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I’m trying to become better at decision-making. My mother reminds me that, as a kid, I couldn’t pick what color of toothbrush to buy. Till date, toothbrushes get the better of me. I recently watched a podcast episode of the Knowledge Project featuring Patrick Collison. As the founder of a billion-dollar company, he makes a lot of decisions. Naturally, he had some good thoughts on the topic. For Day 12, I thought I’d reflect on some of what I learned here.

1. Making quick decisions

If you can make twice as many decisions at half the precision, that is often better. The rate of improvement in decision-making with additional time almost necessarily starts to flatten out. You want to make more decisions with less confidence, since most decisions will course correct. Fast decisions are an asset and capability in its own right.” - Patrick Collison

This makes a lot of sense. Without looking at the research here, I feel like most of us have experienced times when additional deliberation hasn’t aided in better decision-making - or rather, it hasn’t been worth the opportunity cost (time wasted, energy spent, decision-fatigue experienced). I think a lot of it is habitual. Since all prior good decisions involved deliberation, we conflate the good outcome as being caused by the deliberation. It’s scary to imagine removing one variable (i.e. deliberation) when the process produced the right outcome in the past. But I’m interested in slowly breaking that habit with each next decision.

2. All decisions aren’t the same

Some decisions are more important than others, but often, we give the decision of toothbrush selection the same weight as job selection. Patrick suggests splitting up decisions based on two axes: (1) magnitude, and (2) degree of reversibility, and suggests that we should only deliberate on decisions of high magnitude and low reversibility (i.e. the top-left quadrant in the diagram below). To test this framework, I spent some time applying it to decisions from my own life (see diagram below). The biggest challenge was in correctly assessing the magnitude of the decisions - what if I pick a bad toothbrush, get cavities, and lose all my teeth by age 30? Either way, this framework is just one aspect of the larger question: is deliberating on the decision worth my time and effort, given the opportunity cost? I imagine the answer is no, more often than we’d like to think.

Decision-making examples from my personal life sprinkled onto Patrick Collison’s decision-making framework

Decision-making examples from my personal life sprinkled onto Patrick Collison’s decision-making framework

3. Decisions might be the wrong unit of analysis

“Decision-making in organizations is slightly overrated. Organizations are not like investment entities. With investing, it’s fundamentally very binary. There is a moment in which you buy or sell. […] In organizations, everything is more fluid and continuous. […] The things to optimize are the incentive structures, the mindsets, the definitions of goals, and the feedback mechanisms from the outcomes to the inputs, and less the binary decisions.” - Patrick Collison

Just as decision-making in organizations is overrated, I think decision-making in life is also overrated. Since life is fluid and continuous, it is more about having the right:

With these in place, the right decisions will naturally emerge.

4. Doing it all with confidence

This one isn’t from the podcast, but when I’m overthinking or having decision paralysis, I ask myself the question:

What advice would you give your friend if they were going through this?

One caveat with the question above is that, in my opinion, the best advice is not to give an answer, but to give the friend perspective and confidence so they can discover their own answer. For this reason, I prefer the following:

What decision would you make if you were someone that was really confident in their decision-making?