Decisive Summary24 min read

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Decisive gives you a scientific, 4-step approach to making better decisions in your life and career, based on an extensive study of the available literature and research on the topic.

I really like the books by the Heath brothers. They’re well researched, fun to read and always come packed with not just one, but a multitude of great insights. After Made To Stick in 2007 and Switch in 2010, Decisive is their most recent book (published in 2013), and it’s about making better decisions.

They’ve created a 4-step process called WRAP, which you can run through each time you have to make a big, important decision, to make choices easier. Its four elements are:

Widen your options.

Reality-test your assumptions.

Attain distance before deciding.

Prepare to be wrong.

Let’s look at the first three in more detail, because these are the steps that coincide with what I believe to be the most important lessons from this book:

Never decide in binary mode. Always think of other options.

Don’t commit to just one plan. Set up experiments and see which decisions work.

Switch to the perspective of a friend or future-you to be more objective about choices.

Are you decisively indecisive? Let’s change that!

Lesson 1: Decisions aren’t binary. Always think in opportunity costs.

How many times has this happened to you in school? On Wednesday, someone starts talking about a party on Friday and by Thursday, everyone’s invited, including you. Now you have to decide what to do.

Interestingly, how we decide something like this often ends with us trying to answer some variant of this question: Should I go to Jake’s party – or not?

The problem with making decisions like this is that it’s a binary approach. You only consider two options: yes and no. To get the full picture though, you’d have to also consider opportunity costs. There are actually a lot more options, most of which start with “no, but…”

For example, if you didn’t go to Jake’s party, you’d have the option to just call it an early night and go to bed, of course. But you could also invite a friend over and watch a movie, go ice-skating, to a club, throw your own party, or get dinner with your family.

It’s not so much about going or not going, it’s about what else you could do in that time.

With money it’s the same thing. You can buy a $700 stereo or a $1,000 one. The question is what you’d do with the remaining $300, if you chose the cheaper version. Would you save it? Invest it? Book a flight? Buy 50 records?

Even just being aware of the option of doing something else with your time and money helps a lot in seeing the full picture of available choices.

For example, when people were given the choice between buying a $14.99 video or not in a study, without any hints 25% didn’t buy. But as soon as the no-option was labeled “Keep the $14.99 for other purchases,” decline rates shot up to 45% – just because people were suddenly aware they could do other things with their money.

Lesson 2: Don’t make plans. Run experiments and see what sticks.

In case of Jake’s party this won’t work, but in quite a lot of instances, you don’t even have to decide right away. You can just set up various trials and see which decision works out best.

For example, I’m really struggling with what paid product I should create first on Four Minute Books. So instead of just picking one and potentially building something that falls flat on its face, I’ll just release a bunch of ideas and see which ones people really want me to make.

If you think you want to be a writer, you don’t have to quit your job right away. You can just start writing a blog, for example, and see if you like it.

The Heath brothers call this testing on a small scale ooching, and it really makes you a lot more comfortable when making big shifts. Internships, for example, serve this very purpose. Find a way to dip your toe into the water first, then decide.

Lesson 3: Change your perspective to friend or future to be more objective.

The third step of the WRAP model is getting some distance. Why does that matter?

Well, your emotions tend to hijack a lot of your decisions, based on what you think is most important right now. However, what you feel matters most today isn’t necessarily always what 10-years-from-now-you needs (or even 10-minutes, 10-days or 10-months-from-now-you).

That’s why it helps to put some emotional distance between you and the decision, before making a choice. For example, sticking with the number ten, try the 10/10/10-perspective:

How would you feel about your decision 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now?

Another cool trick is to take on the perspective of a friend, giving advice. Imagine your best friend came to you and explained the exact dilemma you face, asking you what she should do.

What would you tell them to do?

We often give much more objective advice to our friends, because we’re not bugged down by the short-term emotions they struggle with in the moment. Do the same for yourself, and future-you will be a lot happier!

My personal take-aways

As I said in the intro, there’s not much to complain about with these guys’ writing. It’s rock solid. Highly recommended and definitely one of the better how-to-make-better-decisions-books out there!

Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath

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Decisive Summary

The Five Big Ideas

The four villains of decision making are (1) narrow framing, (2) confirmation bias, (3) short-term emotion, and (4) over-confidence.

Avoid “whether or not” decisions. Instead, consider several options simultaneously.

