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Volume 21, Issue 43;   October 27, 2021: Five Guidelines for Choices

Five Guidelines for Choices


Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices.
Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choices

Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choices. Image by cottonbro from Pexels

When we think about deciding something, we usually imagine a slow process with enough time for considering all pertinent issues. Some decisions really do happen that way. But in the course of a day, we all make hundreds or thousands of decisions, often with inadequate information. And we make most of those decisions without enough time to consider them carefully.

For example, consider the decision about whether to have a cup of herbal tea or that fourth cup of coffee. Herbal tea would probably be the right choice for most of us. And if we can slow down enough to consider the decision carefully, herbal tea would probably be the choice many of us would make. But in a rush, and without giving the matter much thought, many of us go with coffee.

One of the more Simple, easily recalled
guidelines for making
choices can significantly
improve our lives
common types of decisions is the decision that involves a choice from among several well-defined options. That's why simple, easily recalled guidelines for making choices can significantly improve our lives. Five examples of such guidelines for choices are below.

To choose between what we can do and what we must do
This choice arises when we confront difficult situations — especially emotionally difficult situations. Example: Rose is a team member who believes that the approach the team is taking is wrong and will fail. She does the work assigned to her, but she does it slowly, and not at the level required for the team to succeed. One option is to work around her passive sabotage; another is to replace her. Replacing her would require supervisory approval and probably lead to disciplinary action. It would be messy and time consuming. Working around her passive sabotage is a tempting way to avoid the mess.
Often, workarounds don't avoid the unpleasantness. They offer little more than temporary delay of the inevitable. Unless you have strong evidence that a workaround provides permanent relief, the main effect of a workaround can be to delay dealing with a problem until the cost of the problem becomes unaffordable. When choosing between "pay now" and "pay later," be certain that the price won't rise beyond your means.
To choose between the perfect and the good enough
This guideline is often quoted as, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." (This quote is a variant of what Voltaire actually wrote in "Art Dramatique", in Dictionnaire philosophique (in French): "The best is the enemy of the good." That, in turn was from an Italian proverb: "il meglio è nemico del bene.") Recasting this sage advice for modern workplace decision-making, we must sometimes choose between a level of quality with which we would be proud to be associated, and a lesser level that's actually good enough.
Trouble arises when pride gains too much influence over our decisions. Often, when we fall into this trap, perfection (or to Voltaire, "best") wasn't the goal. Rather it was pride. Striving to create something that can be the basis of boasting is a dangerous choice. Strive instead to manage pride.
To choose between the urgent and the important
In 1954, in an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, President Eisenhower observed that among all problems, "The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." [Eisenhower 1954] This idea has since been elaborated as the "Eisenhower Matrix," and propagated by others, including Stephen Covey. Choosing where to focus our attention can be challenging when the choice is between the urgent and the important.
One source of this challenge is the nature of urgent problems. Urgent problems demand our attention; important problems merely require it. One approach to making the right choice between the urgent and the important is to become skeptical of demands.
To choose between the whole truth and whatever anything else is
When deciding what to acknowledge about something, the whole truth of it is the only real truth. Falsehoods, of course, have no place in our considerations. But partial truths can be just as dangerous as falsehoods. They lead us to bad choices and wrong conclusions.
Life isn't so simple as to make the whole truth of something easily accessible when we need it. And when we're making decisions we can't always be certain that we know the whole truth. But we can develop a skill for detecting partial truths. One indicator of partial truth might be that it tends to favor the interests of those pressing most urgently for an end to our deliberations.
To choose between what we do believe and what we would prefer to believe
This choice is perhaps the riskiest of all. When information comes along that raises questions about what we prefer to believe, we choose a response, often without realizing that we're choosing at all. Many choose what they would prefer to believe. Despite what they might say to themselves and others, what they do believe is what the new reality tells them must be so. Still, they continue clinging to what they prefer to believe.
This pattern is so common that it has a name: the backfire effect. [Nyhan 2010] Another pattern in need of a name is the mate of the backfire effect. It is the pattern people adopt when trying to dissuade those who are ensnared in the backfire effect. The dissuaders try to use rational means to persuade those who are clinging to irrational beliefs. Rational argument rarely prevails over irrational belief.

Being aware of these choice points does help us make better choices. But this knowledge cannot help us when we're making a choice outside our awareness, because we aren't aware we're making a choice. Watch carefully for those incidents in which you made a choice but you weren't aware you were doing so. Add that situation to your personal collection. Or not. Your choice. Go to top Top  Next issue: Way Over Their Heads  Next Issue

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[Eisenhower 1954]
Dwight D. Eisenhower. "Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches," August 19, 1954. Available here. Back
[Nyhan 2010]
Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. "When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions," Political Behavior 32:2 (2010), 303-330. Available here. Retrieved 22 October 2021. Back

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