Roy Tang

Programmer, engineer, scientist, critic, gamer, dreamer, and kid-at-heart.

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Notes on Decision Making


At my old job I used to have this group of coworkers I had Friday lunch outs with. Inevitably, every Friday around noon someone would message the others asking “where are we eating?”. Now, there are a lot of good places to eat around the area and we’ve all been working there a while so most of the time we don’t care where we eat and we’d say we’ll decide when we get to the elevators. We get to the elevators but we’re still not sure where to eat. So we take the elevators down and we’ll figure it out downstairs. What often happened is that we ended up walking around, wasting time and eventually just choosing a place at random. It was a weird sort of decision-making.

Decision making can be tough, especially for big, complicated decisions that need to be evaluated on multiple axes. Buying a house, choosing a new job, and yes, even where to have lunch, these are all examples of possibly tough decisions.

Ideally, you are able to put forth a set of requirements for your decisions and then you check which among the available options best fulfills the requirements. Sometimes that approach is insufficient. It can be because you are lacking information or have too much information or have too many choices or none of the choices are acceptable or you are unable to properly evaluate the trade-offs between different criteria, or maybe even that your subconscious has a set of “secret” requirements that you are unable to formalize.

Some notes I’ve kept on decision-making:

  1. Spending too much time on decision-making is a cost. Be aware if there is a time limit to your decision making.
  2. For most things, decision-making should be quick and easy. Minimize decision making for unimportant (read: low cost or low impact) stuff. For example, remembering passwords. Either use an app or a scheme so that you don’t have to decide or try to remember what the password for each site is. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
  3. It’s okay to use your guts or emotions to make an initial decision, then validate if it’s okay using more empirical criteria. If your emotions don’t lead anywhere, measure and use data, pros/cons to determine best course of action
  4. Understand the difference between an acceptable choice and the best choice. It may be easier to settle merely for a choice which is acceptable rather than spending extra time to try to find the best choice.
  5. Not making a choice is also a choice. Sometimes not all the choices will satisfy your standard or requirements. Don’t forget that abstaining or deciding not to do anything can also be a valid choice.
  6. If you’re having trouble choosing between some options, that means they are mostly within an acceptable range for you (if any of the options was flat out unacceptable you would have rejected them on the spot). In that case, just choose one at random (literally roll a dice if you can’t decide) and go. If it turns out later that it wasn’t the best choice, figure out if there was any information that would have helped you, take note of it for next time.
  7. Be careful when making big purchases. Even if you have already made a decision, you may want to delay it a bit for really big amounts to give your subconscious some time to ponder it. (This is really more about money management than decision making… but I had it in this list so here you go)
  8. In moments of self-doubt, ask other people for advise. It can be friends and family or even random strangers on the internet.

Back to the lunch out story. Some years later, a different lunch group (that I was occasionally a part of) thought of a better approach: they set up an automated email that got sent out to the members around 11:30am. The program would choose at random one of the nearby places to eat, making the decision for the group. If anyone objected to the randomly selected choice, they bore the responsibility for providing the new choice.

Life is too short to waste on poor decision making.

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