Tools for Better Decisions

I’ve been reading a few books on decision-making lately.

I’m sharing this because almost everyone I know uses the “List of Pros and Cons” technique when they’re making decisions. But there are better ideas on how to make tough decisions. Here’s what I learned.

First – Consider both Quality and Quantity

Too often we can get caught up in the complexity or difficulty of a decision, when any progress would be better than a delay.

Great decisions make the difference, and great decisions only come where we’re making decisions.

If a decision is easily to reverse, make it quickly and move on. Likely with only 70% of the information you think you need. This idea comes from Jeff Bezos’s 2015 Shareholder Letter, and was reiterated in 2016.

If a decision is close between two good options, make the choice and move on.

A close decision means two alternatives of roughly equal value: you’re better off making an informed choice and getting to the next decision so you can keep learning. This comes from Annie Duke’s book “How to Decide.”

Second – Use a Process –> “WRAP”

In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath outline a simple process for making better decisions.

Important to note – you don’t need to agonize

Each step is designed to confront one of the “Four Villians of Decision Making.”

  1. Narrow Framing – seeing things as a choice when they’re not
  2. Confirmation Bias – seeking out information to confirm, rather than contradict
  3. Short Term Emotion – making us feel conflicted, when we shouldn’t
  4. Overconfidence – making us think we know more about the future than we do

Here is the process they recommend.

  1. Widen your options – Take time to consider what other alternatives are available. Often we miss better alternatives because we’re too focused on what is in front of us.

Tools to help:

  • Avoid “whether-or-not” decisions. When one comes up, look for more options.
  • Find people who have solved the problem. Either other people who have successfully solved your problem, or places in your life where you have already solved a similar issue.
  • Use the “vanishing options” test. If none of the options you’re considering were available, what else might you do?
  • Blend two mindsets. Normally our decisions are focused on either preventing negative outcomes or pursuing positive ones. Consider blending these two ideas. If I’m cutting cost, can I cut more and find a way to invest? If I’m investing heavily in the future, can I also find a way to mitigate risk?

2. Reality-test your assumptions – Look at what the data says about what you’re considering. Specifically, look at the “base rates”–what happens on average.

Tools to help:

  • Talk to an expert; ask about base rates. Find someone with more experience than you, and ask what happens on average (not what will happen in your situation).
  • Ask “What would have to be true?” Consider: what if your least preferred option were actually the best option? What data would you need to convince you? This harnesses your confirmation bias to surface information you might not otherwise consider.
  • Ooch. In situations when you need more information, test a small step in the direction you’re considering. “How can I dip a toe in this decision without diving in headfirst?”

3. Attain emotional distance – We often overweight the short term consequences of our actions, while underweighting the long term impact. Finding distance to overcome the short term emotion can help.

One reason we overweight the short term is “mere exposure”. We grow to like things we’re familiar with. That, combined with loss aversion, generally leads us avoid change.

Tools to help:

  • 10/10/10 rule. How will you feel about this decision in 10 minutes? in 10 months? in 10 years?
  • Advise a friend. What counsel would you give to someone else in your same situation? Or, if I were replaced, what would my successor do with this dilemma? When we’re advising others, we pay less attention to the short term emotion, helping us give better advice.
  • Honor your core priorities. Write down your values and your principles for making decisions. Then, when deciding, ask “What would the person I want to be do in this moment?”

4. Prepare to be wrong – we often think we can predict the future better than we can.

Across all domains, everyone, including experts, are terrible are predict what will happen in the future. We should prepare for our choices to be wrong.

One of the most interesting ideas in this chapter was that preparation has a relatively low bar. Simply thinking through how you’ll address obstacles when they come up can help you deal with them. In goal setting, this method is referred to as “WOOP”, which stands Wish –> Outcome –> Obstacle –> Plan.

