How to Make Decisions

When we go out to eat, we implicitly make a mental list of criteria in our heads of the things that will help us decide where to eat. Ditto with what to cook for dinner tonight or turning on the television and figuring out what to watch. In the case of the latter, your implicit criteria might include: what are you in the mood for, how long is the TV show/movie, are you watching alone or with others, etc. The point I am making is that we use implicit criteria in our heads all the time to make everyday decisions whether we realize it or not. Sometimes we take our time to go through this process, while other times, we go through it faster than we have time to think about it.

We apply criteria every day in our lives to all kinds of things. I am suggesting that we can be more proactive about using criteria to better apply it in other areas of our life beyond just figuring out where to eat or what to watch on the television.

When I was in design school working in teams, any time we found ourselves having a tough time making a decision (or coming to a consensus about something), one of the tools we used was the criteria grid. First, we would come up with criteria that we thought would be important in making the decision about that thing. Next, we would assign numbers (0-5) to each of the criteria (factors) that would go toward making the decision. Finally, we would total the numbers to make our decision. By making use of numbers, we were detaching ourselves emotionally and being more objective and rational when thinking about those factors. Using the tool didn’t require that our decision needed to be something big — oftentimes it might have been something small like how often do we meet as a team to work on our project. In order for this to work, our criteria needed to be both explicit and selective; otherwise, we would run into the issue of having our criteria defined too broadly.

Examples of the kinds of decisions we might make include: which project to take on at work, how to hire the right people for our teams, which client to work with in our business, how to make the best use of our time, and so on.

When a request comes your way, ask yourself if it’s the best use of your time and talents. If the answer is not a clear yes, it should be a no.

How do you decide which project to take on when you’re pressed for time and attention because you have a lot going on in your life? You ask yourself if this is something you really want to do or not. Would taking this project be the best use of your time and talents? In the words of Derek Sivers, it’s either a Hell Yeah or No. Unless you’re thrilled to take on a project, you have the time and attention to devote to it, and you’re the best person to do it, your default response should be a No.

Of course, you can only make this choice when you have a lot on your plate. If you haven’t reached that point yet, by all means, go with whatever work you get (so you can get paid in the short term). You have to be a lot less selective with the projects you take when you’re starting out. As the number of projects that come your way start to increase, it’s time to apply selective criteria to bring it down to a sizable number so you can give your full attention to a select few rather than spread yourself thin among the very many.

We can only work on so many things (projects) at a time before we start spreading ourselves thin in terms of time and effort. As a result, we get frustrated with our work, which affects our personal life. We need to be able to discern the select few from the very many.

For instance, as a business owner, you might ask yourself about the type of customers you want to work with (and fire those who don’t make the cut). You might choose to only work with clients who are highly responsive, meet deadlines, are easy to work with, pay on time, are always thinking forward (to define and overcome challenges), not a buddy but a partner, optimistic about the future (believe they can change themselves and their organizations for the better), etc.

In my earlier piece on finding your Why, we discussed how people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do something. To put this into action, you want to work with those who believe what you believe and ignore the rest. Use the criteria to essentially filter out your ideal clients from the non-ideal ones. Stop running after every prospect and only focus your attention on those who meet that criteria, who believe what you believe, and let them come after you. By the way, when you work with those who believe what you believe, not only are you gaining their trust but you’re also doing full justice to your talents and also to your clients’ as you are not competing on things like price, quality, features, service, quality, or things that make your work look like a commodity.

Oftentimes, we take on way too many projects and spread ourselves thin in terms of our time and attention, losing sight of our work and why we are doing it. We forget the reason we started doing the work in the first place; we forget our purpose. That is when we need to use extreme criteria to discern which project to take on and which to leave (or say no to).

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he created a 4×4 matrix for his product strategy to focus on a couple of areas (the consumer and the professional markets) that he anticipated would serve the market well rather than having too many products that lacked a clarity of purpose when they had a hard time choosing between their own products and recommending them to their customers.

Identify criteria for hiring people for your business. One example could be determining if they will fit within your organization’s culture, which is a lot more important than their skills. Skills are important, but secondary; and if they are competent enough, they can always learn it later.

Here’s the thing: we can’t do it all. We can either put our (finite) time and attention on a few things that matter at any given time (given our time and talents), or we run the risk of spreading ourselves thin by not making progress on any of our projects. Avoiding the latter requires saying no to the many opportunities that come our way so we can say yes to the few that we really want to work on. You can only say no to a request that demands your attention when you’ve taken the time in advance to figure out the criteria for the thing you need to make the decision about: whether to take on a client/project, how to make the best use of your time, etc. By not having (and applying) an explicit criteria in advance for our decisions later, we are letting others make choices for us by default rather than us doing it by design.

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