How to Decide

When we’re faced with a difficult Yes/No decision, how do we choose?

When we’re faced with a difficult Yes/No decision, how do we choose?

It’s useful for each of us to understand if we are “Default No” or “Default Yes”.

These are actually really different schools, and a common source of conflict between people in a group trying to find consensus.

Default No

One of the mantras I have semi-permanently on my office whiteboard is a shamelessly borrowed idea:

Focus means saying 'no'

— Steve Jobs

It’s easy to think that focus means saying yes to the things than need our attention. But, actually it’s about saying no to the hundreds of other things that would be distractions.

This is the mindset we need when we have too many good options and need to narrow them down, or when we’re feeling overwhelmed and want to make time to complete things.

It requires us to have a high filter on anything new - the only things we should agree to do should be things we are really excited to do, or things that are really important.1

It forces us to be specific about the things that we want: i.e. what evidence do we need to see before we would be tempted to say “Yes”?

It means being willing to miss out on something that might have been good, while we search for something that could be great.

Consider the Latin origin of the word decide: de = off, caedere = cut (same root as incide/incision, to cut into).

Deciding means cutting off other options.

Default Yes

But we can think about decisions very differently, simply by asking: “Why not?”

Or, perhaps more specifically: “What do we have to lose?”

Rather than looking for evidence that might convince us to say yes we simply look for red flags that might warn us to say no. And when we don’t see them, we keep moving.

This is the mindset we need when we’re not constrained by time and want to maximise our opportunities.

It allows us to deal with the uncertainty that might otherwise paralyse others who are more tentative. It frees us to make a start even when plans are incomplete or we’re not 100% confident about the assumptions we’re making.

Default Defer

Of course, even when faced with a binary decision there is a third option, that is actually very common: “Let’s wait and see”.

It’s so tempting to defer difficult choices because when we do that it feels like we are keeping options open. In some cases it may actually be the right call, but it’s important to acknowledge it’s neither a decision or a commitment.

If we find ourselves stuck like this, it can be useful to ask specifically what we are waiting to see.

It could be evidence (if we’re “Default No”) or it could be a red flag (if we’re “Default Yes”) but it has to be something. Once we’ve defined it then we can think about the steps we need to take to get from where we are now to the decision.

If it helps, it’s useful also to realise the risks on both sides of “Default Defer”. If we spend too long searching for evidence or red flags then we’re leaving ourself less time and resources to actually do the thing after we decide to go ahead, or else falling into the trap of a slow “No” if we decide to not go ahead. Neither of those outcomes are desirable.

Warren Buffett has a memorable line on this:

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.

I wonder if it’s actually more subtle than that? This is my amended version:

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people understand when it’s time to say “Yes” and when it’s time to say “No” and hardly ever fall into the trap of saying “Let’s just wait and see”


  1. See: “Hell Yeah!” or “No” by Derek Sivers. ↩︎

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