Making light of decision making

[Great to report: this post has been reproduced by here by GTD Times, the official GTD publication which publishes many insightful articles and provides much information and more on the application of GTD.]

As a follower of GTD, I am fortunate to receive many things, including the Productive Living newsletter. This particular edition included some “food for thought” about decision making, which I found extremely nutritious!

Information and accuracy

It brought to mind two things that I have often thought, and perhaps there is a link between them.

Firstly, there is a feeling that if we gather enough information about something that the decision can often become obvious. We sometimes even say things like “the decision made itself”!

Secondly, if there is very little to separate two (or more) choices then we often have difficulty in accepting that the inaccuracy of our assessment of the benefit of any choice may be greater than the actual difference between them; as in the story of the donkey which starved because it was unable to decide between two equal sized piles of hay. In other words, either one will do; and next time it might be a good idea to pick the other one so that we learn more about both!

Information and time

So, in line with David Allen’s thoughts on accepting more ambiguity and lack of clarity, the approach to relaxing about making decisions would seem to be to become comfortable with accepting a certain range of outcomes of our eventual choice, while working to gather increasing amounts of information so as to bring the estimated outcome of at least one of the choices within that range.

David’s point about increasing the discomfort with not making a decision seems also to be helpful, but by applying pressure in the opposite direction. As we become more uncomfortable over time, the perceived cost of not deciding is increasing. So, with time, we either increase the range of outcome that we are prepared to tolerate; and/or we accept that no significant new information is arriving to affect the decision.

I find that it sometimes also helps to make an assessment of how much new information is likely to arrive in the future. If I now know all that I am likely to know before a deadline, then (logically, at least!) I might as well make the decision now.

Information and blame

On a personal note, I have found one area where this issue seemed easier. I have limited experience (about 350 hours) of flying light aircraft and, in the aviation domain, I have found that decision making can often (but by no means always) be quite quick and easy. It seems to have something to do with combination of two elements, both relate to time (one in the past, the other in the future) and to (lack of) blame.

One element is the advantage of thinking ahead (the time aspect), often with the help of discussions with other people, about the priorities and what one would do under certain circumstances. This is coupled with the acceptance that if one follows a specific approach, then that is likely to lead to the most beneficial outcome (the lack of blame aspect).

The second element is the advantage of thinking back (the time aspect) again often with the help of stories and discussions with others, about what happened and what one might have done and why certain things occurred and all, again, without any attachment of blame.

The presence, in aviation, of these two elements together contributes to a relaxation in the present about the decision actually being made, which seems to be extremely effective in enabling rapid decision making. One might think that this would only apply to common situations or to preplanned eventualities and it certainly is effective in those cases; but the interesting thing is how the culture seems to extend the benefit into the area of one-off decisions in a way that is difficult to describe.

Make light work of it!

A somewhat comical example of this kind of thinking, that arises within the dry humour of aviation and that some people might appreciate, is the advice on the procedure for carrying out an emergency landing at night (something which is such a difficult situation that we all hope that we never have to do it).

On the assumption that the aircraft is without power and, therefore, descending in the glide in the dark, the version that I have heard goes as follows (with my supporting comments): “head for the darkest area you can find” (because, away from built-up areas, there are likely to be fewer obstructions on the ground); “when you get down to 300 feet, turn on the landing light” (assuming it is working and you know your height, so as to have a some chance, however small, to avoid obstacles); “if you do not like what you see, turn it off again!” (that is, if you get a view of lots of buildings, power cables or anything else unpleasant, then why worry yourself?!!).

Of course, although it is often delivered as joke, the real question is: so if not that, then what are you going to do under those circumstances? In this case, the answer is probably to omit the last step!

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