The single most effective question to ask yourself for better decision making

If you’re a newsletter subscriber, you know that I named Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work one of my favorite books of 2013 to date.

I’m also a longtime fan of Dan Pink, so I was thrilled to hear that he interviewed the authors, Chip and Dan Heath, for his Office Hours podcast.

I listened to it over the weekend, and it reminded me why I loved the book so much. It also reminded me of one of my favorite takeaways, one that I immediately added to my mental toolkit and use all the time. (My toolkit needed some bolstering: I struggle with decision making.)

The Heath brothers recommend in Decisive (and on the podcast, which you can listen to here) that if you’re trying to make a decision, and you’re stuck, the single most effective question you can ask yourself is, “What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?

We’re collectively horrible about making decisions based on our short-term emotions. (It’s healthy for our emotions to influence our decision-making, but deciding anything based on short-term emotions produces terrible outcomes.)

So when we ask ourselves to consider our best friend, we automatically switch to long-range thinking. We reframe and refocus without even trying.

I’ve been running my own decisions through this framework ever since I read the book: Do I want to homeschool for another year? Do I want to add another four hours of household help this fall? When should we leave for vacation this year? Should we rent out our home for Derby? (Yeah, that’s a thing.)

So if you want to make a better decision, think about what would be in your friend’s best interest. It’ll be in yours, too.

Do you struggle with decision making? What are some questions you ask yourself in order to make better decisions? (Let me know if this is one of them!)

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  1. Carrie says:

    It’s a part of my personality that I struggle with making decisions, but once the decision is made I’m generally happy and can make things work. Decisive has been on my reading list for months. thanks for the push.

    • Anne says:

      Oh, I’m glad you pointed that out. I really struggle with making decisions, but now that you mention it and I’m generally happy and can make things work once the decision is made. That’s reassuring. Thanks, Carrie!

  2. I like the whole “what you’d tell your BF” concept. I sometimes find myself doing that when I catch myself in a train of thought that isn’t healthy/helpful. I’ll think, “ok, if someone else was telling me this, I would totally respond with ____.”

    It must be easier to see the reality of the situation from the outside, even if you’re just imagining you’re on the outside. If that makes any sense at all. 🙂

  3. Annette says:

    Good advice about the best friend thing. I will try that next time. And I would totally rent out my house for Derby if I had another place for my family to go during that time. Do it!

  4. Heather says:

    I don’t generally struggle with decision making, which makes me all the more frustrated with my almost-14 yo son who can’t seem to make a decision on anything! I need patience with him in this area, but I also need some practical tips on working with him. I’ll take a look at “Decisive”. Will I find some take-aways for my teenager there? I recently read “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown. I loved the book for me and also found some principles I need to consider for him. I think the fear of making decisions can be strongly related to shame and vulnerability. Daring to take a stand on something, regardless of what others think or what the result is – it takes courage. My husband heard her speak recently and his main take-away was, “You can’t be both courageous and comfortable.” BTW, great to see you and the family the other day!

    • Anne says:

      It’s possible that Decisive will have good takeaways for a young teen, but I’m not feeling super-confident about it. It’s more about Big Decisions, and not so much about deciding if you want to go with Mom to Target or not (to use an angst-provoking example from our own home). Although a couple of the examples in the book are about schooling decisions, and that’s not too far down the road, if that’s what you have in mind.

      (I’ve found the personality profiles in the child’s section of Please Understand Me II help me have a lot more grace with my kids who think very differently from me. Maybe that would be helpful?)

      Curious: where was Brené Brown speaking, that he got to attend? Was that up at Willow? I’m jealous he got to hear her!

      It was great bumping into you, too!

      • Heather says:

        I’m not familiar with that book but looked it up. Is it a sequel to the first? I’ve read other temperament books for kids but have a hard time pegging my boys. It seems to me that it’s often a first-born struggle – not to like making decisions. First-borns are often people-pleasers and perfectionists, so making a big decision has more ramifications to them. (I’m the second and the baby but first-born daughter of an only-child mother – that gives me quite a mix.)

