Make Better Choices: A Review of Decisive

by | Mar 12, 2013 | Essential Reading | 66 comments

Y ou have a big decision in front of you.

Maybe you have to decide whether to take a job in a new city. Maybe you’re weighing whether you should go back to school for a graduate degree.  Or maybe you’re tempted to dump the cubicle and strike out with a business of your own.

It’s an overwhelming decision and you’re not sure what’s best.

You’ve tried asking friends and mentors for advice.  You’ve made lists of pros and cons.  You’ve even tried listening to your gut after a particularly heavy meal.

The problem is that for every method you use, it just seems more complicated.  The advice you get is as conflicted as your heart.

You’re actually less sure of what you should do than when you started, and the not knowing is making you sick (maybe your gut is just being petulant).

If this sounds familiar, you need to read Chip and Dan Heath’s latest book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work.  As a scientist who has worked among decision making researchers, I can say this is hands down the most digestible (and enjoyable) book on the topic I’ve come across.

There are the books you’d buy for yourself, and then there are the books that everyone gets for the next holiday.  This is one of those books.

In this post, I’m not only providing an overview, I’m giving away 5 free copies before the book is even available in stores. Read on for a primer on smart decision making and to enter to win a free copy of this extraordinarily useful book for yourself.

Why can’t we decide

The basic premise is that not only do most of us fail to have a good system for making big decisions, but the decisions we do make are compromised by hidden psychological biases.  Consider these consequences

Career choices, for instance, are often abandoned or regretted. An American Bar Association survey found that 44% of lawyers would recommend that a young person not pursue a career in law. A study of 20,000 executive searches found that 40 percent of senior-level hires “are pushed out, fail or quit within 18 months.” More than half of teachers quit their jobs within four years. In fact, one study in Philadelphia schools found that a teacher was almost two times more likely to drop out as a student.

The statistics for business and personal decisions aren’t much better.

One reason for this trend, as we’ve discussed on this blog before, is a reliance on intuition when you don’t have enough training or experience.

But the solution is more than just ignoring our guts when we don’t have enough information.

The book lays out a four step process to combat what they call the “4 villains of decision making.”  Their process can be conveniently remembered by the acronym WRAP:

  1. Widen your options
  2. Reality-test your assumptions
  3. Attain distance before deciding
  4. Prepare to be wrong

This first step is the one I see missing a lot as people try to shake up their careers.  Take our examples at the start of the post.  They’re all whether or not type questions, which only examine a single option compared to status quo (some people consider status quo a second option, but researchers view this kind of decision as an “up or down” vote on a single choice).

The book highlights a number of great techniques for doing widening your options, which you can apply to everything from buying big screen TVs to creating a powerhouse business model like Walmart.

But my favorite technique is the idea you should focus on AND instead of OR.  In this short video, I show you how to apply this idea to the typical “follow your passion” advice.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

Trick your brain

If humans were hyper-rational beings, simply widening our options might be enough to overcome our decision-making woes.

Unfortunately, emotion, overconfidence, and a self-confirmation bias complicate things.  So we have to trick our brains.

For example, lots of people would like a more flexible schedule that allows them to occasionally work from home.  At first, you may think your only option is to quit your job and find one that’s more accommodating.

Even widening your options may be difficult because you will focus on information that supports your viewpoint (“They already told Dale he couldn’t telework”), and downplay information that contrasts (“Joan has a special work arrangement, but only because she travels so much.  Her situation is different.”).

This is called the self-confirmation bias.  To overcome it, you must trick your brain into thinking more objectively.  When evaluating options, try asking yourself these questions:

  1. What if your least favorite option were actually the best one? What data might convince you of that?
  2. What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?
  3. Is there a way to test my options before committing to one?
  4. What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?

The book walks you through numerous examples, many of them counter-intuitive, that demonstrate how these simple questions can produce much better decisions.

Stop agonizing over your decisions … today

I love this book and I know you will too.  We’re all faced with tough decisions in life and work.  Career change just happens to be a particularly complicated one.

I have five free copies to give away, before you can even get them in bookstores. Sweet!

To win one of 5 free copies: leave a comment discussing one decision you’re struggling with and how you think this book might help you.  On Sunday, March 17, I’ll choose five lucky winners.  Shipping costs are on me.

Due to the potentially sensitive nature of the decision you might want to discuss, you’re welcome to use a pseudonym instead of your real name.  Just make sure you put your real email address in the comment form (no one sees it but me) so I can email the winners for their mailing address.

If you don’t win a free copy, I urge you to get a copy of Decisive anyway (affiliate). What I particularly love about this book is that it provides a process that anyone can follow.  As I’ve said about my No Regrets Career Academy, a process gives you confidence.  It provides a logical, unbiased method for making the best choice possible and taking appropriate risk.

If carpe diem is a central tenant by which you mean to live your life, then you need this process to be both bolder and wiser.

As we say around these parts, dare to shine.

Full disclosure: I have been a giddy fan of Chip and Dan Heath for a long time.  After reading the first chapter of Decisive (sent to their newsletter subscribers), I requested a free copy of the book to review–one of the perks of blogging.  Crown Publishing graciously provided a whole box to share with my best friends (aka you).  Their generosity did not influence the substance of my review, but it did make me happy.