Ask yourself, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?”

When gathering good information and reality-testing your ideas, go talk to an expert.

Rather than choose “all” or “nothing,” chose “a little something.”

Decisive Summary

According to psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we are quick to jump to conclusions because we give too much weight to the information that’s right in front of us while failing to consider the information that’s just offstage. He called this tendency “what you see is all there is.” This is also known as the “spotlight effect.”

“What’s in the spotlight will rarely be everything we need to make a good decision, but we won’t always remember to shift the light. Sometimes, in fact, we’ll forget there’s a spotlight at all, dwelling so long in the tiny circle of light that we forget there’s a broader landscape beyond it.”

The pros-and-cons approach to decision making is profoundly flawed.

If we aspire to make better choices, we must learn how the four villains of decision-making work and how to fight them.

Chapter 1: The Four Villains of Decision Making

Narrow framing, the first villain of decision making, refers to our tendency to define our choices too narrowly, to see them in binary terms.

We tend to develop a quick belief about a situation and then seek out information that bolsters our belief. This is called the “confirmation bias,” is the second villain of decision making.

“When people have the opportunity to collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting attitudes, beliefs, and actions.”

According to professor Dan Lovallo, “Confirmation bias is probably the single biggest problem in business because even the most sophisticated people get it wrong. People go out and they’re collecting the data, and they don’t realize they’re cooking the books.”

“When we want something to be true, we will spotlight the things that support it, and then, when we draw conclusions from those spotlighted scenes, we’ll congratulate ourselves on a reasoned decision.”

The third villain of decision making is short-term emotion.

The fourth villain of decision making is overconfidence. We think we know more than we about how the future will unfold.

“We have too much confidence in our own predictions. When we make guesses about the future, we shine our spotlights on information that’s close at hand, and then we draw conclusions from that information.”

“The future has an uncanny ability to surprise. We can’t shine a spotlight on areas when we don’t know they exist.”

If you think about a normal decision process, it usually proceeds in four steps:

You encounter a choice.

You analyze your options.

You make a choice.

Then you live with it.

The problem, though, is there’s a villain that afflicts each of these stages:

You encounter a choice. But narrow framing makes you miss options.

You analyze your options. But the confirmation bias leads you to gather self-serving information.

You make a choice. But short-term emotion will often tempt you to make the wrong one.

Then you live with it. But you’ll often be overconfident about how the future will unfold.

We can’t deactivate our biases, but we can counteract them with the right discipline.

The mnemonic WRAP captures the four actions needed to protect you from the above biases:

Widen your optins.

Reality-test your assumptions.

Attain distance before deciding.

Prepare to be wrong.

“Sometimes the hardest part of making a good decision is knowing there’s one to be made.”

Chapter 2: Avoid a Narrow Frame

When Fischhoff began to categorize teenagers’ decisions, he found that the most common type was one that lacked any choice at all. It was what he called a “statement of resolve.” An example would be “I’m going to stop blaming others.”

A 1993 study by Paul Nutt, which analyzed 168 decisions, found, of the teams he studied, only 29% considered more than one alternative.

“Nutt found that ‘whether or not’ decisions failed 52% of the time over the long term, versus only 32% of the decisions with two or more alternatives.”

“Why do ‘whether or not’ decisions fail more often? Nutt argues that when a manager pursues a single option, she spends most of her time asking: ‘How can I make this work? How can I get my colleagues behind me?’ Meanwhile, other vital questions get neglected: ‘Is there a better way? What else could we do?’”

To escape narrow frames, be aware of “whether or not” decisions.

“‘Opportunity cost’ is a term from economics that refers to what we give up when we make a decision. For instance, if you and your spouse spend $40 on a Mexican dinner one Friday night and then go to the movies ($20), your opportunity cost might be a $60 sushi dinner plus some television at home. The sushi-and-TV combo is the next-best thing you could have done with the same amount of time and money.”

Adding alternatives improves decision making. But you won’t brainstorm additional alternatives if you aren’t aware you’re neglecting them.

“Focusing is great for analyzing alternatives but terrible for spotting them.”

Our lack of attention to opportunity costs is so common that it can be shocking when someone acknowledges them.

A good quality question to ask is, “What am I giving up by making this choice?”

Another technique you can use to break out of a narrow frame is to run the Vanishing Options Test. This involves asking yourself, “You cannot choose any of the current options you’re considering. What else could you do?”

