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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Updated on January 8, 2019

Start Stopping

I've had this habit for some time. I'm driving on the freeway in traffic, when I notice the lane next to me seems to be going faster, so I switch lanes. Invariably, right after I do, the other lane starts going faster. But I don't want to switch back again because I want to affirm the wisdom of my decision, plus that would make me appear indecisive. So I stick with my initial bad decision hoping things will get better - cutting my losses, so I think.

There are several relevant jump off points from a story like this:

  • You get into a relationship with someone, realize it's bad, but stick with it because (a) you've invested time and energy, (b) that other person has good intentions, and (c) who knows what else is out there?
  • You start a new job or a new investment, and it starts off initially good, but then takes a downward turn, and you quit or you pull out. You back off and decide that was a bad move; one you'll never make again.
  • You join a gym, then after you realize it's not for you, you keep paying for it, because either you think you might start going again, or the more honest answer, if you stop it, it admits you were wrong to join it in the first place.

I call it "start-stopping"; the notion that, like the hare in The Tortoise and the Hare, we jump around impulsively, and then try to find a way to explain poor decision points. We didn't have enough information. If only I was told X. The economy's bad. My daddy left me.

You get the picture. As a result, the slow, deliberate person gets what we don't, because he just stays consistently on course.


So it got me to thinking about this concept we call decision-making. There are, of course, many schools of thought when it comes to deciding what to do. Do I want Honey Nut Chex or Cap'n Crunch? The Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot? The brunette or the blonde?

To what extent are our thoughts and actions rational vs. impulsive - and are we ever truly rational? We can take our time and analyze every element of a problem, then finally select an answer and still get mowed over by circumstance, as if we literally jumped in front of traffic. Or we can take a seemingly impulsive leap into cyber-space and find the love of our life. Are these things random or predestined? Do you answer that last question from a place of knowledge, or to justify the end?

Time may or may not be a factor; Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a process of "thin slicing", involving filtering the factors that matter when making decisions. Careful deliberation may or may not matter - especially if you're focusing on the wrong qualitative information. As I was reading his book, I was reminded of the first time I learned to water ski. Everyone kept telling me what to do, and I thought I was doing it, but kept spilling, flailing, and basically making an ass of myself - until I finally did get up on the skis and felt how easy it was. From that point forward, it was almost difficult to tell what I was doing wrong before. And I was following the same set of advice I thought I was following when I was muffing it.


“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ~ Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


Overcoming barriers

So what prevents us from making consistent, good decisions?

Part of the problem is that we choose using mental filters influenced by biases, emotions, memories, many of which are unconscious to us. The challenge becomes having an exceptional amount of self awareness, so as to know when your internal gauge is influencing the outcome. Even with experts, however, it's rare.

Another problem is most people are not terribly comfortable in the land of uncertainty, which pervades our existence. So Bob gets roped into certain beliefs because some "expert" appears to be certain, as if they have the recipe, and Bob's just randomly throwing ingredients together - which means that Bob doesn't really think for himself, and instead co-signs someone else's conclusions (e.g. Limbaugh and his "ditto-heads".)

A third is defeatism. After a series of bad decisions, Ellen might conclude life is a series of random events, or that fate has frowned upon her - sort of like the tiny rain cloud that storms over her alone. As a result, Ellen simply doesn't trust her own judgment: like the main character in Bridesmaids (by the way, am I the only person who found that movie depressing?)


"When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice." ~ William James

"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm." ~ Winston Churchill

Decision-quality chain
Decision-quality chain | Source

Decision-making models

So here's the part where I come up with recommended tools to remedy this decision affliction. I don't know that I'm any more qualified than anyone else, but I can research, so I've compiled some quick and dirty possibilities.

Not surprisingly, there are literally dozens of models to assist us with making rational, supportable decisions. Models that factor in assumptions, biases, and other factors that inappropriately influence our "right vs. left", "chocolate vs. vanilla" determinations, including:

  • Ladder of inference: also known as the process of abstraction, it involves going back through a decision, using a ladder diagram, to see the reality and fact patterns, interpretations, assumptions and conclusions that influence our beliefs and actions. It's basically an analytical tool to check that our decision-making is rational.
  • The Vroom-Yetton-Jago Decision Model (see figure on right) helps to determine how a decision should be made, based on the quality (i.e. how important) of a decision, the degree of support needed to effectuate the decision, and how fast you need to make it.
  • PrOACT: Problem, Objectives, Alternatives, Consequences, Tradeoffs - involves a prototype analytical decision model that's fairly straight-forward, to make sure you're considering all viable options.
  • The Six-Step Rational Decision-Making Model: Which include - Define the problem, Identify decision criteria, Weight the criteria, Generate alternatives, Rate each alternative on each criterion, and Compute the optimal decision.
  • Decision-quality Chain: Includes six elements of quality decision-making, including values, reasoning and commitments, linked together (see image above).

The interesting thing about these models, is that they are predicated on the premise that thoughtful analysis is key to effective decision-making, with differing names for the steps, but a common thread of deliberation.


Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

So, the bottom line, is to use your best judgment and be discerning when making decisions - at least know when you're being impulsive, so if something bad happens, you don't blame the universe. Only your lack of pre-evaluation.

There is a point of reasonable discernment between going around in circles analyzing the same data, and jumping from one thing to the next without a thought. In maturity, we should be able to sit back and see patterns, in order to better inform tomorrow's decisions.

Me, I'll be the guy driving in the left lane watching the traffic while taking a deep breath, committing to his lane whenever possible. Though I want to jump lanes, I'll stay, knowing from experience that eventually I'll get to my destination in a reasonable period of time, in one piece.

And in one peace.


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