It’s a confusing world out there, and while we sometimes like to think of our choices as “either/or,” or “yes/no,” the plain fact of the matter is that very often we face a situation containing a complex set of important factors with no clear pathway to the future.
That’s when a simple but effective method of comparing choices can help you make better decisions about which way to go. If this method doesn’t show you the one best option available to you, at the least it will help you rule out some “losers,” so your next attempt at decision-making will be easier.
Next time you’re faced with a complex situation in which you have to make a choice, here’s one good way to proceed:
List Your Options
It’s hard to make a choice when your options are fuzzy, half-hidden, or ambiguous. That’s why your first step in picking the best way forward is nearly always to list and clarify all the options available to you.
So you can compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, make sure your description of each option includes:
- The steps you must take to implement it.
- The costs, difficulties, and risks it will entail.
- The other opportunities it will preclude.
- The rewards and easy opportunities it will deliver.
- The situation you will face after you successfully complete the option.
Understanding these aspects of each option will help to clarify the possibilities.
Compare the Options
That you must compare these options is obvious. But what’s valuable about this particular approach is that you make your comparisons in a highly specific, highly simplified way.
Let’s assume you have laid out, as above, a set of clear and detailed options we can label A, B, C, D, and E (or however many you have).
Start by comparing option A to option B. For this, and each of the other comparisons you will perform in this exercise, pretend these are the only two options available to you, and decide which one you prefer.
Create a log and make a note of your preferred option.
Now compare option A to option C. Again, pretend these are your only two options, and again log your preference.
Go through the rest of your list, comparing option A to option D and E in this exact same way, again logging your preference in each comparison.
In the event you can’t find a clear preference in any of the comparisons, rethink your descriptions of the options to include more detail, such as longer-term and wider-ranging impacts, or the opinions and evaluations of more people.
Now forget about option A for the moment and compare option B to options C, D, and E.
Using this method, keep working your way through your list of possible actions until you have declared a preference for every comparison.
When you’re done with this first run-through of available options, briefly re-check your log of the comparisons to make sure you are comfortable with your preferences. If you want to re-do any of the comparisons or make any changes in your choices, do so. Keep re-checking until you are confident you have your preferences right.
Review Your Notes
The next step is simply to count how many times each option appears in your log of preferences. Whichever option shows up most often is the one you most prefer.
In simple situations, you can just implement this option and feel satisfied that you made the best available choice.
In more complex situations, however, you may feel lingering doubts that you’ve identified the best option. No problem. There is more to this methodology.
Rework Your Options
When, after a full round of comparisons, none of the options you initially laid out seem like a satisfactory way forward, there are three techniques to try and find even better options.
One approach is to rethink the situation and formulate one or more brand new options.
Another approach is to look for ways to improve the options you have already laid out. Perhaps you can reduce an option’s costs, difficulties, and risks. Or you may discover ways to upgrade its rewards and opportunities.
A third approach is to combine elements of the various options you’ve been examining to create at least one improved option that offers an even better way forward.
In the real world, it’s not always possible to reduce the complexity and downsides of situations you encounter in your work and your life. But it’s almost always possible to use this simplified way to explore the available options and identify the best route to a fruitful response.
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