Tools to help:

  • Bookend the future. Specifically think about the range of possible outcomes. What is the low end of what could happen? What is the high end?
  • Premortem for the lower end. Consider–if this decision doesn’t succeed, how will you know? What was the most likely cause? What will you do to mitigate the factor which could cause it to fail? What can you do recover if it does fail?
  • Preparade for the upper end. If this decision exceeds all expectation, what does that success look & feel like? What factor caused the unexpected success? What should you do to prepare for it?
  • Create a safety factor. Will I get a better result if I build redundancy into this system? Or if I deliberately leave space for
  • Anticipate problems to help cope with them. For each problem that you might face, spend a few minutes writing down how you’ll cope with it. Create a plan for how you will deal with it in the moment.

Third – Treat Decisions as a specific Instance of a General Problem

A really interesting insight was from The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker. He proposed that effective leaders make fewer decisions. Instead, they make them well, once, and define a principle to eliminate future decisions.

He proposed that new, unique situations are rare. Instead, new situations are often early manifestations of growing, recurring problems. Effective decision makers always assume new problems will become recurring problems.

He proposed these steps for developing a principle to handle a new problem:

  • Acknowledge the situation is recurring, and should be solved through a principle
  • Define the boundary conditions of the problem – what are the edges where this principle applies?
  • Think through what is right, before compromising. It’s always possible to compromise and negotiate later–but first, spend time thinking about what the answer would be without compromise.
  • Build into the decision the action to carry it out. In organizations, this means assigning responsibility, defining metrics, and changing incentives.
  • Create the feedback mechanism for the principle when you create it–so you know when to revisit this decision in the future if it’s not working. “Failure to go out and look [at what is happening] is the typical reason for persisting in a course of action long after it has ceased to be appropriate or even rational.”

Essential in these steps is writing down the principle so you can come back to it.

I hope these tools help you in your decisions.

Resources & Further reading:

  1. Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath — best simple overview for improving your decisions. Can be read in a few days. Plus, there are simple resources on their members page as well.
  2. Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
  3. How to Decide by Annie Duke
  4. Amazon Shareholder Letters – linked above.

Time Management Benchmarks

Experimenting with a few ideas for managing time.

I think it’s tough for Zoom workers / knowledge workers to lay out their day. I’ve struggled with this for a while, so I’ve been giving myself permission to use these ideas when scheduling my weeks.

Here are the ideas:

  • 2-3 hours per week for wellness
  • 10 hour per week for whatever is the top priority
  • 25% of meeting time for follow-through

Writing them down, they seem so obvious. But it’s something I haven’t made time for previously.

Here’s where they come from.

#1. 2 – 3 hours per week for wellness

Many Zoom workers work more than 40 hours per week. If you were an hourly worker, you’d be required (in most states) to take a 30-min break daily after more than 5-6 hours of work.

We should probably all be making time for 2-3 hours per week of things that make us happy. Unhurried meals, exercise, connecting with friends, being outside, taking a walk.

The time commitment should probably be a lot higher. But – if we’re not devoting 2-3 hours per week, we should consider starting.

#2. 10 hours per week for the top priority

We should all be blocking out at least 10 hours per week (or an average of 2 hours per day) for our real work.

Personally – I’ve felt selfish for a long time when I blocked my calendar other than for meetings. In reality, it’s generous: it helps me get work done, makes me a better teammate, and makes me more available for the things that really matter.

This advice is echoed by numerous books on effectiveness, for example: The Effective Executive, Essentialism, and The Great CEO Within.

#3. 25% of meeting time for follow-through

So, if we have 6 hours scheduled for meetings, we should only be meeting for 4.5 hours. We should reserve the other 90 minutes for follow-through from the meetings.

Meetings only matter if they produce action. So, of course, we need to reserve time on our calendar for following through.

As with wellness–the time allotment could be much more. But if it’s not at least 25%, we might be running more scattered than we should.

What benchmarks to others use?

Happy New Year!

2020 was quite a year! Lots happened, lots to process, and I feel like we’re still all making sense of it of much of it.

