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3 frameworks for making better decisions

Here are my three frameworks for making decisions—with a bonus fourth. These metrics are responsible for everything positive in my life, regardless of the domain. Furthermore, whenever I’ve found myself in an adverse or precarious situation, the reason is because I was not following these metrics.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

In a podcast interview this week, I was asked what rule or metric I use when making decisions. At first, the question gave me a little trouble, as I couldn’t readily identify how—or even if—I thought about making decisions.

Then I thought about all the decisions I’ve made in my life that had a significant positive impact. I consider these events “watershed moments.” Watershed moments are critical points of change that cause a major shift in the potential outcome of events.

These were events where I had a choice to make. All but the first choice was made as an adult, and my decision on where to attend high school was mine alone. Among those were:

  • Where I went to high school
  • Starting boxing at age 22
  • Changing boxing trainers halfway through my amateur career
  • Enlisting in the Army
  • Getting sober
  • Returning to school

I also thought about important decisions that affected the direction of my life but were not as defining.

The decisions I made in the first category, I’m either incapable of imagining an alternative life, or the life I picture is so fundamentally different that my life wouldn’t look like it is now.

The difference between these choices and the life-defining watershed moments is that I can see how my life looks if I don’t take the following actions. While it’s impossible to know for sure, I can imagine a life where I didn’t do the following.

  • Writing about my life online
  • Paying off debt to rebuild my credit
  • Working to get my book deal
  • Study physics in college

And lastly, there are the small decisions I make more frequently. They would affect the quality of my daily life but would not change its course or where I’m going. Those decisions are too numerous to list, and I’d forget most of them anyway.

Thinking about the significant decisions I’ve made and my approach to the lesser ones did reveal that I have a set of rules or metrics. They’re so ingrained in my method of operation that I had trouble articulating when I was put on the spot about them.

However, I eventually answered, and that’s the subject of today’s newsletter. Here are my three frameworks for making decisions—with a bonus fourth. These metrics are responsible for everything positive in my life, regardless of the domain. Furthermore, whenever I’ve found myself in an adverse or precarious situation, the reason is because I was not following these metrics.

Decision Framework 1: The cost of inaction

All the major decisions from the first category were made by asking myself, “What is the cost of not doing this?”

In the year 2013, I made a cluster of decisions that completely changed that changed the course of my life: I decided to go back to college, I enlisted in the Army to pay for college, I stopped drinking, and I got serious about my relationship with the girl I was dating (who is now my wife).

A simple question drove all of these decisions I asked myself one typical night of getting drunk after I got off from the job I hated but needed to pay the rent: “If I keep this up, will I have more or less options in the next five years?”

I also thought about a line from the T.I. song “You ain’t missin nothin’”:

Learn and visualize what you are tryin’ to do,

And do the time, homeboy, don’t let the time do you

The song is about doing time in prison, but that line has always stood out because T.I. captures the essence of opportunity cost, decision-making, and changing your life in two lines.

The time is going to pass, no matter what you do. So, you may as well do something.

Few people ever make decisions. Instead, they take what’s offered, believing they’re selecting from options. However, the truth is that they have resigned themselves to the path that causes them the least pain while delivering the greatest reward possible.

The previous statement is not just my subjective opinion. Consider a few statistics:

  • Not only has the number of close friends decreased (source), but the average person hasn’t made a new friend in over five years, with many saying their friendships peaked at 23 (source).
  • 41.9% of Americans are obese (source). You’re considered obese when you have a body mass index greater than 30. Yes, BMI can misreport at the extremes (taller than two standard deviations above the mean or heavy muscle), but that’s not most people. To put a 30 BMI into perspective, I’m 6’1”and 220lbs, and I am a former pro athlete with lots of muscle and low-ish body fat, and I still don’t break 30 on the BMI.

I chose these two measurements to point out that many people let entropy go unchecked in their lives. Health and relationships are two of the most essential areas in your life, and many people don’t do anything to improve them.

If people take this attitude towards the non-negotiable aspects of their lives, you can’t expect many to do in crucial but optional areas.

