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When to Make Fast Decisions

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When to Make Fast Decisions


Being a good decision-maker sometimes involves knowing when to make fast decisions – thus effectively managing time constraints.

14 min read

In a previous article, we discussed three surprising truths about decision-making:

  • Even if you’re smart, you’re irrational and make stupid decisions all the time
  • Perfect decisions don’t exist as certainty is an illusion
  • Luck and chance play a role in almost every decision.

The second article in this series explored how to become a better decision-maker by knowing when NOT to make a decision that will probably turn out badly.

In this third instalment we will consider when to make fast decisions. Time is a finite resource; once it’s spent, we cannot get it back. Looking ahead, there is also a limited amount. Therefore, one of the best ways to become a better decision-maker is to learn how to identify when spending this precious resource is just not worth it.

You can make fast decisions when:

  • The consequence or impact is low
  • It’s a repeating scenario
  • The decision is reversible
  • You’re unsure about your values or preferences
  • Two options are impossibly close.

By the way, there is a difference between being impulsive and going fast. Being impulsive involves acting without thinking through the consequences. It’s unstructured and haphazard. Going fast is about following a system but doing it quickly. In business and in life, being nimble and able to adapt to ever-changing conditions quickly creates tremendous advantage.

Reflection questions

  1. Review the list of go-fast circumstances. What proportion of your decisions do these situations cover? Does this surprise you?
  2. Based on this estimate, are there places in your life where you could become a better decision-maker simply by spending less time deciding than you currently do? Hint: what to wear, what to eat and what to watch on TV can consume a lot of time for little return.

Determining the consequence/impact

A cognitive trap many of us fall into is spending excessive time on the trivial. This phenomenon is so common it has a name: ‘bike-shedding’. Picture a fictitious meeting with three agenda items: a $10 million nuclear power plant, a $350 bike shed and a $21 coffee budget. When it comes to the important topic, the power plant, the experts can’t fully explain what they know, so it’s too complex for most of the attendees to participate in the decision-making process. What does everyone do instead? Discuss the bike shed (Farnam Street, n.d.).

If you find it hard to judge whether a choice is trivial or consequential, apply Suzy Welch’s 10-10-10 Rule (Welch, 2006). This strategy clarifies when an outcome really matters. Make your decision and then imagine how you would feel in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years. Repeat the process for any other options you’re considering. If it feels like the choice wouldn’t matter in 10 months or 10 years, then it’s not so consequential. Go fast because the impact is low.

Let’s see how this works in practice. Imagine you’re out for dinner with friends and deliberating between the chicken and the fish. Will it really matter which you opt for 10 months or 10 years from now? Unlikely. Sure, you could pick one and be disappointed in 10 minutes time if the dish isn’t as tasty as you hope. But this possible outcome is not worth sending the waiter away so you can continue agonizing.

Once you’ve done your sorting, that is, eliminated all other menu items besides the chicken and the fish, you’ve completed the decision-making heavy lifting. You’ve eliminated as much uncertainty as is possible in this scenario. Adding a further 15-minute deliberation won’t change this fact or improve the quality of the decision. So, accept that disappointment is possible, make a call, and get back to enjoying your evening.

Reflection questions

  1. Identify past situations where you wasted time trying to make decisions you now recognize were trivial. If this feels difficult, blind spot alert! Ask someone who knows you well to help with this task. The point is to figure out if you often agonize over inconsequential decisions.
  2. Are you currently facing a major decision? Apply the 10-10-10 rule to see if it really is a major decision. It’s up to you to choose the relevant timeline – perhaps this means it matters in 10 months. Or you might feel more comfortable with 10 years. If you chronically avoid making decisions, it’s okay to err on the side of safety and opt for the 10-month timeframe. Moving from indecision to any decision is to be celebrated, not judged. As you make more and more decisions, your comfort level will likely shift. Start wherever you are now.

Repeating scenario

The beauty of a repeating scenario is that it can lessen the sting of regret. Unhappy with your fish tonight? It’s probably not going to be your last meal out. When making decisions in a repeating scenario, focus on the fact you’ll likely get a do-over, so today’s outcome is less important than it feels.


Another time we struggle with decision-making is when we think making a decision means we’re locked in to the outcome. What we often fail to consider is whether we could back out if the situation turns out differently than our prediction. We have a bias against quitting as our society reveres grit and perseverance. What we aren’t taught is that there are times when changing our minds and quitting the decision is a smart move.

Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, refers to reversible decisions as ‘two-way door’ decisions:

“Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before.

But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible –- they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal…decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through” (Jeff Bezos in Haden, 2021).

Reflection questions

Turn your attention to a current decision, big or small. Write down some of the options you’re considering.

  1. Are any of the options reversible and low consequence? If so, you can decide fast. Are any reversible and high consequence? If so, you can go fast-ish, meaning slower than for the low consequence choices, but faster than you think. You still need to gather information and weigh options, which takes time, but you don’t need to follow a full-blown, slow, methodical process. If you don’t like what happens next, follow Jeff Bezos’ advice and return to your present situation.
  2. If the options aren’t reversible, could any be made reversible? For example, if you’re considering buying a house, but unsure because it’s in an unfamiliar neighborhood, you could rent in the area first. If you don’t like the neighborhood, you can back out of the decision by moving when the lease is up: reversible and much lower impact than footing buying and selling costs.
  3. If this is a high impact decision and none of the options are reversible (and can’t be modified to make them so), you need to follow a go-slow decision-making process.

You’re unsure about your values or preferences

If you haven’t had the opportunity to make a lot of decisions, you may still be developing your values and preferences. You’ll know this applies to you if the answer to “What if?” questions always feel like a guess. You may also go along with the crowd because you aren’t yet clear what you like. What you need to become a better decision-maker is more data.

Annie Duke, ex-professional poker player and author of two books on decision-making, Thinking in Bets and How To Decide, recommends designing low-risk experiments to “poke at the world”. In other words, trying stuff to figure out your likes and dislikes. The faster you make decisions about what to try, the quicker you will work out your preferences.

The key here is not to mistake a negative outcome for a bad decision. This is a common thinking error called ‘resulting’. Just because it turned out you didn’t enjoy rock climbing after a few hours at the local indoor center doesn’t mean you chose poorly. The experience had value because you discovered something about yourself to inform future decisions.

Two options are impossibly close

This is a common decision predicament. You’ve narrowed things down to two finalists but just can’t make the final decision as the two are impossibly close. There is no obvious way to differentiate between them.

You may be in for a surprise with this next advice. Flip a coin because it doesn’t matter. You can’t know in advance which will turn out better. If the choices are that close, while each possible outcome will be different, they are likely to be equivalent.

We’ve come across this principle before; the hard part of decision-making is in the sorting. Once you’re down to the finalists, you can go fast. This cognitive tool is especially useful for people who have trouble finishing the decision-making process, the overthinkers gripped by analysis paralysis.

Reflection questions

Do you have a good handle on your likes and dislikes when it comes to work? If yes, skip this activity.

  1. If not, here are some professional preferences to consider. These are presented as dichotomies, one or the other. There are, of course, jobs that provide opportunities for both. Do you prefer:
    1. Individual work or teamwork?
    2. Detail-oriented or ‘big picture’ tasks?
    3. Client-facing roles or behind-the-scenes duties?
    4. Management responsibilities or not?
    5. Office-based or work-from-home roles?
    6. Big bucks or big satisfaction?
    7. Note down other skill sets relevant to your industry or role, and whether you know your preferences.
  2. For any of the items above, if your answer is “I don’t know”, brainstorm low-risk experiments to help you “poke at the world”. These will generally be low impact and reversible decisions. Let’s say you gravitate to roles that have no team interactions because your only experiences of group work at school or college were negative. You are actually missing data about how it feels to be part of a high functioning team. Are there any such teams at your workplace? Could you ask to join one of their projects for a trial period?

Key takeaways

  • Not all decisions need to be made using a slow, methodical process.
  • Decisions can be made quickly when the impact is low, the scenario repeats itself, the decision is reversible, you’re unsure about your preferences or two options are very similar.
  • The 10-10-10 rule can be used to judge the impact of a choice.
  • Repeating scenarios offer the opportunity for decision do-overs.
  • Most decisions are changeable if the outcome is different than expected. It’s okay to quit a decision.
  • If you’re unsure of your preferences, one of the goals of decision-making is simply to gather more data.
  • As counterintuitive as it seems, the quality of decision-making should not be judged purely on the outcome. We don’t have total control over what might happen.
  • When two options seem indistinguishable, they are, so flip a coin.