On January 1st, I spent some time thinking about New Year’s resolutions. I started. by going back and reading my journal from 2020.

Some of the first entries, in early January 2020, were things that are STILL on my to-do list, not yet done.

OOOF. It didn’t feel good to realize that.

One of the items I have literally copied onto my to do list 52 times over the last year, and haven’t gotten it done. Ouch.

So – my resolution / hope / goal for 2021 is more finished projects.

Here are the two changes I’m making:

– 1. No goals without running trackers. I’ve noticed before the difference having a visual indicator of progress can make. So – I’m resolving to create a spreadsheet to track any goal I have. Last year I tracked events I was worried about and amount given to charity. This year I’m also tracking workouts, miles run, an completed projects.

2. More risks, less perfectionism. A lot of the projects that I don’t make progress on are places where I feel like I need a big effort to start. But – for everything – done and imperfect is better than perfect and incomplete. So – I’m working to remember that for my projects this year.

3. Small projects, more pivots. I’m going to work to have more willingness to shift course after a finished project that didn’t go the way I wanted.

Feels a little funny writing this, since I think all these are basic lessons I should have learned a while ago. But – late is better than never.

The areas of my life I’m most interested in changing are some of the same areas I’ve been working on for a while: more fit, growing technical programming skills, more present with more fulfilling experiences with my family, etc. Looking forward to making more progress on these this year.

Happy Thanksgiving

I hope this holiday finds you with much to be grateful for!

Our family has hosted au pairs for the last 5 years to help us care for our children. A fun part of that experience is celebrating American holidays with someone for the first time.

Thanksgiving is always my favorite holiday to explain. As far as I know, other countries don’t have a day simply dedicated to giving thanks. And the origins are fascinating–the pilgrims in New England, the declaration by George Washington, the tradition Abraham Lincoln began of an annual holiday.

Here’s two conflicting thoughts I’m reflecting on this year.

First – Gratitude doesn’t always come easily for me, particularly in the midst of troubles. For myself, I know that when I’m not feeling grateful, I don’t like being reminded that I have much to be thankful for. And it’s been a tough year. There’s a lot of sickness, hardship, change, and loss that everyone is dealing with.

SecondWe’re all living in a gift, and tough times remind us that’s the case. It’s easier to remember this year, but each day / minute / new breath is not promised. So we should savor it, enjoy it, and be grateful for it.

Something I’ve noticed with myself and gifts: I don’t appreciate them in the moment. A good gift is always different than I’d expect, with timing I wouldn’t have chosen. It takes me time to begin to understand what I’ve been given–often years or decades. Noticing this is helping me savor and enjoy all the blessings I have to be grateful for, especially in 2020.

A few readings I’m appreciating this time of year:

  • “With Saying” (link)
  • Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Proclamation (link)

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Framework for being a Positive Outlier

I recently read Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, by Dr. Atul Gawande. It’s a great book – highly recommended.

In the book the author shares stories of incredible improvement in medicine–from the military, to cystic fibrosis treatment, to surgeons in rural India practicing with few resources.

He closes the book with a framework for being a positive outlier. How do we create dramatic improvement in a crowded field?

Dr. Gawande shares five recommendations:

  • 1. Ask a question. Take the time to open the door to relationships with the people you’re interacting with and serving in your day to day life. Don’t let it take away from your work. Know that not everyone will respond. But you might learn something from those that do, and it will make your your work feel more human and less a part of the normal grind.
  • 2. Don’t complain. I loved how he touched lightly on this recommendation. Everyone complains sometimes, and that’s okay. But if we shift our mind from our troubles to our interests, our lives improve. Here’s his words:

“Wherever doctors gather—in meeting rooms, in conference halls, in hospital cafeterias—the natural pull of conversational gravity is toward the litany of woes all around us. But resist it. It’s boring, it doesn’t solve anything, and it will get you down. You don’t have to be sunny about everything. Just be prepared with something else to discuss: an idea you read about, an interesting problem you came across—even the weather if that’s all you’ve got. See if you can keep the conversation going.”

