David Erik

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Making small decisions

This is the strange result of trying to write down my mental model for quickly making small decisions. Ironically enough, after stating that every day is filled with small decisions, I could not find a better metaphor than the following, at least not at the top of my head. I hope you can make some sense out of this anyway. It’s really practical but hard to explain.


Decisions. Don’t we all love them? Every day is filled with small decisions and sometimes (often) we spend too much time making them, when in reality both alternatives would be suitable and thus the entire process is just killing time. Even though they are often insignificant, we still make them like they are the most important thing in the world.

Real life example: My soccer shoes is standing next to the door. I could pick them up and move them to their storage to avoid stumbling on them later, but there is a slight possibility that I’ll get to play soccer later this day - something that would render my action pointless. So should I take this action? As with any problem, I will make some calculations in my head (the odds for playing soccer tonight etcetera) and try to figure out the best action - this sounds overkill, but my brain does this anyway. But using my mental model, I have drastically reduced the time that I spend making this kind of decisions:

If you were to put this situation in a matrix, it would look like this: Two different actions, and two different future happenings.

Action 1: Leave shoes Action 2: Put away shoes
Future 1: Soccer! Optimal Have to get shoes
Future 2: No soccer Stumble over shoes later Optimal

In this case, both actions will have one ”bad” scenario and an optimal one.

Now lets look at the two potential futures and realize that there is often one future you would prefer over the other: In this case I want to play soccer rather than not. So if I leave the shoes (Action 1), I’ll have the bad outcome when the bad thing happened (Future 2). While if I put away the shoes, the bad outcome will happen because I’ll get to play soccer. And frankly, I’ll gladly go get my shoes from the storage if I get the opportunity to play.

The metaphor is not very strong. But view it this way:

Most often the decision is about something small, that will depend on something big (that we cannot affect). And the rule of thumb here is to simply take the action that will have its bad outcome if the big thing has a good outcome. Something bad, but small, is naturally less important to something good and big. By choosing action based on which one is worse if the future is good you ensure yourself at least one good thing, either small or big.