Economists Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt are authors of the 2005 book-turned-phenomenon, Freakonomics. They recently their stellar new follow-up book, Think Like a Freak, a guide to logical and inventive problem solving. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to make better, more thoughtful decisions in life, love, business—or anywhere.
Below, the authors have offered five steps to take before making a big decision.
In Think Like a Freak, we lay out a blueprint for a new way to solve problems. Often, this means retraining your brain a bit, learning to put aside the biases and preconceptions that all of us carry around. Even when it comes to something as basic as making a decision, it’s worth rethinking how you think.
Let’s start by acknowledging that big decisions are stressful. There are a number of reasons for this:
- The stakes are inevitably high.
- Since big decisions are relatively rare, you don’t have much experience making them.
- You’ll probably overthink and overanalyze the decision, which only adds to the stress.
What to do? One option is to simply avoid all big decisions, stay inside the house, and draw the blinds. But if you’re willing to think like a Freak, big decisions don’t have to be so scary. Here are five things to consider before making your next one.
1. Ask yourself: Are there really only two choices?
If you are stuck between two options, ask yourself if there’s a third (or fourth or fifth) option that you haven’t considered. If you’re thinking about ending a relationship, you may think the only options are to break up or stay together. But what about a two-week pause in the relationship? If you’re conflicted about going back to school, how about taking a couple of classes on the side?
2. Know that regret can be worse than risk.
When considering the different paths you might choose, think about the one you may end up regretting the most. This is not necessarily the worst outcome: sometimes, the riskiest choice can be the most rewarding. But regret often comes from not taking a chance, and wondering what might have happened if only you’d tried.
3. Consider the “premortem.”
Imagine you’re just about to pull the trigger on a big decision. How can you know whether it’s the right call? You can’t for sure, but a “premortem,” as the psychologist Gary Klein calls it, may help you avert disaster before it’s too late. Try to imagine that a year or two has passed and your decision has produced a miserable failure. Now spend some time writing down exactly how and why the failure occurred. If it’s easy to see exactly what would have gone wrong, there’s a good chance you should rethink your decision—or at least you’ll know how to amend your plan before rushing headlong into failure.
4. Make sure you are asking the right question.
If you ask the wrong question, you will almost certainly get the wrong answer. So be sure you understand the real reasons you are looking to make a change. You may tell yourself that you’re moving from the wintry northeast to the sunny southwest for the weather, but maybe you’re really running away from all your old friends who’ve been more successful than you? If so, that’s a different question to answer.
5. When in doubt, consider flipping a coin.
Seriously. If a decision is so hard that you have no idea what choice to make, a coin toss may be as helpful as anything. We recently tested his idea with a website called Freakonomics Experiments. We invited people who faced a tough decision to let us help them by flipping a coin on their behalf. Heads meant yes, tails meant no. To date, we’ve flipped more than 40,000 coins.
What did we learn? Especially when it comes to quitting—a job, a relationship, a startup project, etc.—people wound up happier when the coin encouraged them to quit. Just as interestingly, we heard from many people who chose to disobey the coin’s command. Why? Because the moment it came up heads (or tails), they instinctively grimaced. The coin, they knew, was wrong—but having the coin make the decision for them brought a clarity they hadn’t been able to achieve otherwise.
Think Like a Freak hit shelves May 12.