It is said that the quality of our decisions determines the outcome of our lives. This means there can be no better use of our time than learning how to make those decisions well. If you think about it, we are not taught how to make decisions anywhere, yet the career we choose and where we decide to live will inevitably guide our lives in precise directions. If we can learn how to take them well and learn from our mistakes so that we can make better decisions down the road, we will inevitably make better decisions, vastly improving our lives.
I found a decision-making course by Farnam Street, which I recommend if you are interested in learning more about the topic. In the first class, they introduce the decision matrix concept and how we can classify decisions to understand how they will affect us. Ideally, we will focus most of our energy on the most important choices we have to make.
They call the most important decisions we make the “lead domino.” These are important decisions that will have a substantial impact on our lives. Examples would be who we partner with, what city we live in, and what career path we follow. These types of decisions are consequential and irreversible.
All decisions fall along a matrix of consequence and reversibility. The more critical and less reversible they are, the higher the level of attention we must give them.
Anything that is inconsequential will take away energy from the more essential decisions and merit less attention. Unimportant decisions, whether reversible or not, are a great training ground for others, as they provide the space for making mistakes and quickly learning how to improve in their work.
At a personal level, decisions that are reversible and inconsequential are forgettable. They are not critical, and we can easily move on from mistakes. Say you ordered the “wrong” dish at a restaurant – you can easily choose something else, and the effects of you not liking your food are minimal. You might have purchased a sweater that you do not like but can return. Even irreversible decisions do not demand much from us when they are inconsequential, like removing a small plant from your garden, one that cannot be transplanted.
Consequential decisions require more focus. Examples of meaningful reversible choices would be a hiring decision in your company or a system implementation. Before making a decision, you can experiment with some of its elements and collect enough information. For example, with the system implementation, you can use the free trial period to try it out with as many users as possible to ensure that the system is right for your company.
For consequential and irreversible decisions, the trick is to break them down into components that fall into the different quadrants, which will make your decision easier to make. If you have an important decision to make, like moving to a different city, you could see what elements you can try out that are reversible and/or inconsequential. For instance, you could find out what the job market or the school system is like (reversible and inconsequential if you have children). You could spend some time in the city to see what it is like for you (reversible and inconsequential). You could also interview people who live there to see what their experiences are like to try to extrapolate how yours would be (reversible and inconsequential).
A lead domino decision does not have to be paralyzing, as you can take one step at a time to see if any of these more minor decisions will help you gain clarity so you can make a more informed decision. By identifying the type of decision you are making using the quadrant, you will reduce the energy you spend on unimportant choices and focus on those that matter.
Farnam Street, The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters, September 2018.