  • 3. Count Something. In a world of big data, experiments can seem out of reach or too complicated. But we can learn from whatever is going on around us by keeping a tally. Open a notebook or spreadsheet with 2 or 3 columns, keep it somewhere you will come back to, and start a running total.

“If you count something you find interesting, you will learn something interesting.”

  • 4. Write Something. The act of putting words on a page forces you to clarify your thoughts. And sharing your writing lets you join, and contribute to, a world beyond your immediate daily work.

You should not underestimate the effect of your contribution, however modest.

  • 5. Change. Dr. Gawande points out that people react to new ideas by becoming early adopters, late adopters, or by remaining skeptics and never adopting. Early adopters are more likely to be making positive changes in the world.

I particularly appreciated the advice to count and write. I’ve seen in my own life the power of counting or tracking something to help with change. And most of the people I’ve seen make large positive changes in their career did so by writing.

Simple, powerful recommendations.

Thanks for reading!

Well-being Practices I’m Appreciating

I thought today would be a good day to share some mental health well-being practices that are resonating with me this year.

Sunrise in Colorado – some beauty to help with well-being

The Basics: Sleep & Nutrition. In the midst of a busy life, I struggle with both of these. But – a small tweak that has helped is taking supplements to assist. Take melatonin to help with sleep— it is a simple over-the-counter supplement that helps, and the kids version has been a huge blessing with our children.

I’ve noticed that I have a much better mood and less anxiety when I take a multi-vitamin and vitamin D Supplement. There’s a number of research studies linking B and D vitamins to lower anxiety–and I generally notice the difference in myself in a day or two. Bonus – some studies indicate that vitamin D is linked to lower Coronavirus risk.

Count your struggles. Most people know the benefits of gratitude, and how counting your blessings can improve your mood and outlook. But–for me-that often feels forced, and I don’t do it. A piece of advice I received (and am appreciating this year) is to count my worries, struggles, anxieties, and frustrations instead–literally write down index cards, or keep a spreadsheet, of the things you’re worried about. The columns in my spreadsheet (titled “Worry Tracker 2020”) are Date, Worry, What I thought Would Happen, What Did Happen, Was I right or wrong? and Did worrying help?.

I think this has three benefits. First, it gives me an action step for when I’m worried about something -> I can put it in the tracker. Second, it gives me perspective when I come back to the tracker and barely remember the things I used to worry about, or need to fill out the columns on what actually happened and whether worrying helped. Third, I think writing things down helps me plan how I can prepare for or mitigate the consequences of the worries if they happen. Great TED talk on that here.

Read biographies. Charlie Munger famously suggests reading biographies to learn. So this year I made a few attempts, and noticed another benefit–reading biographies give tremendous perspective. Great people in history faced mundane frustrations, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, financial pressure that no one remembers later, and had worries about the future that didn’t pan out. This year I specifically enjoyed the biographies of Ben Franklin (his autobiography, and Isaacson’s biography) and Alexander Hamilton (by Chernow). Note – you don’t have to finish the book to get the benefits; read while you’re enjoying and move on.

On that note, here’s a few examples. In the 36 years from 1865 and 1901, three US presidents were assassinated. Imagine that. That’s much worse than today. I ran across that fact in an article about how Teddy Roosevelt, who became president in 1901, was also shot a few years later on the way to a campaign event. Helps put today’s politics into perspective.

Mindfulness, in the sense of time affluence. Honestly, meditating doesn’t resonate with me, and–even after a few serious attempts–hasn’t taken yet. But – taking some time to slow down does. So take some time to slow down, enjoy a few deep breaths, and appreciate the beauty around you. Fred Rogers had a habit of gently introducing poeple to this, and his commencement address at Dartmoth in 2002 is a great example.

