Don't be a donkey
There once was a donkey that was hungry and thirsty. He was standing exactly in the middle between a barrel of hay and a barrel of water.
He thought. “What shall I do? I’m hungry. But I’m also thirsty.” So he waited until he knew what to do. But that moment never came. So he fell dead to the ground.
I often feel like this donkey. Standing paralyzed between two options that seem equally good (or bad). While my brain goes through all the scenario's and options.
I often find it so hard to make a choice. Whether it's deciding to start a big scary project; contemplating which products to put on my website; or simply picking one of the fun things to do this weekend.
And worse, if I don’t do it right, the process completely drains my energy.
During that state of indecision, I'm constantly in two states. And not present in either. Wasting time and the opportunity to enjoy the now. Or, I let the decision be made for me. Not ideal.
Though, the funny thing is, I love having made a decision. But only afterward! After I’ve made a decision, I feel freer. Lighter. Clearer.
And that's no wonder. To decide comes from the Latin verb decidere, which literally means “to cut off”. To cut off options. Think of pruning a tree. Cutting off one branch (of thought) allows the tree to focus all its energy on the remaining branches.
So making choices gives focused energy. Choosing is good for the remaining to do’s. All my mental capacity freed up again to work on something worthwhile. Or simply to enjoy the option I picked.
(Side note. So many things that are great afterward feel shit in the moment. Waking up early or exercising when you’re tired. The universe plays sick games sometimes.)
Luckily, I've found tactics that help me in making a decision. Tactics I happily share with you.
The capacity to make choices is like a muscle. When you constantly work it, it gets tired. And when it’s tired, you make bad decisions. So better save that energy for the important decisions.
You can either make fewer decisions. For example, by always wearing a black turtleneck sweater, jeans, and white sneakers. By creating a morning routine. Or by getting a boss. This way, you only have to decide once and the rest of the time you’re on auto-pilot.
The other option is to make decisions faster. To quickly make the cut and not get stuck in the endless loop. And that is what this article is about.
Here, I give 18 ways to reframe a choice you have to make. Reframing it so you can look at the decision differently in a way the best option lights up.
This post has 3 parts.
- Mindset: Adopting a different mindset towards decisions.
- Starting: When the desire for perfection blocks you from getting started.
- Picking: When all options seeming equally (in-)adequate.
1. Cost of inaction
You should just think of the consequences of taking action. But also of the costs of inaction! Not taking action has cost to it. You’re wasting time. And you’re not reaping the cumulative benefits of your actions.
To really feel the costs of it, try the Dickens Process. Picture waking up in 5 years and still not haven taken any action. See the situation not changing, but you change. You have grown older. Then picture waking up 10 years from now. 20 years. And you still haven’t started. Holy crap! Start. Now!
2. Don’t be a donkey
Remember the story about the donkey. We’re supposedly smart animals. We know that when this day ends another day will start. We know that when we use this moment to work on project A, we can use the next moment for project B.
Life is a series of actions. That means not everything has to happen at the same time. We can always do the other project later. So, don’t be a donkey! Just pick one!
3. Not choosing is also a choice. You can not not choose.
Anytime you postpone starting for some reason, you’re choosing not to start. So you might think that you’ve postponed the choice. But, this actually means you’ve just chosen not to start.
Not choosing for it is also a choice. So, if you feel that you can’t choose, know you just did. And is that the choice you wanted to make?
Or I can choose not to do anything. Doing nothing is ok too. But only when I do so consciously so I can put it to rest. And don’t do nothing just to avoid taking action.
4. If not now, then when?
When we were struggling with an exercise, my high school physics teacher used to say: "what would you need to know in order to be able to solve the problem?". And it stuck with me.
When struggling with starting, I often ask myself “what is it that I still need to know to start?”. If not this/him/here then what/who/where? What new information, skill or asset do I need in order to start or pick a plan?
If something is missing, I can take action on that. And often it's nothing and I'm simply postponing because it's the easy thing to do.
Ways to look at the situation when you're trying to decide to start something.
5. The good thing you do is better than the perfect thing you don’t do.
A life-changing idea that is not acted upon doesn’t change any lives. You start creating value that others can benefit from only from the moment you start acting. So, even when you haven’t thought of the perfect-all-world-conquering plan yet, start! Even when you might later think of a better way to do it, start! Because only then can it benefit someone.
And, remember, you can always improve on it later. “Good enough” actually means “perfect not yet”.
6. Everything is an experiment
Perfection is overrated. Things don’t have to go right. Especially not the first time. Treat the plan as an experiment. That way, any outcome of it will be good because you’re making progress and you're learning.
So great if it turns out you made a mistake! You chose the best option that you could think of at the time. Taking action was simply what was needed to realize it was the wrong option. Failing is good progress!
Lean into doing an experiment more. Lean Startup talks about a Minimal Viable Product. What is the smallest way you can test a working prototype? This will allow you to learn about what works and what doesn’t so much faster than when you wait to ship until it's finished!
7. Perfect doesn't exist
In many situations, there are so many variables that behave inter-dependently. This is almost the case always when there are humans involved. These are complex systems. Here you can't fully predict all the rules of cause and effect. So much so, that you can’t out-think the problem.