I started boxing because I was doing nothing with my life, and I imagined that if I didn’t add a new skill, then I’d just be an average loser with nothing but a heavy drinking habit. My pain point at the time—my cost of inaction—was my ego.

When I changed trainers, my thought at the time was that I would not get over the hump in my current situation with my trainer. That meant all my training would be wasted, and I’d be embarrassed losing. Again, my ego appears.

So when deciding what it costs you to NOT take action, imagine the pain you’ll endure if things keep going the way they are. Do not assume that your situation will suddenly and spontaneously improve. When you harbor illusions of passivity, you will be in for a rude awakening when things don’t go according to plan.

Decision Framework 2: The worst-case scenario I can live with

The most challenging decisions we make are rarely between two similar paths. We also don’t have trouble choosing between obviously constructive and deconstructive actions. The most challenging choices arise when the outcome of different, competing, mutually exclusive pathways all lead to something beneficial.

In these instances, I imagine the worst-case scenario of each scenario, independent of the odds of that scenario occurring. There are no guarantees, so it’s important to consider what happens if things don’t work out or, if things do go as planned, what continuing down this path will feel like if you lose motivation or enjoyment of the work required.

I once heard this referred to as “choosing your shit sandwich.” Focusing only on the positives of a decision is how you get blindsided when things become difficult or go wrong. No one gives up because everything is moving smoothly without incident.

This thinking is a natural extension of the opportunity cost perspective of events.

When you commit to a path of action, you eliminate the possibility of doing something else. It’s important to remember that although most decisions allow you to switch paths if you are unsatisfied, switching costs time and energy on two fronts: you waste time invested in the first path, and you’re forced to exert activation energy on the new path.

Therefore, the best solution is to make choices that you can stick with until you receive the payout from everything you invest into them. The best way to guarantee commitment is to imagine what it’s like when things are most miserable. Whichever shit sandwich you can more easily stomach is the path you should go down.

And every path has a shit sandwich. If you can’t see it, you’re lying to yourself, or someone is lying to you.

Decision Framework 3: Strong Values

“There are things which must cause you to lose your reason, or you have none to lose.”

-Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

I’m not here to tell you what your values should be. Only that you need a set of behaviors, codes, and principles to live by.

When your boundaries and priorities are established, many decisions are made for you by elimination. The other choices go against your beliefs and beyond what you’re willing to do, so you’re only left with one course of action.

Developing and clearly stating your values has utility beyond decision-making. Still, they make it easier for you to navigate life smoothly and arrive at your destination satisfactorily.

There are few things worse for sleep than behaving in a way that you won’t be able to stand by with pride. When you’re scared that your deeds will undo your relationships, professional standing, or personal progress, you’ll want a time machine to fix the past.

While the little decisions I’ve made (or not made) using this heuristic is too long to list in this post, a few years ago, I created a list of things I learned when I turned 30. I learned many of those lessons about value the hard way.

Bonus Decision Framework 4: Be able to explain yourself

This framework is a helpful way to think better. While not directly related to decision-making, improving your thinking will have a downstream effect on your decision-making ability.

One of the best chess lessons I got was “Always be able to explain why you made that move.” This approach ensures that, even when you make the wrong move, you can analyze your thinking to find errors in your thought process. This approach also guarantees that you slow down and make deliberate decisions rather than be ruled by emotional impulses.

The idea here is not that you have to explain your actions to anyone. Sure, particular workplace or relationship decisions will require an explanation, but the real benefit is that it forces you to know why you’re taking an action. This awareness is often more than enough to improve your decision-making ability.

When I tutored physics and math, I had my students talk through their problem-solving process. It was useless for me to just correct their answers without knowing how they arrived at them. When they talked through their thinking process, they often recognized their mistake while in the middle of solving.

Closing framework thoughts

Numerous frameworks, metrics, and rules are out there to help you make better decisions. I’m sure that even the list of frameworks I use when making decisions is incomplete.

With that said, following these frameworks will help you make better decisions in most situations.

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Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

Follow me on Twitter.

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