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Decisive: Howto make better choices in life and work by Chip and Dan Heath

Reviewed by Christopher Richards

Everyone needs to decide, yet deciding is no simple matter.

In Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work Chip and Dan Heath explain why the process of decision making is more effective than analysis. They then go on to show what a nuanced process looks like. In this short and popular book the authors have made a significant attempt to simplify complexity. Stories from businesses and personal life bring the concepts to life.

Business-book authors take note. Similar to Chip and Dan Heath’s other two best-sellers; Decisive is structured for clarity and accessibility. Every chapter ends with a one-page synopsis of high points.

End notes offer more depth on studies. Readers are cleverly given a choice of how they read the book: fast or slow. Decisive can be scanned by those in a hurry, or read in depth by readers with more time.

Readers of other popular books on decision making such as Barry Schwartz’s excellent Paradox of Choice will notice the Heaths use some of the same research. It’s disappointing to read about the supermarket jam story yet again.

However, if this book is not entirely original, what sets it apart is its presentation and accessibility. After all, their previous book was called Made to Stick. And they have sensibly followed their own advice.

We meet the authors’ four villains of decision making:

1. narrow framing blinds us to options
2. confirmation bias focuses attention on self-serving information
3. short-term emotion
4. over-confidence.

Primary points are made “sticky” with the acronym WRAP:

Widen your options
Reality-test your assumptions
Attain distance before deciding
Prepare to be wrong.

Each of these areas is fully unpacked over several chapters.

Widening options shows us how making choices with only an on-off switch keeps us from seeing that we can have this AND that. The object is to create more options.

After initial selections have been made the next stage is reality-testing assumptions. These include sniffing out any tendency for the confirmation bias. Validity testing includes examining initial assumptions, seeking out conflicting opinions and taking time to explore them. The tripwire is a warning mechanism preventing straying too far from the topic.

Decisions are based in feeling. Individuals who suffer from autism can find it particularly hard to make decisions. They fail to recognize and respond to some emotional cues. Unemotional analysis has its place, yet analysis alone is not enough. In the reality testing stage we check in with how we feel about each incremental change.The next stage addresses the tendency for our emotions to run away with us.

Attaining distance before deciding is the act of stepping back. This is easier said than done. The idea here is to distance ourselves from our emotional biases. The goal is to take a wider, deeper view. Our choices need to be aligned with our stated priorities.

Prepare to be wrong. The Heath brothers show how we are often wildly overconfident about the future. They suggest these three fixes to get closer to what actually happens:

1. Book-ending the future is a technique for getting closer to the bull’s eye by setting low and high parameters.
2. A tripwire is a boundary beyond which you won’t go before checking in and correcting course.
3. Trust the process: “Trusting a process can permit us to take bigger risks, to make bolder choices. Studies of the elderly show that people regret not what they did but what they didn’t do.

Concepts are clearly explained, and illustrated with persuasive examples. Who knew that David Lee Roth’s fixation with brown M&Ms was all about security? We all need to decide. Deciding to read Decisive shouldn’t be a difficult choice.

Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no association with the authors of this book.