USA Today Review: Decisive: A Witty Guide to Good Decisions

decisiveIt wasn’t a hard decision to review Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by the Heath brothers.

The pair are a winning, and witty, writing team. Chip is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, and Dan is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship.

Their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard was a roaring hit because they hit a nerve.

We all want, or must, change from time to time. Sometimes it’s minor nipping. For others, it requires massive renovation.

“Big changes can start with very small steps. Small changes tend to snowball. But this is not the same as saying that change is easy,” the authors wrote.

And as they did in Switch, they do again with the daunting task of decision-making. The Heath brothers have expertly explored the topic at length and broken it down into small action steps that anyone grappling with a big decision will benefit from.

Much of the book is focused on “nudging, prodding, and inspiring groups to make better decisions,” they write. But, in most cases, the guidance can be applied to individual choices, too. What car to buy, whether to accept a new job, or should you break up with your boyfriend. Whether or not to start your own business.

Along the way there are great anecdotes.

For starters, they write “the only decision-making process in wide circulation is the pros-and-cons list. Rather than jump to conclusions we hunt for positive and negative factors — “pushing the spotlight around — until we felt ready to make a decision.”

Who hasn’t taken this approach? Turns out, this method can be traced to 1772, when Benjamin Franklin was asked for advice by a colleague who’d been offered an unusual job opportunity. Franklin advised him to write over a period of days, as they occurred to him, the factors that fall into either a Pro column or a Con one.

The “over a few days” piece is key because it helps defray the short-term emotion that we often get caught up with in the angst of making a decision, according to the Heaths.

More than 200 years later, “his approach is still, broadly speaking, the approach people use when they make decisions,” although it is profoundly flawed, according to the authors.

That’s because it’s insanely easy to “jigger the pros-and-cons,” or bias the list so, even though, “we think we are conducting a sober comparison … in reality, our brains are following orders from our gut,” they write.

Their more strategic decision-making process which is laid out in their book is called WRAP. This stands for

• Widen Your Options

• Reality-Test Your Assumptions

• Attain Distance Before Deciding

• Prepare to Be Wrong

One telling narrative: Father J. Brian Bransfield, associate general secretary of the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told them that parishioners who seek out his advice, tend to “unduly narrow their options.”

They will approach him with quandaries: “Should I marry this person? Should I take the job I’ve been offered in another city? Should I become a priest?” They fret that they don’t know what God wants them to do, and they expect him to act as the spokesperson.

“There’s a myth that there’s only one thing that God wants you to do,” he tells them. “There are 6 billion people in the world. You’re telling me that God looked at you and said, ‘There is only 1 thing you can do in your life.’ Could it be that you are puttingyour constraints on God?”

They’re surprised and relieved, he explains to the Heaths. “They’ve just been wearing blinders,” the duo write.

Distance, too, is vital. “Perhaps our worst enemy in resolving these conflicts is short-term emotion, which can be an unreliable adviser,” they write. “It’s easy to lose perspective when we’re facing a thorny dilemma. Blinded by the particulars of the situation, we’ll waffle and agonize, changing our mind day to day.”

Sound familiar? “When people share the worst decisions they’ve made in life, they are often recalling choices made in the grip of visceral emotion: anger, lust, anxiety, greed,” according to the authors. “Our lives would be different if we had a dozen “undo” buttons to use in the aftermath of these choices.”

That’s why “sleep on it” is sound advice, and we should take it to heart.

But while hitting the pause button does help, it’s not enough for many of us, they conclude. “We need strategy.”

Here’s a sampling of the Heath’s insightful advice.

• It’s easier to spot a narrow frame from the outside–watch for it as a decision adviser. “Whether or Not” decisions should set off warning bells.

• Have the discipline to consider the opposite. To gather more trustworthy information, we can ask disconfirming questions. Law students: ‘Who were the last three associates to leave the firm? What are they doing now? How can I contact them?”

• Common hiring error: We try to predict success via interviews. Should we nix the interview and offer a short-term consulting contract?

• Use the emotion sorting technique invented by Suzy Welch, a business writer. It’s called 10/10/10. We think about our decisions on three different time frames: How will we feel about it 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?

• The single most effective question may be: What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?

Copyright 2013

Read the original story: Review: A witty guide to good decisions


Kerry Hannon, special for USA TODAY

Hannon is a freelance writer and author of Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Health … And Pays the Bills

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