        Eric did hear B. Brown through the Willow Leadership Summit, so it wasn’t live. He attended in Pittsburgh with the staff from one of our supporting churches. He got the book/audio book package, and I’m enjoying going through it. The boys even read “Love Does”!

  5. Hope Connell says:

    We, too, are thinking about renting out our home, though for game weekends. We live in a college town with a HUGE football fan base, and hotels are sold out a year in advance for each game. Seeing you mention it, gets me thinking about it again, but that might be the confirmation bias talking. =)

  6. Angie says:

    I’m the world’s worst at decision making–the second I decide on something, I start second-guessing. Hopefully this will help! 🙂

  7. Jeannie says:

    This is really interesting. I’m not sure I completely buy it, though. My best friend is very achievement- and big-picture-oriented and needs to slow down and laugh at herself when stressed. I’m much more “lazy” and detail-focused and I need to be more daring. So if I were facing a decision and asked myself what she should do, I’m not sure the solution would be the same at all.

    I realize the point is a more general one: that stepping outside our momentary emotions helps give us a new and broader focus; that makes sense. But in many instances what is right for my friend wouldn’t be right for me, and we can risk getting hung-up on comparisons between us & our friends if we take too much of an outer perspective. Ultimately I have to live with the decision; my best friend doesn’t!

    • Sandy B. says:

      Maybe rather than thinking of a specific, actual best friend, with her own personality and issues, it’s more helpful to imagine a theoretical good friend who is in your exact situation. : ) At least that’s what I found myself doing, and it did seem to help.

  8. Gina says:

    I am not super-confident inside, though I appear it on the outside, so for years I have asked myself what my bff/spiritual sister would do in my place and I do that because she is so cool. I never thought of trying this with decisions, absolutely brilliant. I am excellent at making decisions on the spot, which is fine unless some actually thinking is required and then is just useless.
    When I lived in London, loads of people I knew rented their houses out and went on holiday for a certain two weeks in June. Go, Andy Murray, Whoop! I would say go for it. If you stipulate a damage deposit then going away for a weekend in bleakest January and basically having someone else pay for it and some pennies leftover seems brilliant. Just think, you would have to have a short holiday. In the cold, with someone else to make you hot chocolate, with that most marvellous of American ideas, marshmallows and fluff your pillows. (Me and mine would love to come and live in the States, is it showing again? lol.)

  9. Sarah says:

    I really like this way of thinking about decision making! I tend to talk through decision with friends anyway, but I can’t do it for everything! Another technique I use a lot is to just flip a coin and pretend the decision is made, and see how I feel about it. Am I relieved, happy, disappointed?

  10. Faigie says:

    Many of my decisions are based on cost. And I am very practical so I make lists of pros and cons so I can see things clearly.
    I loved Daniel Pinks book “A whole new Mind” Its a fascinating read on how creativity is what is needed in the job market and we had better be guiding our children towards that if we want them to succeed in the marketplace.

  11. Agree with this! I tend to tell my best friend to do what *I* would do (instead of necessarily taking her own experiences into consideration), so in that case this works for me.

    Although I will say, I am excellent at decision making. I’m quick and rarely waver. It’s EXECUTION that is my issue. I’ll make the decision and then….nothing.

  12. I just wrote about this book yesterday too, but found different strategies more helpful. My favorite was to approach different options with the question “What would have to be true to make this the best option?”

    I also found it helpful to read that when you find yourself waffling back and forth over the same decision over and over again, you’re probably dealing with competing values. I do that with my work/life/homeschool decisions a lot, and it helped me to reframe the questions by thinking about my values and priorities rather than just logistics.

  13. Katie says:

    I think the best friend thing is a useful starting point, but the problem is my best friend is just going to be thinking about *me*, and the decisions I really struggle with are where what is best for me or I most want to do conflicts with what (I think) is best for other people in the family.

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