That phrase “whether or not” is a classic warning signal that you haven’t explored all your options.

“When people imagine that they cannot have an option, they are forced to move their mental spotlight elsewhere—really move it—often for the first time in a long while.”

“Until we are forced to dig up a new option, we’re likely to stay fixated on the ones we already have.”

Removing options can do people a favor because it makes them notice that they’re stuck on one small patch of a wide landscape.

“When you hear the telltale signs of a narrow frame—people wondering ‘whether or not’ they should make a certain decision or rehashing arguments endlessly about the same limited set of choices—push them to widen their options.”

Chapter 3: Multitrack

“Multitracking” involves considering several options simultaneously.

“Multitracking has another advantage too, one that is more unexpected. It feels better.”

“Multitracking keeps egos in check.”

One rule of thumb when interviewing job candidates is to keep searching for options until you fall in love at least twice.

“There is research suggesting that extreme multitracking is detrimental.”

Adding one more alternative to your decision will substantially improve your decisions, and it stops well short of triggering decision paralysis.

Decision paralysis is not a big factor in most circumstances—you don’t need a plethora of choices to improve your decisions. You just need one extra choice, or two.

“To get the benefits of multitracking, we need to produce options that are meaningfully distinct.”

“To diagnose whether your colleagues have created real or sham options, poll them for their preferences.”

“Generating distinct options is even more difficult when our minds settle into certain well-worn grooves.”

Grooves are triggered when we think about avoiding bad things, and one is triggered when we think about pursuing good things.

“When we’re in one state, we tend to ignore the other.”

“Psychologists have identified two contrasting mindsets that affect our motivation and our receptiveness to new opportunities: a ‘prevention focus,’ which orients us toward avoiding negative outcomes, and a ‘promotion focus,’ which orients us toward pursuing positive outcomes.”

“The wisest decisions may combine the caution of the prevention mindset with the enthusiasm of the promotion mindset.”

Push for “this AND that” rather than “this OR that.”

Chapter 4: Find Someone Who’s Solved Your Problem

Ask yourself, “Who else is struggling with a similar problem, and what can I learn from them?”

“To break out of a narrow frame, we need options, and one of the most basic ways to generate new options is to find someone else who’s solved your problem.”

“Sometimes the people who have solved our problems are our own colleagues.”

Bright spots are native to your situation. It’s your own success you’re seeking to reproduce. (Note: for more on bright spots, read Switch.)

A playlist comprises questions to ask, principles to consult, and ideas to consider.

For example, if you were planning a marketing campaign, you might ask:

What kind of iconography within the brand is useful and what could we build around it?

Is there a key color for the brand?

What is the enemy of this product?

What would the brand be like if it was the market share leader?

What if it was an upstart?

Can you personify the product?

Playlists spur us to multitrack.

“One of the reliable but unrecognized pillars of scientific thinking is the analogy.”

“When you use analogies—when you find someone who has solved your problem—you can take your pick from the world’s buffet of solutions. But when you don’t bother to look, you’ve got to cook up the answer yourself.”

“When you’re stuck, you can use a process of ‘laddering up’ to get inspiration. The lower rungs on the ladder offer a view of situations very similar to yours; any visible solutions will offer a high probability of success since the conditions are so similar. As you scale the ladder, you’ll see more and more options from other domains, but those options will require leaps of imagination.”

Chapter 5: Consider the Opposite

“To make good decisions, CEOs need the courage to seek out disagreement.”

One meta-study found that the confirmation bias was stronger in emotion-laden domains such as religion or politics and also when people had a strong underlying motive to believe one way or the other.

Confirmation bias increases when people have previously invested a lot of time or effort in a given issue.

The first step is to realty-testing the assumptions you’re making is to develop the discipline to consider the opposite of our initial instincts. That discipline begins with a willingness to spark constructive disagreement.

We want to avoid the momentary discomfort of being challenged, but it’s preferable to the pain of walking blindly into a bad decision.

When considering options, ask yourself, “What would have to be true for this option to be the right answer? What if our least favorite option were actually the best one? What data might convince us of that?”

“Sometimes we think we’re gathering information when we’re actually fishing for support.”

“How do you know whether to ask probing questions or open-ended ones? A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, ‘What’s the most likely way I could fail to get the right information in this situation?’”