Exercise outside, gently. I’m lucky enough to live about 3 miles from a beautiful lake. But – a 5 mile run is a bit much most days. So some days I walk for parts, particularly by the lake. And it really helps with my sanity.

Being outdoors is known to have positive impacts on anxiety and stress. And, as a bonus, you might run into other people doing things for their mental health. Yesterday I passed two women in lawn chairs on the sidewalk sketching the flowers in their yard. There’s a few regulars I catch whenever I go for a sunrise run, and wave hello. And a few months ago, a paused biker pointed out a few specks on the horizon (“BUCKS not DUCKS”) swimming their way across the lake. Good reminders that the world is bigger than my worries.

I hope these practices encourage you this week. Take care!

One Minute

I came across this poem a few months ago, and I was thinking of it again recently.

I have only just one minute
Only sixty seconds in it.
Forced upon me, can’t refuse it.
Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it.
But it’s up to me to use it.
I must suffer if I lose it.
Give account if I abuse it.
Just a tiny little minute,
but eternity is in it.

— Dr. Benjamin E. Mays

Though I couldn’t find the exact source, many websites indicate it was written by Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who lived a pretty fascinating life. He was a long time president of Morehouse College, and was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Have a great day!

Blog Update

The four year anniversary of this blog is this month. Always amazes me how the time flies!

I started this blog for two reasons.

First – I wanted a tool for reflection and growth. I’d just finished graduate school and needed a way to keep learning. Writing seemed like the best tool.

Second – I wanted to write on the specific topic of happy, effective work. I am confused that our jobs / careers / vocations — to which we devote so much — are often stressful and unfulfilling. And I felt there was an opportunity through studying this topic to make a positive difference in how people experience their work, starting with myself.

It’s amazing for me to look back at what this project has grown into. I’ve written 110 posts and had my writing read by over one thousand people. I’ve learned more than I expected about myself and others through my own reflection and thinking. I’ve met new people, built new relationships, and had moments of deep encouragement.

All that to say I’ve really enjoyed this project so far.

But I haven’t written much lately. I think there are two reasons.

First – I’ve felt conflicted between the purpose of the site. I started it to be both a personal reflection tool AND a resource for happier work. As a result, I haven’t been very structured or organized about the content I’ve written–so the site is tough to navigate, come back to, and share.

Second – I have trouble committing to being anything–so grouping what I’d like to share into one category, even one as broad as happiness and work, is tough for me. So, when I’m not sure whether it fits, I often don’t share.

So – I’m planning to make a few updates.

  • First – Going forward, this sight will be more focused on tools and insights for happy and effective work. They’ll be grouped into three categories:
    • Effective work practices
    • Happiness & Fulfillment
    • Growth & Change
  • Second – I’ll improve the navigation, so it’s easier to find and come back to tool that are helpful.
  • Third – This site will have less personal reflection unless it’s directly related to happy & effective work. I’m planning to move that to a site with my name, and share updates once per month. When I have that set up, I’ll post an update here if you’d like to subscribe.

Thank you for reading. I continue to find this project to be incredibly gratifying, and I thank you for joining me on it.

Stay encouraged, and have a good week!

Gift, not Gain

It’s been a pretty scary, crazy year…and we’re only to March. In light of that, I wanted share a book I read recently–Living Life Backwards by David Gibson, which is a study of the book of Ecclesiastes.

The idea of Ecclesiastes is that we’re all going to die. Not cheerful, I know. Particularly in the midst of market crashes, a growing pandemic, and crippling fear. But it’s true, nonetheless. So, knowing this, how should we live?

The answer, and the main message of Ecclesiastes, the author proposes, is this:

“Life in God’s world is gift, not gain.”

So – enjoy the journey. Life is messy and complicated, confusing and scary, filled with missed opportunities and derailed plans. But also delicious food and drink, beautiful moments, and (hopefully) the simple joy of the work we find before us.

