Why does decision-making hurt so much?
It’s because of three things.
We’re looking for 90% certainty.
We’ll never get it.
We’re looking for the right answer.
There isn’t one.
We’re looking for more information.
It won’t help us.
We’re looking for 90% certainty. We’ll never get it.
All of us have an internal decide-o-meter.
It tells us how we feel about a decision:
70% the other way
Somewhere in the middle
When we hit
, we hit “Decide” and we can move on (numbers made up;
for the science).
The problem is getting stuck in the middle.
Sadly, that’s where all our tough decisions live.
With our toughest decisions, we might never, ever be able to get to 90% certainty one way or the other. They’re limited to 50–60%. So what do we do?
Naïvely, we stumble around, expecting to get the 80-90% certain feeling, and it’s just not coming. We fret and haw. We call up our manager to report our decision, but we’re just not sure.
The problem isn’t in the uncertainty. It’s in your expectation of the feeling you “should” be having in making the call.
Get used to this.
In the next chapters, we’ll cover how.
Even worse, people who naïvely expect to get the feeling they do when they feel 80-90% certain about a decision—they will end up oscillating between the two ends of the spectrum.
This is because simply through random fluctuation, if you give a process long enough, it’ll cross the 80-90% thresholds just out of luck.
Here’s a dot
that moves up or down randomly each second 50-50. We can see that if we wait long enough . . . by time step 2000, the dot crosses the “-40” threshold, as if it’s biased towards going down, purely through luck.
The same thing happens
with our certainty in a decision. If we wait long enough, think long enough, we’ll wake up feeling super convinced! Quitting your job it is! Then the next day, the uncertainty crawls back down, a week later, it crosses the 80% threshold for staying in job, you feel temporarily certain—and now you can’t even trust the feeling of certainty in yourself anymore. Truly despairing.
We look for that 80–90% certainty, but for tough life decisions like yours, it’s simply not coming, and waiting for it is disastrous.
We’re looking for the right answer. There isn’t one.
How often have you heard people say, “There’s no wrong option”?
How often have you wanted to punch them in the face?
The advice is frustrating, but it’s not wrong. It’s just poorly worded.
By “there’s no wrong option,” what people really mean is “I can imagine some person, given whose values, they would much prefer Option A, and that is perfectly okay.” A similar person for Option B exists too. The trouble is deciding which one are you.
The complexity and uncertainty is not in the data. It’s in ourselves. And our poorly-defined, nebulous wants.
Imagine asking a cerebral sort of kid, “do you want apples or dates?” He might go, huh? How do I pick? Price? Calories? How do I pick? We say, “based on your taste of course.” Oh, hmmm, haww, you see him look around anxiously hoping for a trick. He might start philosophising in his mind, “Ah, novelty is good, that’s how I should decide, let me pick, dates” or something like that. He tries looking at both foods and salivating, to see if he wants one or the other.
While you just keep looking at the kid like, “Poor thing. He doesn’t know he wants.”
That’s us when faced with a tough decision. Suddenly, we start searching around for a “right answer” too, poking at more information, more advice, to somehow resolve our quandary, and in the process, we become like the kid who doesn’t know what he wants.
Why don’t you know what you want?
The more stressed out you get, the more cerebral you might become. This blocks access to your intuition and feelings.
10x worse if we’ve been overthinking this to the point where there’s so much verbal overshadowing going on, so much mud stirred in the water, we do not have the access to intuition or clarity to think.
Did I mention being stressed? Wanting to pick the “right answer” can be a defensive mechanism to help us cope with
picking the wrong answer—as long as we find a reason why A is right, “we’re good,” we did our part.
It’s a question of skill. Accessing your intuition is a learned skill much like
is, and some people have developed it, and others not. Cultivating this skill and attuning to your wants is what
chapter will help you do.
It’s a question of
. We may have been applying the wrong set of assumptions and mental models for what is even going on, and much like a gentle reframe from a teacher or coach, reading the next chapter on
can help you stance right towards your next decision.
Is it surprising that “knowing what we want” is a skill?
It shouldn’t be. We as a society have the wrong mental models about our minds. It’s always been invisible to us, so we think we should just “get it.”
We teach babies how to walk all the time; we understand when they’re born, they don’t know how to move their body—why do we expect differently from the mind? Developing basic functions like memory happens automatically, but really, at the end of the day, our mind is a body part just like the rest of our body, and it can do us good to sit down and properly learn how to use it better.
We should not expect ourselves to access our own mind’s functionalities—like knowing what you want—automatically just as we do not expect ourselves to access our physical body’s ability to ice skate without putting in some training first.
The problem with “There are no wrong choices” is that it’s like repeating “Just pick what you want, dude!” to the kid over and over again, hoping (?) that it will work. That’s why it’s frustrating. There’s something there, and the people saying it are not able to convey it to you.