Waiting gives you a chance that you think of a smarter approach. But, all the research you could possibly do will still merely result in an imperfect plan.
The best way forward is choosing a direction and taking the best action you have. This will show the real effects and new perspectives, allowing you to improve your approach.
The horizon changes with every step you take.
You can view working with imperfect plans as extra stressful. But it is also liberating. Nobody has a perfect plan. Imperfection and failure are part of the game. You can start now!
8. Master of agility
Instead of focusing on the possible downside, realize you can also become better at quickly recognizing a bad decision and course correct. When you become a master of agility, being wrong may be less costly than you think (Jeff Bezos on risky business decisions)
This does not mean that you should quickly abandon ship when it gets hard. Because then you'd never finish anything. But it means getting good at judging the situation and decide to quit it in time, when it's still cheap (Seth Godin on the dip).
9. This might not work
Hard things are rare. That's why they're valuable. So, if a plan seems easy, maybe you're not aiming high or new enough. And if it seems daunting, that's exactly why you should pursue it.
Seth Godin has this beautiful mantra of “This might not work”. With every project he starts, he checks if there is a possibility it might not work. And it's exactly that possibility of not working that makes it worthwhile to do.
10. What’s the worst that can happen?
Really, what is? Say you go ahead and just start. Will anyone die? Will you go to jail? Will you go bankrupt? Probably not. Check what the worst is that can happen when you try. And if it’s not one of those three, is the worst case scenario really that bad?
"Is this the condition I so fear?" Seneca (one of the old Stoics) practiced being poor so he wouldn’t have to be scared of becoming it. If the scary potential results of the plan are financial, could you do with less?
And remember, the worst that can happen usually won’t.
11. Mitigating the downside
If you know what could go wrong, what could you do to minimize the chance or impact of this happening? Can you make it reversible? Can you build in a way to stay flexible and move back? Do you have a fall back plan? Can you hedge your bets?
There are times when, in order to give it a possibility to work, it's necessary to put all your eggs in one basket. But sometimes you can organize a safety net or a plan B and still give enough to make Plan A work.
Picking the best option
Ways to look at the situation when you're trying to decide between options.
12. Choosing Should or Must
Maybe you think you can't do anything else but option A. It sounds so reasonable. Like it's the right thing to do. It's safe. It pays the bills. It's what you should do.
Then there is option B. It's scary, but it keeps coming back. You can't help yourself to do something with it. You must!
Do you really want to do option A? Or have you (with help from your parents, friends, societal pressures) talked yourself into thinking it's what you should do?
If you must, you can always find ways to do it. Even if it's part-time. (Check out Elle Luna's The Crossroads of should and must)
13. Choosing Vertically
What if instead of comparing options horizontally (picking left or right), we compared them vertically? Which one of the options will lead you to lead your life as your higher self? Which one would you be more proud of? Which option puts you more in the driver seat of your life?
Who do you want to be? And work backward from there.
Or simply ask, after doing which, would you be happier afterward? This does wonders to get me off the couch to go for a run.
14. Choose the one that makes you most uncomfortable
Say you have two options that seem equally good. And one option is safe and the other has a lot of uncertainty in it. Then, choose the one that makes you most uncomfortable. Why? Because your head has leveled it out.
Let me explain! Your head is scared of unknown things that could go wrong. So, it’s screaming at you not to do it and by that changing your perception of the options.
When making a decision, your head has home court advantage. In your reasoning, the safe option will be talked up and sounds better. But, that means that when both options feel equally attractive, the one that is the scariest is actually also the one with the highest benefits!
Your gut probably already knew this. And perhaps you can give your head some reassurance by mitigating some of the downsides.
15. Let your body do the talking
What's your physical reaction to the options? Perhaps, you can test the options in a way that you can experience them.
But you can at least experience making a decision. Flip a coin and experience the difference. Heads is A, tails is B. Go!
16. Choose the option that adds the most value
When all options are a valuable use of time and you can't do them all at once, the wisdom is in choosing the right one.
Sounds simple. But it requires knowing what you want to reach and why you do what you do. Getting clarity on this gives you a compass in making difficult decisions.
Then there is value that flows directly from the task. But your actions will also have lots of side-effects. Ask yourself which of these options will - even when it fails - have created the most positive side-effects. Things like experiences, connections or developed skills.
17. Choose the option that makes the other options easier or redundant
A Tim Ferriss favorite. Maybe all options are important. But one of them can help the other things you need to do the most.
So, which one of the options makes the other things you want to do easier or less pressing (redundant even). Often, this is the option that addresses the most important issue. The one that adds the most real value.
18. When in doubt, maybe the options are roughly the same
And when you really can’t figure out which option is better, does it really matter which one you choose? Maybe both are equally good. And you’re wasting time trying to see which of these two snowflakes is whiter. So, GO! Just pick one!
Don't be a donkey! I hope these ways to reframe a decision or choice are helpful to you! If so, please let me know how. And what other ways of decision-making mechanisms work for you?
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PS: This is a revised and improved version of "11 ways how to make choices".