How to make big decisions

This week, a good friend (let’s call them W.) was facing a big decision: they got a job offer but were unsure whether to accept as it would come with some major life changes. W’s hesitation, doubt and slight panic reminded me of myself just 2 years ago. This quick blog describes some techniques for decision-making that can help in cases where uncertainty is rife and stakes are high.

In the Spring of 2020 my life was pretty chaotic: Covid was raging, the lab closed and the world was desperately trying to connect socially over Zoom. I was doing my postdoc at CSHL in NY, and applied for several faculty jobs back in NL (a bit impulsively, with this newfound time on my hands). I was also a month pregnant, homesick and under a fair bit of academic and existential anxiety. When one of my applications resulted in a job offer, I found out that my postdoc advisor would be moving her lab across the country – meaning that ‘staying put’ had just dissapeared from the list of future scenarios.

I was given 10 days to decide about this offer (spoiler: I took it), and man, was it stressful. I’d never faced such an urgent decision-point: in my life and career thus far, the next step had mostly gradually presented itself. I talked with many people, did a fair bit of soul searching, and made a decision that I’m still very happy with. So, if face such a decision – don’t panic! Here are some techniques to help you.

1. Identify the relevant information

Put some big pieces of paper or cardboard on your wall, one for each option. Write down pros and cons for each; ideally in different colors. Include not only yourself, but also other stakeholders – your partner, family, colleagues, or academic institution. These may be less crucial (you’ll weight them later), but still have a stake in the outcome of your choice. This is the ‘don’t think, just write’ phase (i.e. divergence). Take enough time for it, since new information will come to mind when you’re least prepared for it (I recommend long walks).

2. Map potential outcomes

Set aside a few hours (or a day) to time-travel to a certain choice (i.e. prediction). What scenarios describe your life after you’ve made that choice? This will quickly show you the difference between secure options (where all outcomes look similar) to high-variance options (where outcomes may hinge on a few factors, like whether or not you’ll get tenure or whether or not your partner could find a job there). Be creative and write them all down. Also note how you feel when imagining that choice: for me, there was one clear option that (although quite good on paper) gave me a nagging sense of dread and a slight stomachache – not a good sign.

3. Pick your decision strategy

In decision science, the way you go from information to a choice is called the ‘decision rule’. For instance, you could pick the option with the most pros, or substract the number of cons from pros. The decision rule reflects your goals or objective: do you want to minize the risk or failure or maximize predictability (choosing low variance)? You may prefer options that allow for ongoing adjustments, rather than ones with a large ‘lock-in’ from which there’s no going back.

Reduce distraction: eliminate from the bottom

With multiple options, it’s easy to suffer from strange biases. For instance, the phenomenon of ‘multiattribure preference reversal’, describes how the presence of a totally crazy option that you’d never choose (move to the moon) can influence your choice between the relevant options (move to NL vs. move to Germany). In my case, since I wanted to be close to family with a baby, I decided that California was off the table. To focus your attention on what matters, start from the bottom and eliminate the worst, then the second-worst, etc. When you have no options left that you should clearly eliminate , you’ve freed up space in your working memory to deal with what’s important.

Minimizing failure: choosing the least bad

With your options + outcomes in hand, you may be tempted to go for the best potential outcome – that one which may just get you to a Nobel Prize, an Oscar or Nirvana. However, those exciting options may also have high variance: they often have a risk of failing, in which case things would be really bad. So, rank each option’s their potential outcomes (how does my life look in 5 years?) and pick the one where the bad outcomes are the least bad. This way, if life does not go according to plan, you’ll avoid the worst.

Quantifying your values: weighing all relevant factors

To more precisely quantify your decision process, distill all relevant factors. These can be big or small, from professional to personal. For each option, score that factor: in scenario X, how do I rate the chances of tenure/daycare availability/scientific equipment/food scene/[insert whatever’s important to you]? Absolute values aren’t important, what matters is the relative numbers between options. Then, give each factor a weight that indicates how much you value this, relative to the rest. If some factors are a dealbreaker, you can assign them a high weight (so that options without that feature automatically dissappear – see above).

Beware of invalid factors (‘drogredenen’ in Dutch, translated as faulty reasons); factors that are pulling on your judgment, but that are not actually important. Whether a factor (e.g. salary) is a valid or an invalid reason is different for everyone – but be careful to distinguish what’s important to you.

In the end, this was my matrix. You can see that I assigned more weight to having nice colleagues and stability than a reduced teaching load, and also included personal factors (like the housing market). I also listed two invalid factors (that I worried about, but did not assign a weight): prestige of the institution and the fear of disappointing specific people.

Ideally, multiple decision rules lead you to the same outcome. If not, identify what the source of discrepancy is, and try to step back to consider what you’re optimising. For instance, do you hesitate about your otherwise-dream option because of one low score? Congratulations, you’ve just identified the starting point for negotiating that factor, on which your decision can be made conditional. Is your gut feeling in contrast with advice from others? They probably assign different weights to the various factors.

If you’re still reading, good luck with your choice! May you make a reasonable decision that you feel confident and content with.

Recommended reading

  • Johnson, S. Farsighted: how we make the decisions that matter the most. (Riverhead Books, 2018).
  • Burnett, B. & Evans, D. Designing Your Life: Build a Life That Works for You. (Random House, 2016).

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