Truly internalise the toy food example above. Imagine being asked if you want an apple or a date, and truly imagine what it might be like to be unsure about it, trying to look for a right answer, feeling into your gut, but finding it conflicted.
From that place (stay in it), see if you can imagine someone droning “it’s just about your taste, man!” over and over again till you suddenly get it: “Huh. It is just about my taste. What
I want?” And you look at the
, you’re feeling conflicted, they’re good in different ways. Hmmm . . . in this moment, I’ll pick . . . apples.”
The answer might even shock you. Where did that come from? Dates are the novel thing, that’s what you’re supposed to want.
In that moment between “Hmm” and “I pick”, sometime remarkable happened. You not only accessed your subconscious, but you realigned around the action of you picking the apple. It happens so implicitly and unceremoniously typically that we never even know this.
If you’re able to complete thie exercise, truly imagining being the poor little kid trying to look for a way to decide, then from that place, suddenly getting it, and tuning into what you want, you’re on your way to becoming an effortlessly decisive person.
You can get better at “feeling your gut” instead of looking for a right answer, and that’s what the chapter on
is for. If you’re still skeptical of what feeling your gut means, check out the conceptual schema in
We look for the right answers. When deciding. Much like that kid, we’re doomed to fail—not at making the decision necessarily, at decision-making as an effortless and decisive process.
We’re looking for more information. It won’t help us.
Looking for 90% certainty
was about nebulosity in knowing what each choice will entail
Looking for the right answer
was about nebulosity in knowing what we want (given the choices).
This section is about the failure of gathering information as a solution to either of those problems.
We make pros & cons lists. We ask people for advice. We read through
of Google results. We’re hoping that if just find a bit more information . . . understand a bit better what will happen if we pick either choice, then someone we will just
what to decide.
Most of the time . . . collecting more information really won’t help. We know most of what we need to already. It’s certainly not going to be the tipping point.
As much as we itch, crave, clutch at collecting more information, we must realise: It might not help.
We read the menu another time. It doesn’t help. We ask the waiter what they like; it doesn’t help.
The problem is that we might be at our peak of how much uncertainty and information we can extract about the problem in a feasible way; it’s limited to 60–70%, won’t get us to 90%.
Nor might it help us attune to what we want
I meet people who do not collect nearly enough information or not in a systematic way, but it’s rare—and way easier to fix. Check out
ok, we know we can’t get uncertainty beyond a certain point, and we know complexity lies in us,
we’ve usually exhausted pros & cons, can always refine, but it’s not going to be the game-changer or tipping point. What is the tipping point
trained to collect info, advice, etc/
stuff we can justify, point to, manipulate in our heads, write
need to stop, and feel into our own selves
what do you do when the ultimate judge of what makes a decision good or bad . . . is in your head?
think about it. if it came down to which has more money, boom.
somehow, if we know exactly what would happen, we’d know which to pick. We could visualise them entirely out in the future.
But stochastic adds confusing element. What if we try and fail? Would we be happy then?
mismatch between operating in symbols versus operating in felt space
don’t know what we want, it is confused, giving uncertain comparisons
Together, these three stances create endless amounts of suffering.
The truth is: All three stances come from misguided familiarity with
🤖 formal decision-making
. That’s the kind used in engineering, in maths, in many quantitative business decisions. Choosing a retirement fund, designing a bridge—these kinds of decisions lend themselves well to:
having a clearly-defined and formally expressible objective.
collecting forecasts, historical data, and running simulations to information.
deciding on the basis of this information precisely which option is correct.
Outside these contexts, this method of decision-making
🙅♀️ just doesn’t hold
. But we use it anyway.
Not just an approximation . . . search for it, give example. Half fixed, half might evolve. Self-modfying, you change what you “desire” on the fly . . . based on what? You explore.
But do not worry. As we shall see:
We might not get 90% certainty.
But we can feel conviction in our decision. Conviction ≠ certainty.
There might not be a right answer.
But we can feel good about the one picked.
Information might not help.
But the questions will.
Read on for an explanation of
🤾♂️ what stances are
💁♀️ better ones
for nebulous decision-making.
this book doesn’t get to the very technical, but if you wanna discuss,
how we actually decide, go check out this book
(how people actually make decisions, not how we should or fmroammly think we do)
like extensive search vs intensive
we have an internal pair comparison thing. it’s weird. sometimes clear, sometimes not
better to think of multiple competing votes, like parties. a proposition can get support. some have veto power. e.g. regret
having a decoy option can change rankings. it.s a weird comparison function
using certainty in a loose way; can analogise to decision variables in neuropsychology of decisions, or priors in Bayesian decision making.