Gift, not gain. Perhaps not what we would have planned for ourselves, or strictly in line with our goals. Maybe this gift is more inconvenient than we’d expect, or doesn’t feel like our style. Or, perhaps, doesn’t feel like enough. But – despite the problems we might (with enough scrutiny) find on first glance – it is ours to enjoy, and it’s more than any of us have been promised.

The book was recommended a year ago by my dad, and I didn’t pick up until earlier this year, in January–when I was flying to a close friend’s funeral. I found it helpful–in the midst of the grief–to remember this phrase: gift, not gain. The life we’re given is not something we’re entitled to; instead, it’s for us to enjoy.

Here’s a link to the book, and to a great review thread on twitter.

Take care, and enjoy the day!

Responding to Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in the US over the last few days. This week, both the NBA season and the NCAA Tournament were cancelled. The public school system in Denver and the local university have suspended in-person classes. Financial markets are plummeting. The government banned much international travel.

In the midst of all that, businesses and individuals are trying to decide how to respond. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about responding to crises.

First – Over communicate. Communication is essential, but always a challenge. In every crisis I’ve ever witnessed, the first reports were always wrong. Yet, it becomes more important than ever to communicate well. If you’re leading a team during this time, consider deliberately over communicating–starting with the most basic information–so that your organization knows the essentials of what is happening and how to learn more.

Second – make decisions based on a wise assessment of the future. In Tomas Pueyo’s spectacular post on the spread of the coronavirus, he points out something amazing about the Chinese government’s response: they decided to shut down Wuhan–population of 11M–based on only 400 diagnosed cases, then most of Hubei, with a population of 58M, only two days later. And, at the moment they made those decisions, the true situation was likely an order of magnitude worse than the diagnoses indicated.

I think a wise assessment accounts for three factors.

People downplay bad news – in the midst of crisis, most people’s first thought is to minimize it: “it can’t be this bad.” As a result, most initial reports will sugarcoat the reality of the situation, and make things seem less severe than they are.

Trends tend to continue – things that are unlikely before a crisis starts are still unlikely after. However, when a crisis follows a well-known pattern, it can be straightforward (but daunting) to extrapolate results. For example, in the US, we know that the flu kills 30-80k people each year–by spreading across 30-40M people. We can expect a similarly infectious disease to follow a similar trend.

Action can make a difference – A crisis presents an urgent and important decision.  And–since information in crisis is tough to come by–clear decisions have the opportunity to make a difference and influence others. For example, the NBA suspending their season was a courageous choice–and made every other organization’s decision to cancel a large gathering easier. Don’t underestimate the importance of a courageous action in the midst of crisis.

Third – Remember your values. Crises cause us to reflect and ask if where we’re supposed to be, doing the work we’re meant to do, in the ways that align with our values. If that’s the case, take the time to be grateful and savor the feeling of serving in ways you’re meant to. And, at the same time, use the crisis as a reminder to execute on the simple, important things that get neglected in easier times. Wash your hands, shore up your finances, focus on what matters, don’t overextend.

Fourth – Know that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re in a leadership role, or actively working in the midst of a crisis, remember to take the time to care for yourself. Sleep and eat at normal intervals, even if you don’t want to. Find moments to smile, be grateful, exchange words with colleagues, and find encouragement or rest, even if it seems unnatural–you can’t give unless you take care of yourself first.

Lastly – there will be times for both massive action and patience. I have a vivid memory of Christmas a few years ago, in 2012. I was still in the military, in a staff job in Afghanistan, and I woke on December 25th to a massive rocket attack our base. As the rockets came in, after we had made it to the bomb shelter, all we could do was wait–the preparations done. But – as soon as the flurry of the attack was over, there was suddenly much to do. Both of these things can be true: as you experience the emotions and changes of a crisis, consider which moment you are in, and open yourself to the utility of both.

I wish you the best as we face this coronavirus crisis in our communities and businesses over the coming months. Take care!