“Confirmation bias doesn’t just affect what information people go looking for; it even affects what they notice in the first place.”

Our relationships at work are sometimes corrupted by negative assumptions that snowball over time.

To avoid negativity with coworkers, some organizational leaders urge their employees to “assume positive intent,” that is, to imagine that the behavior or words of your colleagues are motivated by good intentions, even when their actions seem objectionable at first glance.

Chapter 6: Zoom Out, Zoom In

“The outside view doesn’t require defeatism, but it does require respect for the likely outcomes.”

“Sometimes people can have access to the perfect set of data—and still manage to ignore it.”

When you’re trying to gather good information and reality-test your ideas, go talk to an expert.

An expert is simply someone who has more experience than you.

In short, when you need trustworthy information, go find an expert—someone more experienced than you. Just keep them talking about the past and the present, not the future.

Base rates are good at establishing norms: Here are the outcomes we can expect if we make this decision. Close-ups, though, create intuition, which can be just as important.

Another variety of close-up involves going to the genba, a Japanese term meaning “the real place” or, more loosely, the place where the action happens.

The inside view = our evaluation of our specific situation. The outside view = how things generally unfold in situations like ours. The outside view is more accurate, but most people gravitate toward the inside view.

A “close-up” can add texture that’s missing from the outside view.

To gather the best information, we should zoom out and zoom in. (Outside view + close-up.)

Chapter 7: Ooch

To ooch is to construct small experiments to test one’s hypothesis.

Rather than choose “all” or “nothing,” chose “a little something.” That strategy—finding a way to ooch before we leap—is another way we can reality-test our assumptions. When we ooch, we bring real-world experience into our decision.

Ooching is lousy for situations that require commitment, but best for situations where we genuinely need more information.

Ooching, in short, should be used as a way to speed up the collection of trustworthy information, not as a way to slow down a decision that deserves our full commitment.

We try to predict success via interviews. We should ooch instead.

Chapter 8: Overcome Short-Term Emotion

We need to downplay short-term emotion in favor of long-term values and passions.

To do a 10/10/10 analysis, think about a decision on three different time frames: How will you feel about it 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?

Conducting a 10/10/10 analysis doesn’t presuppose that the long-term perspective is the right one. It simply ensures that short-term emotion isn’t the only voice at the table.

For decades, psychologists have been studying a phenomenon, called the “mere exposure” principle, which says that people develop a preference for things that are more familiar (i.e., merely being exposed to something makes us view it more positively).

When Robert Zajonc exposed people to various stimuli—nonsense words, Chinese-type characters, photographs of faces—he found that the more they saw the stimuli, the more positive they felt about them.

The mere-exposure principle represents a subtler form of short-term emotion.

Compounding this preference for the status quo is another bias called loss aversion, which says that we find losses more painful than gains are pleasant.

“Research suggests that we set ourselves up for loss aversion almost instantly.”

When you put these two forces together—the mere-exposure principle and loss aversion—what you get is a powerful bias for the way things work today.

A relatively new area of research in psychology, called construal-level theory, shows that with more distance we can see more clearly the most important dimensions of the issue we’re facing.

There’s another advantage of the advice we give others. We tend to be wise about counseling people to overlook short-term emotions.

The advice we give others has two big advantages: It naturally prioritizes the most important factors in the decision, and it downplays short-term emotions.

In helping us to make a decision, the single most effective question may be: What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?

Fleeting emotions tempt us to make decisions that are bad in the long term.

To overcome distracting short-term emotions, we need to attain some distance.

The 10/10/10 analysis provides distance by forcing us to consider future emotions as much as present ones.

“Our decisions are often altered by two subtle short-term emotions: (1) mere exposure: we like what’s familiar to us; and (2) loss aversion: losses are more painful than gains are pleasant.”

“Loss aversion + mere exposure = status-quo bias.”

“We can attain distance by looking at our situation from an observer’s perspective.”

Perhaps the most powerful question for resolving personal decisions is “What would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?”

Chapter 9: Honor Your Core Priorities

“The goal of the WRAP process is not to neutralize emotion. Quite the contrary. When you strip away all the rational mechanics of decision making—the generation of options, the weighing of information—what’s left at the core is emotion.”

“What drives you? What kind of person do you aspire to be? What do you believe is best for your family in the long run? (Business leaders ask: What kind of organization do you aspire to run? What’s best for your team in the long run?)”

