As a general rule, it is proper to trust your mind. Your conscious conclusions are based on all of your past choices, your past experiences, and the cumulative expertise you’ve built up over the years.
However, when you make a decision based on limited information, you know that you may have lacked crucial knowledge. It doesn’t matter how experienced or diligent you are — it’s inherent in the situation. You need to keep your eyes open for information that would change your mind. You need a reliable way to spot evidence that you may have made a significant mistake.
That’s why, when you make a decision, I recommend a simple policy of “trust but verify.” Assume that you made good use of all of the information that was available, but take an extra 15 seconds to verify your decision with the following process:
- Give a one-sentence reason for your decision.
- Ensure your reason passes the “laugh test.”
This 15-second verification has many benefits. The first you’ll notice is that it gives you an efficient first check to make sure you haven’t missed something obvious in your decision-making. If you can’t give a one-sentence reason for your decision, or your reason doesn’t pass the “laugh test,” your decision needs further analysis.
When I say “give a reason,” I mean blurt out a one-sentence reason that sums up the process that you used to make the choice. In certain circumstances you may need a special high-power decision process, but in general, I assume that you are an experienced thinker and decision-maker, reasonably satisfied with your existing method. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I simply suggest that you add on 15 seconds to the end of your decision process to help you verify it.
Give a reason for your conclusion. By a reason, I mean an objective, fact-based explanation for why you are going in this direction — not just a statement of your feelings. Why did you choose the way you did?
For example, suppose you decide to start work on a project before going through your email inbox. Why? Don’t settle for “it seemed like a good idea” or “I felt like it.” These are contentless. They are subjective — they simply report the state of your mind.
When you give an objective reason for your decision, you make your assumptions and your expectations explicit. For example, suppose your reason were “I want to do the project before my mind gets caught up in the other work and I can’t concentrate.”
This explanation includes some implicit predictions that you can test. It implies that if you do the other work, then came back to the project, you’d have trouble concentrating. If you don’t follow your plan and have trouble concentrating when you come back to it, that would validate your reason. If not, it will invalidate it.
To take another example, suppose you decide to tidy your desk first, because “Tidying the desk will take just a few minutes and make it easier for me to settle into work.” If tidying your desk starts dragging on, you will notice that your assumptions were off. In contrast, if your reason was “that’s the way I work” (a subjective explanation), nothing follows from that.
The difference between an objective reason and a subjective thought is: an objective reason includes an appeal to facts that can be validated. It could include a factual assumption, a factual prediction, a factual comparison — any factual information that has implications for the future. In contrast, a subjective thought refers only to one’s present inner state. It adds up to only “here-now-this seems good.” It has no implications for the future. It may be true, but it is useless for validating your decision. Your reason for your conclusion doesn’t need to be certain, it just needs to be fact-based.
Giving a fact-based reason for your conclusion is the first and most important step to ensuring you make the best decision possible — one that you won’t regret. You can do it in 15 seconds without changing any aspect of your decision process.
Of course, sometimes once you come up with your reason you’ll realize you can’t say it out loud with a straight face. It doesn’t pass the “laugh test.” Then you have some more work to do, but that’s another topic for another time.