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The Subtle Art of Decision Making - Take Your Decisions to the Next Level!

avatarkaleb profile image Kaleb M Originally published at kalebmckelvey.com on ・10 min read

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the Impact Labs Fellowship Summit - "A 2-week technical fellowship for the next generation of social entrepreneurs."

Thankfully the organizers allowed me to speak on a topic that has been of interest to me as of late - decision making!

I see decision making and communication in our lives in a similar domain, because although we do each every single day, we aren't very good at either.

Last year and continuing into this year, I've been reading books on the topic (see resources below if you are interested) to compile a list of findings to make better decisions in my life. This article is going to be a live document (so to speak) as I share my evolving decision-making process - I hope you find it helpful as well!


We Make a TON of Decisions Every Day

The number of decisions we make per day has been stated as 35,000, or two decisions per second. For those who have me the current life expectancy within the US (~78), you have made a total of 996,450,000 decisions in your life so far. The 35K per day number has been cited in multiple places, although I can't find the original study that proves it - the difficulty of measuring decisions is quite challenging.

Even so, it's obvious in my humble opinion that we do make a large number of decisions every single day.

  • What should I eat for breakfast?
  • One egg or two?
  • Scrambled or Sunny-side up?
  • How long should it cook?
  • How much oil to put in the pan?
  • Which pan to use?
  • Do I want coffee or orange juice?
  • Which cup do I want to use?
  • How much should I fill the cup?
  • Sugar or milk in the coffee?...and you get the idea.

These are easy decisions, imagine making a decision of higher difficulty and ambiguity throughout the day as well.

  • Which task is most important to work on?
  • Do I feel like doing this task?
  • How should I design my components to implement this feature?
  • What would Wes B, Kent D, or Dan A do if they were designing it?
  • What should the names of my components be?
  • Are the names conveying meaning for the next dev well?
  • Is this code structured in a way that can easily be digested?
  • and....more and more.. :D

Welcome to modern-day React Dev life.

Making Smart Decisions Matters

With so many decisions being made in a life-time, it only makes sense that we should try to make sure we are making them properly right?

Joshua Kennon has written about the fact we are the sum of all the decisions we've previously made.

Think about it. Think about the decisions you've made that landed where you are today. The city in which you live, the job you currently have, the friends you've met along the way. So many of the smaller decisions have had a butterfly effect on your life, mine too!

Here's an example:

I decided to go to James Madison University and pay for it myself over going to community college for two years then transferring. Because of this, I had two suite-mates from Richmond, VA who introduced me to the multi-cultural center and events on campus. I went to as many as I could, the community was wonderful! This led me to eventually join Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc, where I was encouraged my Senior year to attend a leadership institute they offer that was sponsored by General Electric. I applied early and was accepted into the conference. After attending the conference, a conference organizer reached out and asked me to apply for GE's leadership program. I was eventually hired and had many experiences with amazing people that changed my life!

TLDR:

Because I decided to go to JMU, I joined my fraternity which led to attending a conference sponsored by GE. I was asked to apply to GE's leadership program and was hired, leading to many amazing experiences with amazing people!

Decisions we make lead to real consequences in our life, good, bad, and in-between. Doing our best to make the big decisions wisely can lead us through the correct paths as we make our journeys to achieve!

How Does Our Brain Make Decisions?

When we are making a new decision, our brain has "two" systems that handle new thoughts for us.

The Two Systems

The metaphor of two systems comes from the highly recommended book: Thinking Fast and Slow.

System 1 - The unconscious, emotional, fast, error-prone system in our brain that handles everyday decisions for us like the following:

  • Reactions to our senses, like smells or images that we like or dislike
  • First impressions when you meet someone new
  • Parking your car in your driveway

System 2 - Conscious, logical, slow, reliable system that handles complex decisions such as:

  • Directing attention to a specific item or person
  • Evaluating behavioral cues at a party, both your own and guests
  • Architecting new code or systems
  • Looking for memories in your mind palace, like why you wrote code a certain way when you forget to comment

In general, our brain tries to use system 1 as much as it can, because our evolution has evolved in such a way to preserve energy. Using system 2 requires more energy - this is why habits exist in our daily routines from the brain's perspective. How can system 1 be used for new decisions or thoughts without conscious effort?

Heuristics and Biases

A heuristic is an approach to solve problems that solve problems without a guarantee it's the most optimal way to do so.

Bias is defined by Google as: "prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair."

Our brain uses these heuristics and biases to determine answers to new problems or challenges without having to consult system 2. It does this in various ways, mostly associating new information with existing experiences we have. The details are out of scope for this article and can be found in the book mentioned above, or in the resources at the end of the article!

Mental Models

From Farnam Steet:

“Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.


A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.“

In my humble opinion, Mental models are very useful when making decisions for two main reasons.

  1. Connect ideas from multiple disciplines together
  2. Help prevent biases as psychological principles (cognitive biases) are mental models

Side Project Alert - I've been documenting mental models in dictionary format!

Have You Made Smart Decisions

If you were to take a step back at some of the most influential decisions in your life so far, how did you make those decisions?