“Those are emotional questions—speaking to passions and values and beliefs—and when you answer them, there’s no ‘rational machine’ underneath that is generating your perspective. It’s just who you are and what you want. The buck stops with emotion.”

“When we identify and enshrine our priorities, our decisions are more consistent and less agonizing.”

“People rarely establish their priorities until they’re forced to.”

“Establishing priorities is not the same thing as binding yourself to them.”

“Look back over your schedule for the past week and ask yourself, What, specifically, would I have given up to carve out the extra three or four or five hours that I’ll need?”

Peter Bregman advises people to set a timer that goes off once every hour, and when it beeps, we should ask ourselves, “Am I doing what I most need to be doing right now?”

Core priorities are long-term emotional values, goals, aspirations.

“By identifying and enshrining your core priorities, you make it easier to resolve present and future dilemmas.”

“To carve out space to pursue our core priorities, we must go on the offense against lesser priorities.”

Chapter 10: Bookend the Future

“When people adopt the second style of thinking—using ‘prospective hindsight’ to work backward from a certain future—they are better at generating explanations for why the event might happen.”

In an FMEA, team members identify what could go wrong at every step of their plans, and for each potential failure they ask two questions: “How likely is it?” and “How severe would the consequences be?” After assigning a score from 1 to 10 for each variable, they multiply the two numbers to get a total. The highest totals—the most severe potential failures—get the most attention.

“A preparade asks us to consider success: Let’s say it’s a year from now and our decision has been a wild success. It’s so great that there’s going to be a parade in our honor. Given that future, how do we ensure that we’re ready for it?”

“The future is not a “point”—a single scenario that we must predict. It is a range. We should bookend the future, considering a range of outcomes from very bad to very good.”

To prepare for the lower bookend, we need a premortem. ‘It’s a year from now. Our decision has failed utterly. Why?’ To be ready for the upper bookend, we need a preparade. ‘It’s a year from now. We’re heroes. Will we be ready for success?’ To prepare for what can’t be foreseen, we can use a ‘safety factor.’”

“Anticipating problems helps us cope with them.”

“By bookending—anticipating and preparing for both adversity and success—we stack the deck in favor of our decisions.”

Chapter 11: Set a Tripwire

The goal of a tripwire is to jolt us out of our unconscious routines and make us aware that we have a choice to make.

“At some point, the virtue of being persistent turns into the vice of denying reality.”

“Pilots are taught to pay careful attention to what are called ‘leemers’: the vague feeling that something isn’t right, even if it’s not clear why.”

“Having a label for those feelings legitimizes them and makes pilots less likely to dismiss them. The flash of recognition—Oh, this is a leemer— causes a quick shift from autopilot to manual control, from unconscious to conscious behavior.”

“In life, we naturally slip into autopilot, leaving past decisions unquestioned.”

“A tripwire can snap us awake and make us realize we have a choice.”

“Tripwires can be especially useful when change is gradual.”

“For people stuck on autopilot, consider deadlines or partitions.”

“We tend to escalate our investment in poor decisions; partitions can help rein that in.”

“Tripwires can actually create a safe space for risk-taking. They: (1) cap risk; and (2) quiet your mind until the trigger is hit.”

“Many powerful tripwires are triggered by patterns rather than dates/metrics/budgets.”

“Tripwires can provide a precious realization: We have a choice to make.”

Chapter 12: Trusting the Process

“Procedural justice is critical in determining how people feel about a decision.”

“We should make sure people are able to perceive that the process is just.”

“A trustworthy process can help us navigate even the thorniest decisions.”

“‘Process’ isn’t glamorous. But the confidence it can provide is precious. Trusting a process can permit us to take bigger risks, to make bolder choices. Studies of the elderly show that people regret not what they did but what they didn’t do.”

Recommendations for Further Reading

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Winning Decisions: Getting It Right the First Time by J. Edward Russo and Paul J. H. Schoemaker

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen by Michael A. Roberto

Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years by Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui

Getting to Plan B: Breaking Through to a Better Business Model by John Mullins and Randy Komisar

Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School by Andrew Hallam

Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy by Aaron T. Beck

Other Books by Chip & Dan Heath

Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

Recommended Reading

If you like Decisive, you may also enjoy the following books:

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Peak by Anders Ericsson

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