’t control luck. But we can control the way we make choices.” - Chip & Dan Heath