Common Decision Making Techniques

There are a few common ways people pick up making decisions from school, parents, mentors as they get older:

Gut / Instincts

Have you ever had someone ask you "What does your gut say" or "Listen to your gut"?

Typically they mean don't think too much about it, lay it out and let your instincts based on that information make the decision.

The book in the resources below called Blink has intriguing studies that demonstrate the power in this type of thinking.

Habitual or Traditional (we've always done it this way)

Many times decisions are made based on how things were done in the past - in coding projects, people copy pasta something that was done that's similar to their baseline, or in basketball teams, the same offensive scheme is used throughout the years even if the talent is different.

Asking for advice from others / researching online / Debating

Charlie Munger mentions in one of his speeches that Warren Buffet spends most of his time doing two things:

  1. Reading to learn new things
  2. Talking to others who are gifted in their fields to learn from and talk to about different topics (Bill Gates on tech for example)

Learning wisdom from those who have been in similar situations can help us reduce poor decisions.

The key is to keep an open mind!

Pro / Con List

The good old pros and cons list - list out the pros, list out the cons, see which side has more and bingo - the decision is made.

Different pros and cons have different weights though, and this is why one must make sure to include that within their pros/cons.

For example, moving to a new city. A pro might be that their education system is top-ranked, and a con might be it doesn't have a comedy club. This might not be the best place for a parent that makes a living by doing stand up comedy.

What you see is all there is

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes how we make many decisions in our lives - with data which is the most easily available.

The best example of this is meeting someone new. That first impression tells us everything we need to know about someone right? We know their past, we can define who they are, and we feel like immediately we can decide on whether or not we like this person. All within seconds - is that truly fair?

Our brain puts together a picture of who the individual is, the personality, their honor and integrity, and whether or not we want to be around them, yet we haven't learned much about them. In other words, we are taking the things we've learned from our past about patterns in the individuals we do know, and applied them to the person we have just met. This is system one at its finest!

Are They Good Enough

For some these methods might suffice, it's a personal decision - I believe that we should use the right tool for the job or a combination of tools that get the job done right.

At times, instincts are great - especially when it comes to a situation requiring fast decisions. First impressions could mean quite a lot when interviewing a new candidate for a specific role since we only have little data available to make the hiring decision.

I just want to provide another tool for all of us that can be used, if needed, and if helpful, to make better decisions in our future!

Let me introduce to you, the Subtle Are of Decision Making Framework.

The Subtle Are of Decision Making Framework

Below are the four main steps I believe can help you make better decisions.

Step 1: Defining the Goal and Outcome

Given a decision between various options, what is the best possible outcome that can result from it?

Example:

Decision: Which city should I move to?Outcomes I want to maximize:

  • Find communities to enjoy my hobbies with (board games or hiking)
  • Opportunities to grow my career (go from X position into Y position in Z industry)
  • Safety

Remember the goal of any decision isn't to be right or wrong but to find the TRUTH that brings the best outcomes

Step 2: Asking the Right Questions

  • Is this question best solved forwards or backward?
  • Is this decision on any of my "avoid" lists (like purchasing something on your credit card)
  • Have I tried to disprove my decision by using counter-arguments?
  • Have I broken the question down to figure out what it is I'm looking for?

Step 3: Rational Thinking Checklist

Rational is defined as "based on or in accordance with reason or logic." on Google.

To make a rational decision we must do the following:

  1. Gather data from the best possible sources (gov data for example) or find research that was completed in that domain (such as decision making)
  2. Make connections across disciplines utilizing mental models
  3. Remove bias utilizing cognitive biases
  4. Decide based on the conclusions of the data without bias
  5. Disprove your idea if possible, helping to validate conclusions

By following these four steps, you can truly change the way you think and decide on your views, principles, views, and path throughout your life!

Step 4: Regularly Reviewing Past Decisions and Outcomes

After reading Principles by Ray Dalio, I learned that one key part of decision making should be reviewing the past decisions made and their outcomes. By doing this, you gain two real benefits. First, you now document decisions concretely somewhere. Secondly, you modify and adapt for incorrect decisions.

I will try this out and report back :).

Concluding Thoughts

Making decisions that can impact you for the rest of your life should be done properly. Our brains make decisions both unconsciously and consciously, with biases and heuristics.

Thanks to the research that has been done and research happening today, we will continue learning more to fine-tune our decision-making processes.

For now, I believe that making decisions utilizing a checklist or framework can lead to much stronger results in your life. There is a prerequisite for life decisions though - knowing where you want to go. Picture making turns from the driver seat of your car without an end destination; as you can see, there is no way to make turns that lead you to the right outcome (getting to the destination) or reflecting on the path taken.

Interested in learning more? Check out the resources below.

Otherwise - happy deciding!

Resources

Here is a list of various sources I've learned from so far.

Blogs / Sites

Books

Youtube Videos

Posted on by:

avatarkaleb profile

Kaleb M

@avatarkaleb

A Software Engineer always looking to grow!

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